Joel Dawson is an unlikely hero for a dystopian flick. He is lovelorn, unsure of himself in nearly every aspect, he has hardly any survival skills for post-apocalyptic life, can barely handle a crossbow and to top it all, he freezes in the face of danger. When such a person decides to undertake a week-long journey in a world full of murderous monsters, things are bound to get interesting, albeit somewhat predictable.
But, lead actor Dylan O' Brien has just the right amount of charm to keep the audience invested in Joel's story. He fumbles, stumbles, literally falls into ditches but doesn't lose heart and picks up a few lessons along the way " such as "not to settle, even if it's the end of the world" and that good instincts come from making mistakes.
South African director Michael Mathews's Love And Monsters is perhaps the most lovable creature feature to have come out in a while, and that's what makes it refreshing. There are enough monsters on the prowl, but there is no cloud of somberness hanging over this story. Joel was 17 and enjoying a beautiful summer date with his high school sweetheart Aimee (Jessica Henwick) when the world as he knew it came to an end, in one fell sweep.
An asteroid came hurtling towards earth and humans tried to fire a rocket to destroy it. But while they managed to blow up the asteroid, the chemicals which emanated from the missiles turned insects and birds and sea creatures into enormous murderous mutants that wiped off 95 percent of the population, including his parents. Survivors like Joel were left to retreat into underground bunkers called "colonies".
Seven years into this holed up existence, everyone's life seems to have fallen into a pattern, with some even managing to find romantic partners in their locked-down existence. But Joel remains a heart-broken loner, who keeps himself busy maintaining a ledger of sketches of the monsters he hears of, and notes down their strengths and witnesses. His other pass-time is trying to connect with Aimee's colony on radio. After numerous failed attempts, he finds success one fine day, and hears her voice after seven years. Not long after, Joel makes an uncharacteristic resolve to undertake a journey of 85 miles to go see her.
With no survivor skills, zero sense of direction " he doesn't even know which way is west " he sets off, fueled by nothing but romantic naivete. The journey, needless to say, is eventful. A lot happens " many close shaves with drooling monsters, and a couple of friendly ones too; whimsical survivor friends Clyde (Michael Rooker) and Minnow (Ariana Greenblatt) who take him under their wings until they must part ways; an empathetic robot Mav1s who lends him a patient ear in the last 15 minutes of her battery life; and a friendly dog he names Boy, who becomes his loyal sidekick.
Besides the monsters, there is one thing that ties them all " loss. Among the quieter and tender sequences in the film is one where he shares his vulnerabilities with Mav1s, sitting outside a ghost street surrounded by glow-in-the-dark jellyfish floating in thin air " Mav1s calls them 'sky jellies'. The gift of the moment isn't lost on Joel. "It's kinda nice when nothing is trying to kill you", he says. The director uses humour well in the film and particularly so in this scene, especially when the robot lists down the possible outcomes of Joel's journey, from best to worst, with the exact amount of cheerful optimism.
Even as the film is set in an imaginary world, Mathews looks at romance from a realistic lens. Love does not conquer all and grand gestures can be grand only in your head " these are messages the film appears to carry. In planning his lofty move to sweep Aimee off her feet, Joel forgets to account for the powers of time that can change circumstances and people, to the point of no return. And in the last act of the film we also learn that while mutant monsters cannot help themselves, it's the humans that ought to be feared the most.
At one hour, forty-nine minutes, Love and Monsters is crisp, witty, sensitive, and self-aware storytelling, that's not typical of creatures-features. Thanks to an earnest and lovable performance by lead actor Dylan O' Brien, the film manages to remain light-hearted without turning frivolous. Jessica Henwick as Aimee delivers an impressive performance as a strong-minded girl on whom her colony depends for sustenance, and who cares for her ex but isn't in love with him anymore. She brings out Aimee's complexities in a few short scenes. Michael Rooker as Clyde carries the gravitas of a wise old man while Ariana Greenblatt's Minnow is chirpy and entertaining. Shot in the dense forests of Queensland, Australia, the film's cinematography is lush, and the CGI smoothly blends in, making it a well-crafted product. The monsters may be slimy and drooling but none too grotesque to watch.
Working in a dystopian universe, director Mathews, with help from his charmingly helpless hero, manages to keep the film surprisingly real, grounded and humorous. The result is a sci-fi adventure comedy that goes beyond the thrills of visual graphics. At its core, Love and Monsters is a tender, coming-of-age story " a creature-feature with soul.
Love and Monsters is now streaming on Netflix.