Eric’s Review: Love and Monsters (2020)

ATMOSfx! Woo!
Joel (Dylan O’Brien) takes on a giant crab in Love and Monsters (2020)
★★★★ out of ★★★★★

Ray Harryhausen would be proud! Love and Monsters defies expectations with more emotional resonance, visual wizardry, and storytelling surprises than you would expect. The monsters are spectacularly rendered, and convincingly animated. Dylan O’Brien is a joy to watch, in the best role of his young career. The most important thing to know is that this movie is worth the premium price for streaming entry.

Directed by Michael Matthews

Full admission: I am a fan of adventurous monster movies, and have been since I was young. This was a movie designed for me in mind. And yet, when I saw the trailers, I thought… well, this might be a fun couple of hours. It was much more than that. I was unaware of this movie prior to the trailer being released last month, and given the pedigree of the lead protagonist, Dylan O’Brien, something along the lines of his Maze Runner films was what I was anticipating.

Love and Monsters turns out to be a top-shelf adventure film, a Joseph Campbell inspired hero’s journey tale that places a callow youth on a mission to find his lost love across a dangerous landscape full of monstrous mutant insects, amphibians, crustaceans, and molluscs.

In the near future, Earth is threatened by an extinction-level asteroid on a collision course with earth. Civilization launches a massive missile strike to protect the planet, but the fallout from the counter-strike has the unintended consequence of showing chemicals back to the surface that turns many of the world’s cold-blooded (non-mammal and bird) animals into monstrous and deadly beasts that managed to wipe out 95% of humans.

Joel (O’Brien) is one of the few fortunate (or unfortunate) survivors, who has taken shelter in an underground bunker with a few other colonists, who have scabbed together a living over the seven years since the incident, through scavenging and a bit of substance underground agriculture. Joel lost his family to the monsters, but he discovers that his high school sweetheart, Aimee (Jessica Henwick) is also a survivor, in a colony on the Australian coast.

Joel is a bit of a lost cause as a survivor, as his will tends to crumble when faced with the monsters, and he has the deer-in-the-headlights freeze reaction when put into dangerous situations, despite his desire and will to help contribute to the colony. Joel musters up the courage to leave his colony on a journey for his lost love. It’s as fundamental a quest as you could muster.

With the MacGuffin firmly in place, the woefully underprepared Joel says farewell to his colony mates and strikes a path towards the coast. The path through the dystopian ruins of the world is populated with allies and challenges in equal measure. Joel is rescued by a plucky dog named Boy, who takes on the Toto role in this mutant Oz setting. A scrappy duo of wasteland scavengers, Clyde (Michael Rooker), and Minnow (Ariana Greenblatt) rescue him a second time and teach him the necessary tricks to surviving the week in the wilderness. And, we also get a Tin Man or C-3PO analog in the form of Mav1s, a cheerful but deteriorating robot, who provides a surprisingly emotionally resonant scene with Joel.

Though Aimee is held up as a princess of sorts, allows the film to make a more mature twist to the story. She is a well fleshed-out character, who unlike Joel, has managed to adapt to the post-apocalyptic environment and has matured much more than the decidedly boyish Joel who only now maturing as the result of making this dangerous trip.

So you get the full buffet of hero’s journey archetypes. But what makes or breaks a film like this is the monster interactions, and they are fabulous. There are at least seven monster encounters for Joel, and each one presents a different challenge, seemingly leveling up video game style, without ever feeling like a video game. Running away is still a viable option until circumstances of honor and duty prevent that from happening. The confidence in which this production team lovingly shows their creations is fantastic as well, monsters in full daylight, showing off the power of a tentpole movie budget thanks to the wizardry of MPC Visual Effects.

Though the visual spectacle of this movie may be what is remembered in the long run, the movie hangs on the shoulders of Dylan O’Brien to provide us with a protagonist that can emotionally grow into the story, and he succeeds wonderfully here. O’Brien dances the line of being unprepared, but not stupid, who very much is the type of protagonist whose shoes the viewing audience could see themselves standing in. In what is a familiar story structure, he adds the needed humor and pathos to Joel in order to accept him as the gravitic center of the story.

Henwick is going to end up being one of those actresses who shows up in everything. She already has been in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (Jess Testor), Marvel’s Iron Fist (Coleen Wing), Game of Thrones (Nymeria Sand), and will be in the upcoming Matrix 4. Perhaps that’s a good Omen for this film. Still, like many of the other characters, it would have been great to see more of her, but as the living MacGuffin, it wouldn’t have made sense for her to be in 2/3 of the movie. Her action chops get put to good use here.

Also fun in this movie is young Arianna Greenblatt, who amusingly pantomimes out Michael Rooker’s lines in a cute snarling call and response that doesn’t seem off the mark. Having recently seen a couple of movies completely undone by bad child acting, Minnow was a character I wanted to see more of. The greatest weakness of the movie is that the characters come and go. I would have liked more time with many of the supporting players, the road companions come and go like characters in the Greek Classics. More Michael Rooker, please! And let Bruce Spence have some dialogue!

Don’t bother with the science, here. This is more fantasy than hard science fiction. Trying to figure out why mutations would only affect cold-blooded creatures will make your brain hurt. Proper credit for the storybook introduction of the apocalyptic scenario. Between that and a couple of flashback moments, and you have all the background information you need.

Cutting right to it: This is a great fantasy adventure. How much fun did I have with it? If you want some comparables, here’s the essential list of movies that I would note as referential material. You might recognize a few of these titles. Now, am I saying this movie is as good as these historically important films? No, but I think you could make a strong argument that Love and Monsters would be a movie that Ray Harryhausen would have been proud to have been associated with.

Young South African director Matthews has a bright future in front of him. There just might be a rise in South African genre fare, with another young South African director Beer Adriaanase delivering a snappy possession horror film Parable released this year on the festival circuit. Matthews understands pace and pathos. It is stunning to see him get the big nod from Paramount, after having only one feature film under his belt to date. Amazingly, the film only cost $28 Million to make, making this a risk worth taking for Paramount. It looks like it cost five times as much and at this point could be up for Oscar consideration for VFX.

It is difficult to figure out how a film like this will succeed in the COVID environment. Being that it was largely overlooked in favor of the big franchise superhero and science fiction films like Dune, Wonder Woman 1984, A Quiet Place 2, and Black Widow, this film seemed destined to get lost in the shuffle. But COVID 19 forced the big production studios to move their movie dates and ended all ceding the movie landscape to other films. As such, it gives Love and Monsters a shot at the spotlight. The movie is well set up for a sequel, but will Paramount see this as a hit if it does modestly well in the streaming environment? It certainly bears watching. I’m hoping that the story continues.

Love and Monsters is currently showing theatrically in cinemas and is also available for premium early access streaming on Amazon Prime. It is rated PG-13 for light swearing, action/violence, and suggestive material. This is an EXCELLENT gateway film for younger movie watches who like action and adventure. Joel is a great character to bond with, and I would suspect that he and Boy will be very popular with the kids.

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