Love and Monsters’ ” cast and crew is filled with people who have done apocalypses before, so perhaps having gotten the doom and gloom out of their system, they’re ready to say “Really, maybe the end of the world won’t be that bad.” Dylan O’Brien (the “Maze Runner” films), in a role Ethan Embry might’ve played 20 years ago, is Joel, a likeable but thoroughly normal young man thrust into adventure with a loyal dog, Boy, by his side. Joel searches for lost love Aimee (Jessica Henwick, “Iron Fist”) amid a monster-riddled landscape.
Co-writer Matthew Robinson’s eclectic resume started with the brilliant “The Invention of Lying,” and he recently added the kid-friendly adventure “Dora and the Lost City of Gold.” “Love and Monsters” goes up the target-age ladder a tad. The monsters (insects, arachnids and crustaceans of Unusual Size) will be too scary for little kids, but older kids will find this to be a fun romp. They’ll incidentally soak up lessons about believing in yourself, remembering who is important in your life, and tempering expectations about the future.
Robinson shares credit with Brian Duffield, whose dystopian cred comes from “The Divergent Series: Insurgent.” “L&M” is lighter than that, but it’s not joke-driven like you might expect from the title. Rather, this is lighter in the sense that it’s not dour. Living in bunkers and guarding against breaches from monsters isn’t fun, but “L&M” knows humans are resilient. They adjust to the new normal and maintain age-old concerns, such as – in Joel’s case – wanting to find (or re-find) love.
Michael Rooker (“Slither”) takes the edge off his usual persona as Clyde, a survivor traveling with 8-year-old Minnow (Ariana Greenblatt). The threats here are entirely the monsters, as the writers are perhaps tired of societal conflicts (in this genre, and in reality) and want to portray the human race in a positive light. Maybe we got lucky in this apocalypse and there are no politicians left (An opening-montage newspaper clipping indicates the president was eaten by a giant moth).
In his second film but first with major CGI effects, director Michael Matthews knows what he’s doing; the monsters are smoothly integrated into the action. They are well-designed and threatening, including a giant frog with a sticky tongue that plucks at potential victims, and a rather sympathetic crab. Joel almost has a Newt Scamander thing going as he figures out which fantastic beasts are bad and which aren’t so bad.
At the same time, “L&M” isn’t show-offy. The boy-and-his-dog adventure is always at the film’s heart.
While “L&M’s” is appealingly heartfelt, it doesn’t have enough layers that I desire to watch it again. O’Brien is a fine Everyman, but outside of Joel, the character development goes to the dog and monsters more so than the humans. Henwick’s Aimee in particular is underused, and it’s a missed opportunity to not make Rooker a capital-C Character.
“Love and Monsters” is hard to dislike, but not original or clever enough to be a classic. Still, it’s refreshing to have a modern film say “When things look bad, maybe they’re not that bad.”