Love and Monsters starts off inauspiciously, with a laundry list of indicators that what you’re about to see is going to be very, very bad. A piece of voiceover exposition delivered in an oh-so-relatable tone that lasts for a full eight minutes. No less than four references in the same amount of time that everyone has paired up into romantic relationships, leaving our sad-sack would-be hero the perpetual third wheel. Quirky apocalyptic comedy bits that were probably last fresh around the time that Zombieland came out. But somehow, incredibly, Love and Monsters rallies. Through Dylan O’Brien’s undeniable charm, some interesting monster design work, and a metric ton of plucky spirit, it engages in an unrelenting fight for your affection. And as much as you might want to write it off, you just can’t: it’s got too much heart.
Joel (and the rest of humanity, for that matter) has had a rough seven years. When a comet threatens to collide with Earth, humankind fights back in stereotypical fashion: by launching rockets at it. The good news is that they successfully blew up the careening space object. But they also sent weird, toxic chemicals back down to the planet’s surface, which causes bugs, frogs, and other creepy crawlies to mutate into giant, horrifying monsters. Humanity is driven underground, with survivors living in colonies beneath the surface, only emerging for food and hunting expeditions. Years of living on the brink of destruction have turned the members of Joel’s colony into a battle-hardened, efficient survival unit. Except, that is, for Joel.
Sure, he operates the radio and makes a mean minestrone, but other than that, his contributions to the group are minimal at best. He mostly just sits around pining over his high school girlfriend Aimee, who runs a colony 85 miles away that he is occasionally able to communicate with after painstakingly finding her call numbers through trial and error. But suddenly, his feelings of inaction and loneliness get to be too much, and he vows to travel to her colony, a journey of seven treacherous days above ground that few would be able to survive. With nothing to lose, he determinedly sets out on his mission.
And that’s really where Love and Monsters comes alive, giving its lead character some much-needed room to breathe. His journey is full of perils, and it’s refreshing that the monsters featured within aren’t simply giant versions of different types of bugs but distinct species that each have their own unique characteristics. It’s a solid bit of world-building, one that’s far more effective than the exposition dump at the very beginning. And Joel’s zoological journal detailing the strengths and weaknesses of each type of monster is a great tool to highlight the work that has gone into the creature design.
Dylan O’Brien, as always, has a really great everyman quality that prevents a character like Joel from coming across as irritating in his inability to cope with his surroundings. Sometimes actors lean way too far into the whole anxious, cowardly schtick, which harms their overall character arc. Joel instead feels believable: not a fighter by nature, but quick, observant, and lucky enough to have some help in exactly the right moments. When he comes across grizzled, brusque Clyde (Michael Rooker) and Minnow (Ariana Greenblatt), a young girl who can’t even remember life before the monster apocalypse, they give him a much-needed crash course in survival skills, showing him for the first time that it is possible to live on the surface.
But as wonderful as they both are, they can’t hold a candle to the single biggest reason why Love and Monsters is such a delight: Boy, a freakishly intelligent, fiercely loyal dog who takes Joel under his wing. Boy is the best part of this entire experience, and it’s not even close. His wisdom, his humor, his courage…it’s hard to write human characters this well so that they’re able to do it with a dog is something special. If you’re the kind of person who becomes deeply emotionally invested in movie animals or say, empathetic and tragically doomed robots, Love and Monsters has a lot to offer.
Let’s not overstate things: Love and Monsters isn’t going to change your life. It’s a silly monster adventure aimed squarely at the YA audience, and it isn’t without its flaws. The relationship between Joel and Aimee is a little clunky, and it falters in the third act. But strong lead performances from both Dylan O’Brien (and of course, Hero and Dodge, the two dogs who played Boy), and some surprisingly effective monster action sequences make Love and Monsters an immensely fun antidote to the burgeoning winter pandemic blues.