Love and Monsters review: More than the usual dystopian drudgery

Clarisse Loughrey
·3-min read
<p>Dylan O’Brien as Joe in ‘Love and Monsters’</p> (Netflix)

Dylan O’Brien as Joe in ‘Love and Monsters’

(Netflix)

Dir: Michael Matthews. Starring: Dylan O'Brien, Jessica Henwick, Dan Ewing, Ariana Greenblatt, Michael Rooker. 12, 109 mins

Love and Monsters, a post-apocalyptic romp that plays it both sweet and silly, makes the best of its lead, Dylan O’Brien. The actor’s amassed a legion of fans thanks to his charismatic work in the teen-centric Maze Runner films and Teen Wolf TV series, and he’s been able capitalise on his own image here without selling short his talent. This certainly isn’t some dry, misery-inducing role that demands he play dramatically against type – the kind that left Marvel star Tom Holland floundering in the middle of Devil All the Time and Cherry.

In Love and Monsters, O’Brien plays Joe Dawson, one of the 5 per cent of Earth’s population that wasn’t wiped out by the giant bugs, toads, and crustaceans that now reign supreme. As part of the effort to stop a giant asteroid, humanity launches all of its rockets into air. Chemicals rain back down, turning every cold-blooded animal into over-sized mutant. In the resulting chaos, a 17-year-old Joe loses his parents and becomes separated from his girlfriend, Aimee (Jessica Henwick). We find him seven years later, in the awkward position of being the only singleton in his underground bunker, and with no discernible skills apart from the ability to make a mean minestrone.

To him, that’s no way to live, so he decides to make the 85-mile trek to Aimee’s beachside colony. His bunker-mates are all convinced he’s going to die, but they still tell him they love him and send Joe on his way. And it’s love – specifically the way it’s embraced by screenwriters Brian Duffield and Matthew Robinson – that pushes this film to become more than the usual dystopian drudgery.

Joe isn’t just shaped by his romantic impulses, but by the bonds of family, community, and shared humanity. At one point, he crosses paths with a hardy pair of survivors (Michael Rooker and Ariana Greenblatt) who teach him a few tricks. He even finds himself a canine companion, played by very good boys Hero and Dodge in two of the finest animal performances of the year.

Joe finds himself a canine companion, played by very good boys Hero and Dodge in two of the finest animal performances of the yearNetflix
Joe finds himself a canine companion, played by very good boys Hero and Dodge in two of the finest animal performances of the yearNetflix

O’Brien plays the role like a 21st-century update of the typical John Hughes protagonist – loveable but beaten down. His tendency to describe his current circumstances out loud could easily become tedious if it weren’t for the gentle, humorous inflection the actor can put into a sentence as banal as, “Oh no, I fell in a hole.” Director Michael Matthews gives O’Brien enough room to breathe that we care about his character when the beasties start to attack – and the Oscar-nominated visual effects are a treat in themselves.

There’s a gnarly, B-movie quality to the creature design that firmly roots Love and Monsters in the realm of childhood nostalgia, without it feeling like a cheap ploy. The film’s relatively selective with its references – the mega-worms that burst out of the ground are clearly borrowed from Tremors, while there’s a Stand By Me nod in the shape of a leech encounter. The film doesn’t quite stick its landing – one character’s emotions seemingly reversing in an instant – but Love and Monsters still manages to walk away a resounding success. Who knew apocalyptic cinema could still feel like so much fun?

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