Love and Monsters: The Best Feel-Good Movie of the Year (Entirely by Default)

If there’s one thing I love, it’s a good monster movie. Be it a poignant morality tale like King Kong, a flashy, a frantic, borderline horror film like Cloverfield, or just an old-school Kaiju smackdown like Godzilla, I can’t get enough. So when I randomly happened upon the trailer for Love and Monsters a few weeks ago, I was onboard pretty much immediately. (It certainly doesn’t hurt that there’s a massive void in new releases at the moment, and I’ll pretty much take whatever I can get, but still.) I knew next-to-nothing about the film, other than the fact that it was set in the wake of some sort of giant monster Apocalypse, which frankly was enough to sell me on the premise alone. Plus, it being released smack-dab in the middle of October makes in a convenient entry in my month-long Halloween marathon as well, so I considered it to be a fortuitous discovery on multiple fronts.

Well, the bad news is that it, unfortunately, doesn’t exactly make for great Halloween viewing. It isn’t scary, there’s not an overwhelming amount of destruction, and the monsters are not exactly the main focus of the film. Luckily, that’s just about the only disappointment in the film. Like I said, I went into Love and Monsters with pretty much zero expectations (other than the fact that it shares the name with a notoriously terrible/bizarre episode of Doctor Who), and came out the other side beyond pleasantly surprised. This movie is straight-up delightful.

The basic premise of the film is pretty textbook for this sort of thing: A cataclysmic event happened that wiped out most of humanity and mutated most of Earth’s animals into giant, horrifying creatures with a craving for human flesh. The survivors take shelter in various underground shelters in order to hide from the monsters, and have been living in these shelters for about 7 years. You’ve all seen this before, with the monsters swapped out for zombies, aliens, or any number of other Armageddon-inducing antagonists. What makes Love and Monsters stand out among them, however, is that it skirts the usual bleak and hopeless tone of these sort of stories, instead opting to show a much more optimistic and hopeful version of the world’s end. Sure, most of the population is dead and the surface is overrun with monstrous abominations, but that doesn’t mean everything has to be so doom-and-gloom. What Warm Bodies was to Zombies, Love and Monsters is to, well, monsters.

That’s the beauty of this fun little flick: The setting and its various man-eating horrors are just the backdrop to a much more personal and heartwarming story. At its core, Love and Monsters is less “man vs nature,” and more “man vs self.” The film follows Joel, a survivor living in one of many isolated bunkers across the world. While most of his bunk-mates have adapted to the situation, learning valuable survival and combat skills, Joel is fairly useless. He can’t fight, he has zero knowledge of the world around him, and he has severe psychological trauma that causes him to freeze up when in danger. After deciding that he’s sick of letting fear hold him back any longer, he decides to engage in a cross-country trek to find his long-lost girlfriend, who he was separated from at the beginning of the cataclysm. After spending seven years communicating with her solely over the radio, he sets out to prove not only to her, but to himself as well, that he’s capable of surviving on his own.

This is very much a coming-of-age story, with a romance at its heart. While the concept certainly has the potential to veer into territory that’s a bit to saccharine or corny, this film luckily manages to avoid this by anchoring it with a healthy amount of humor and mild peril. I’d describe it as a bizarre mixture of both How to Train Your Dragon and Zombieland, with the zany, irreverent humor of the former combined with the heart and sense of wonder of the latter. The romance takes a backseat to the real focus of the film, which is Joel’s journey of self-discovery. It’s much more about him finding his own sense of self-respect and purpose than it is a guy trying to save a girl from monsters, which thankfully keeps it from heading too far into fairy tale territory. Still, it’s a much more charming, positive experience than I was expecting, which in all honesty felt like a welcome reprieve from the state of the world at the moment. Ironically, the fictional world of the film in which giant monsters routinely eat people seems much more serene and stable than our own reality right now. It’s the perfect amount of wishful escapism, a fun, cheery adventure story that you can enjoy without any unneeded stress.

I had never really thought much of Dylan O’Brien. I knew he was in movies like The Maze Runner and MTV swill like Teen Wolf, and had kind of assumed he was just another one of those flat, dime-a-dozen teen melodrama actors. You know the ones, those dudes who are less “actors” and more “shirtless mannequins that occasionally talk.” But, much like the rest of this movie, I found him to be quite the pleasant surprise in this. His character is a much more likable, much more endearing version of Jessie Eisenburg’s Zombieland character, coming off as less neurotic and obnoxiously anal, and more charmingly unsure of himself. He’s likeable without being too much of a goody-two-shoes, and has enough of a balance between his faults and talents that he comes across as a genuine, fully fleshed-out characters. And while the film is largely an adventure/comedy, O’Brien gets a chance to show off some impressive range, with some incredibly moving emotional moments sprinkled in-between set pieces. If I came away from this film with anything, it’s that he’s definitely someone to keep an eye out for.

The rest of the supporting cast is also great. Michael Rooker, who has had an amazing career trajectory in the past decade or so thanks to both The Walking Dead and Guardians of the Galaxy, essentially plays a similar role to Woody Harrelson’s Tallahassee in Zombieland: A badass survival nut who gives our wimpy protagonist a hard time. But much like everything else in this film, he’s a much kinder, much more likable version of the archetype. Jessica Henwick, who plays Joel’s long-lost girlfriend Aimee, does great work for what little she’s actually given to do, which sadly seems to be a reoccurring theme in her career thus far (looking at you, Iron Fist). However, she’s given a brief moment to shine in the third act, where she proves that she can pull off much more than the damsel-in-distress cliché, kicking a fair amount of ass in the process.

Of course, the real breakout star of the film is the dog. Which, frankly, is true of any movie with a dog. Let’s not kid ourselves. Named Boy, the furry  character plays the role of Joel’s sidekick, saving his skin just as many times as putting him in danger. If you’re like me, I suspect you’ll spend the majority of the film silently uttering a mantra of “Don’t kill the dog,” having been burnt out on films like I am Legend. The post-apocalypse does not seem to ever bode well for man’s best friend, but given the overall lighter feel that Love and Monsters has to it, you don’t ever really feel like you need to worry too much.

I think the thing that I love the most about this movie is how effortlessly it dances around the various tonal shifts that take place during its runtime. As I said earlier, this film is primarily an action-comedy, and the humor lands just as well as the action excites. Yet its also able to seamlessly veer itself into some genuine tragedy and heartbreak. It is, after all, set in a time where most of the population has been killed. Nearly every character has a tragic backstory of some sort, and they all hit their mark in terms of sheer emotional impact. Even the dog has lost a loved one, clinging to a dress belonging to his deceased owner like a safety blanket. It’s a sincere tear-jerker at certain points. But it never dwells on these moments long enough to bog itself down to the point where it wallows in self-pity or melodrama. No, it always ends on a note of hope, which always feel earned and deserved.

For a film that reportedly has a budget of only around $30 million, it also has some impressive, gorgeous imagery. The end of the world has never looked so majestic. It feels at times like a nature documentary, in the vein of something like Planet Earth, showing that not everything that roams the surface is an abomination. There’s some seriously awe-inspiring sights to behold, with the film masterfully weaving between moments of terror and wonder. I would love to see a sequel, if only for more of this universe’s creative and often mesmerizing creature designs.

If I had to take issue with anything, it’s that due to its lighter tone, Love and Monsters doesn’t quite feel like it has the same stakes as some of its apocalyptic contemporaries. In Zombieland, you felt that the characters could actually die, despite being a comedy. Heck, even How to Train Your Dragon, which is a children’s film, has genuine consequences for the characters, with several being either grievously injured or killed throughout the series. Yet Love and Monsters never approaches anything near this level of tension. Even the climax of the film, which is really the only point in which the characters are in any sort of direct conflict with something, feels relatively toothless. It’s a fairly minor problem, but one that does tend to undermine some of the film’s more suspenseful moments.

All in all though, Love and Monsters is a great diversion from the dreariness of 2020. If you like monster movies like me, you’ll have a blast. Even if you’re just in the mood for a solid comedy or adventure film, I think you’ll find enough to like here to justify the $20 VOD price tag (the film was originally meant for a theatrical release). I stumbled onto this film largely by accident, and its some of the most enjoyable time I’ve had with a movie all year. Granted, I can count the number of new releases I’ve seen this year on one hand, but still. Give it a shot. Mostly because I want a sequel.

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