Seven years ago when the 'Monsterapocalypse' devastated humanity Joel Dawson (Dylan O'Brien) not only lost his parents but was torn away from his high school girlfriend, Aimee (Jessica Henwick). Now he lives in an underground bunker, the one single guy among a group of battle-hardened survivors. Hopelessly unskilled with an unfortunate tendency to freeze when faced with a monster attack, Joel worries that everyone considers him inept and a liability. He still pines for Aimee who now inhabits a coastal colony eighty miles away and with whom he maintains awkward radio contact. Eventually Joel realizes there is nothing left for him underground. Against all good sense he sets off on a perilous journey across a land riddled with man-eating mutant monsters to finally be with Aimee. But does Aimee actually want him there?
This immensely likable monster adventure romantic comedy shamelessly swipes its set-up along with several plot motifs from Zombieland (2009); swapping the undead for an array of creatively designed giant rampaging monsters. Yet Love and Monsters is far less snarky with a much sweeter sensibility modelled, like an abundance of recent genre fare in these Eighties film-influenced days, after the teen romance movies of writer-producer-director John Hughes. A disarmingly nuanced and emotional script by co-writers Brian Duffield and Matthew Robinson instantly engages the viewer in poor Joel's romantic plight. Plus the film benefits enormously from the puppy dog charm of Dylan O'Brien, in a return to his roots after a run of broodingly intense roles, amidst an equally amiable supporting cast.
Director Michael Matthews and a stellar production team pull off some vivid world-building and sustain tension and excitement throughout some thrilling and imaginative set-pieces. Yet while Joel’s close encounters with among others icky giant bugs, a gross mutated frog and freaky-looking giant snail are sure to delight monster fans with their pleasing and imaginative mix of practical and digital effects, it is the emotional arc and moving relationships he forms on his life-changing journey that keep Love and Monsters so consistently engaging. Along the way Joel befriends Boy, an uncannily intelligent dog who lost his family and becomes both a stalwart companion and metaphorical link to 'humanity' as well as the highly capable duo of grizzled Clyde (Michael Rooker) and badass eight year old Minnow (Arianna Greenblatt). In a break from convention it is the latter who teaches Joel how to toughen up. Indeed veteran Rooker and gifted newcomer Greenblatt are such an appealing pair it is a shame they are not in the film all that long. Later on Joel meets MAV1S (voiced by Melanie Zanetti), one of the last surviving robots left over from the Monsterapocalypse, in a scene that a lesser film would play for cheap laughs. Yet here turns into a surprisingly beautiful and poignant encounter.
Throughout the journey Joel is haunted by uncertainty and wonders whether risking his life for love might not be the dumbest decision he ever made. Will Aimee appreciate his grand romantic gesture? Is she even the same girl he knew seven years ago? As things play out Love and Monsters is surprisingly unflinching in its depiction of how relationships evolve past our romantic ideals. Events essentially serve as an allegory for learning to cope with fear and function in the face of trauma. As Joel grapples with indecision and anxiety brought on by his survivor’s guilt it becomes obvious he has a lot of growing up to do. Nevertheless the climax ingeniously reinforces that all along Joel’s real strength was not badass fighting skill but compassion. Fear and failure are ultimately necessary steps in the path towards a maturity that us able to lead our best lives and worthy of true love. Plus y'know, survive giant monster attacks.