Director: Michael Matthews
Writers: Brian Duffield, Matthew Robinson
Cast: Dylan O'Brien, Jessica Henwick, Michael Rooker, Ariana Greenblatt
Cinematographer: Lachlan Milne
Editors: Debbie Berman, Nancy Richardson
Streaming on: Netflix
On the face of it, Love And Monsters is a tough sell. A movie about the end of the world dropping on Netflix during a global pandemic? Yikes. Luckily, its decision to not go down a gloom-and-doom route works in its favour, and its endless charm offsets any real-world anxieties. Its protagonist, Joel Dawson (Dylan O'Brien), is an apocalypse survivor who, by the standards of any mainstream Hollywood disaster movie, should not still be alive. Holed up in a bunker with a group of fiercely brave weapons-wielding survivalists, his most useful quality is his ability to make a tasty minestrone soup. Too skittish to fight and woefully inept when he does try, the lovelorn Joel spends his days composing letters to his long-distance girlfriend, Aimee (Jessica Henwick), and trying to get in touch with her over a makeshift radio.
In another film, his cowardice would've been a target of ridicule, but not here. The group loves him, and despite the pressures of dwindling supplies and the threat of attacks, are wonderfully accommodating. Joel's last act of bravery, pre-apocalypse, was to tell Aimee that he loved her for the first time. When he decides to leave his bunker and trek to hers, a week-long journey, the group only expresses concern for his safety, not mockery. It's a refreshingly uncynical tone for a movie, a utopian sense of camaraderie set in a dystopian time, with a hero as far from heroic as they come.
The film banks on our visceral disgust of everyday creepy crawlies to effectively induce dread. Outside the bunker, these bugs have mutated to giant sizes and devoured 95% of the Earth's population. It's a wickedly imaginative idea for a world-ending threat and one that's great at inducing an instinctual fear. The opening scenes depict a giant cockroach biting the head off a soldier, a sequence I don't think I could've stomached had it been live-action instead of animation. And if you think worms aren't that bad, imagine being swarmed by a dozen the size of your arm. These creature attacks are tense, expertly staged and evoke a deep sense of dread. (The film scored an Oscar nomination for Best Visual Effects, a well-deserved nod.) Visually, however, the film is unlike any apocalyptic narrative, the Earth looking the greenest it's ever been.
The horrors of the apocalypse also come with an insight into personal horrors. When Joel learns a fellow trekker's son has been killed, he apologises for the loss. "No need to be sorry," the man replies. "We all have stories like that." Director Michael Matthrews balances out the sadness with a light, humorous touch. The creatures get darkly comic names like Tree Flamer, Herd Stomper, Limb Snapper and Limb Crusher.
Joel spends much of his journey in one-sided conversation, either in voiceover addressed to his girlfriend, or to a dog he meets along the way. That the film still doesn't flag is testament to O'Brien's goofy charm and immense likeability. Still inhabiting the nervy energy of his Teen Wolf days, he conveys the character's loneliness and desire for human connection underneath an affable exterior. Joel is confronted by not only monsters, but also doubts about the changing nature of love and whether it really does endure in trying times. By the end, the film doubles up as a moving coming-of-age tale for him.
While the climactic scenes lean closer to the traditional action movie template, and some sequences feel like they were pulled right out of Zombieland (2009), the overall result is still one of the freshest takes on the 'end of the world' adventure in a while, a marvel given the times we're living in.