YA genre films — movies aimed at young adults and often adapted from the abundance of teen-centric books published each year — typically follow a pretty familiar pattern. A young person fueled by self-doubt and curiosity finds the inspiration to step apart from the herd to save the day, and part of the reward is the promise of a first, true love. From The Hunger Games to Divergent, from Percy Jackson to Ready Player One, the beats are often similar from one franchise to the next even if the specifics differ. The best and most entertaining among them tweak the formula and fill in the gaps with rich characters, smart dialogue, and a hefty supply of thrills. Love and Monsters is one of the good ones.
A meteor heading straight for Earth is bombarded with everything the human species can throw at it, but while the immediate impact is avoided a different threat emerges. The apocalypse zigs while humanity expects it to zag, and fragments fall to the planet’s surface altering the biology of numerous animal species — lowly lizards and bugs grow to enormous sizes and soon the human survivors are forced underground.
Seven years later people are still in hiding. Joel (Dylan O’Brien) lost his parents in the initial onslaught and has spent his post-apocalyptic days in a bunker populated by others who’ve all found their niche and coupled up in the process. By contrast, Joel is the go-to guy when it comes to making minestrone, and he spends his nights alone. His hope is to reconnect with his girlfriend Aimee (Jessica Henwick) who he hasn’t seen since the world went sideways, and when he discovers she’s in another bunker just eighty-five miles away, he decides it’s time to face the world — and no monsters, mishaps, or mayhem can stop his quest for love. Well, in theory anyway.
Love and Monsters is an apocalyptic blast and a coming of age creature feature that entertains, thrills, and even manages to tug at the heart strings. Gone is the dour, dystopian future of so many sci-fi tales (YA or otherwise), and in its place is a colorfully rendered world that once belonged to us and now belongs to all manner of monsters. Ferocious frogs, burrowing bugs, and more bring a beastly menace to the world, and Joel is forced to learn along the way.
Co-writer Brian Duffield creates a thematically familiar setup here but does some fresh and unexpected things with it making for a ride that hits some expected beats while still managing to surprise. That’s no surprise as Duffield’s previous films have demonstrated the same feats. From 2017’s The Babysitter to this year’s Spontaneous, he’s found his niche as a writer capable of blending fun, creativity, and recognizable themes into genre success. He delivers again with Love and Monsters even as he twists and tweaks some YA expectations.
Joel’s journey through a monstrous landscape is powered by his love for Aimee, and the idea of reuniting with her sits in the air as something of a reward for his bravery. Other survivors even say as much, confirming his belief and the trope in general from years and years of fiction and film where the hero’s victory comes with a side of lady love. Of course, “Shit gets crazy in the apocalypse,” says Joel at one point, and that includes twisted expectations and unexpected outcomes.
Director Michael Matthews delivers on from the promise of his 2017 debut, Five Fingers for Marseilles, by giving equal weight to both action set-pieces and character beats. The CG creations feel menacing and deadly, and the action sequences are both thrilling and suspenseful, but the human moments are every bit as important. Joel crosses paths with other survivors from a smart dog to a wandering pair forced together by circumstance. Clyde (Michael Rooker) has taken on a fatherly role to young Minnow (Arianna Greenblatt), and the two bring warmth and humor during their time with Joel and serve as a reminder that family’s are made as much through love as they are through blood.
Every element is important, but the film rests on O’Brien’s shoulders as the lead character, the one we spend the entire film with, and the one whose voiceover narration enters our ear canals on a regular basis. Voiceover is often a death knell for a film, but rather than use it as a regurgitation of things we should be picking up visually it’s instead a window into Joel’s thought processes. He’s writing letters to Aimee recounting the ups and downs of his journey to her side, and what starts as the voice of someone saying “look at how brave I am for you!” shifts into something more honest. He’s challenged, he misses others in his life, and he comes to realize this trip is about far more than continuing a love from seven years ago.
O’Brien is no stranger to YA genre fare having led The Maze Runner trilogy to both commercial and critical success, but he remains an under-appreciated talent outside those constraints. He’s immensely charismatic and moves effortlessly between physical action, emotional beats, and some solid comedic moments. Henwick also shines in a supporting turn and shows equally capable range. Her 2020 has already included appearances in both Duffield’s Underwater and Sophia Coppola’s On the Rocks, and she has even bigger titles on the horizon including Godzilla vs. Kong and The Matrix 4.
Love and Monsters challenges its lead character as it challenges its viewers. Sure, he faces death-dealing monsters and creatures, but viewers see the potential in what YA genre films can do. They don’t need to threaten a dark dystopia or promise that love awaits those who deserve it, and they can instead be bright, fun, scary, and affecting stories about what’s most important in life. Bring on Love and Monsters 2!