Director Michael Matthews made his feature directorial debut with the acclaimed “Five Fingers For Marseilles,” a contemporary Western set in rural South Africa exploring the world of corrupt police officers. The film premiered at Toronto International Film Festival in 2017 and went on to screen at the BFI London Film Festival, Busan International Film Festival, Fantastic Fest, and many more. It won five African Movie Academy Awards, including Best Film, Best Film in an African Language and Best First Feature Film by a Director.
Now, he’s turned his attention to “Love and Monsters.” On paper, the idea of him directing a young-adult love story set in a post-apocalyptic United States seems like an abrupt U-turn in both style and substance. Fortunately, what we end up getting is a mostly charming and wholesome look at the value of family and relationships, regardless of species.
“Love and Monsters” is set in world full of, well, monsters. But these beasts aren’t just regular monsters – they’ve all been mutated due to the fallout from all sorts of weapons being used to prevent an incoming asteroid from wiping out humanity. The transformations are the price paid to ensure survival, or so they thought.
But the monsters that grew from the ashes have now wiped out 95% of the world’s population, leaving behind small colonies forced to come together and fight for survival. It’s only natural that after surviving the end of the world you would get close to those who survived alongside you. But when our hero, Joel (Dylan O’Brien), looks around, all he can see are all the couples who have found love in the apocalypse. It’s that sentiment that launches him into action searching for his true love, Aimee (Jessica Henwick).
Joel met Aimee the summer before the world ended and the two shared a whirlwind romance all the way up until the missiles’ launch. In the chaos afterwards, though, the two were separated and now she’s all he can think about. Whenever the colony’s old radio is able to pick up signals, Joel endlessly searches the airwaves for hints of her, and eventually his efforts pay off. Aimee is in another colony only 85 miles away, but 85 miles might as well be a thousand in this new world where no one who goes “top side” lives to tell the tale. So, Joel settles for talking to her on the radio and writing letters, which it’s worth noting serve as more of a diary to help transition between scenes as a sort of narrating device.
Joel is small and doesn’t pose much of a threat to anyone, much less scary monsters. Plus, he has a knack for freezing up in high-stress situations and he can’t shoot a crossbow with any accuracy. So, when he decides he’s leaving the colony to find Aimee, his plan is met with resistance and tough love. Yet nothing will stop our dear hero – love has motivated him.
The world-building in “Love and Monsters” is quite fun, discovering all the newly-altered insects and animals are a thrill, and some of them are truly grotesque. The special effects are lacking, though. They aren’t the worst by any means, but any sense of peril or danger the film tries to invoke is immediately lessened by the fact that the monsters’ many eyes and tendrils appear almost cartoonish. It’s evident when practical effects were employed, and those scenes are far and away superior to any CGI sequences.
The cast is pretty spot on with some stand out co-stars surrounding the lead. O’Brien has a boyish charm that brings legitimacy to his role, making Joel’s quest for love convincing and endearing. Along his travels, he meets the hardened top-siders, Clyde (Michael Rooker) and Minnow (Ariana Greenblatt), who are battle-ready and help train Joel. If the entire film was entirely about this trio and their adorable and scene-stealing dog, it may have been better for it.
Writer Brian Duffield, who also came up with the story concept, has tapped into some real emotions here. The struggle to fit in and find a perfect mate is more than just an idea and has a tangible role to play. The fact that the female love interest isn’t reduced to being a prize won by the hero ready to be kissed with fireworks in the background speaks to a new generation of storytellers and moviegoers who are breaking tradition and creating new ones.
There are problems with the writing. The script seems to start as a risqué teen comedy with elements of action, then it morphs into a buddy film with a lot of heart, before ultimately transitioning back to the action without as much suggestive material. The tonal shifts are somewhat irritating and take viewers out of the story almost entirely. However, the ending works and allows some forgiveness for most of the shortcomings earlier in the film.
All in all, if a fun “popcorn” film is what you seek, then “Love and Monsters” delivers with a light adventure romp and plenty of heart and monster action.
Film critic and member of the North Carolina Film Critic Association.