[su_dropcap size=”5″]M[/su_dropcap]uch like Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland before it, Love and Monsters runs with the idea that all you really need to survive the End of Days is a smirky sense of humor and a plucky attitude. After all, if the world can’t have geeky, gangly, lovestruck goobers roaming the tattered remnants of Earth, is it even worth carrying on at all? No, I don’t think so, either.
As its title implies, this film swaps out slobbering, groaning zombies for a different class of monsters. Remember those campy 50s B-movies, where grasshoppers and houseflies get irradiated and grow big enough to tear apart skyscrapers? Love and Monsters acts as the modern offspring of those films. This time, an asteroid threatens Earth, prompting us humans to do what we do best: Launch all our missiles and pray. While that threat is quelled, the nuclear fallout rains down on Earth, causing creatures like toads and grubs to become giant, man-eating predators. Civilization is reduced to ruin in pretty short order, forcing the few survivors to cower in bunkers.
That’s where we find Joel (Dylan O’Brien), a young, moon-eyed tenderfoot who runs solo in a colony of power couples. Overcome with nebbish anxiety, Joel never gets invited to tag along with the lumbersexuals when they go on monster hunts. One day, Joel gets sick of being a reliable nobody and decides to strike out on his own. He tells his awestruck companions that he’s headed to the surface to track down Aimee (Jessica Henwick), the true love he left behind back when all the shit hit the fan.
One he gets above ground, Joel becomes a movable feast for every slimy varmint within sniffing distance. He spends most of his early adventure shrieking and sprinting, and seems destined to become nothing more than an afternoon snack. Of course, Joel bumbles his way into all kinds of help: He first befriends Boy, a lovable Heeler mix who quickly becomes his ride or die. Joel also meets Clyde (Michael Rooker) and Minnow (Ariana Greenblatt), two hard-bitten survivors who form a makeshift father-daughter unit. They give Joel a crash course on how to navigate the surface, which will prove essential if he’s ever to satisfy his puppy love.
The resulting film supplies a decent amount of entertainment: That means you get light chuckles but no belly laughs, low-key scares but no nightmare fuel. CGI abounds, but it’s never obnoxious, and the filmmakers do a good job of keeping the humans (and the dog) at the forefront. Like Shaun and Zombieland, Love and Monsters understands that cynical humor and clever writing are cute and all, but you still need genuine characters to drive the story.
That starts with O’Brien’s lead performance as Joel. As the terrified ding-a-ling, he represents the audience’s point-of-view. (That may sound like a blunt assessment, but let’s face it: In the monstrapocalypse, most of us are gonna be hunkered in the bunker, startling at every little sound. And I’ll include myself in that scenario. I’m just too pretty for the End Times.) It’s tough to pull off this film’s overt cleverness without being irritating, but O’Brien nails it. He’s funny and relatable, all the way through.
All the supporting players are solid, as well: If there was a Hall of Fame for slightly musty character actors who specialize in wandering through forests, then Rooker would be on the first ballot. He made me believe he could survive in a world filled with nuclear toads, and that’s no small feat. Greenblatt’s job is to be sass-mouthed and adorable, and she scores on both fronts. Finally, Henwick does a great job of making Aimee feel like more than a MacGuffin for Joel’s quest.
And there ya have Love and Monsters. It’s 109 minutes of cinematic junk food: Cool Ranch Doritos for your COVID-weary soul. Stream it, enjoy it, but don’t be surprised if you forget what it’s about in two months time.
109 min. PG-13.