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Dylan O’Brien’s charisma goes the distance in the fleeting, but fun enough apocalypse adventure “Love and Monsters,” which has the actor navigating an obstacle course of convenient twists, unabashedly cute characters, and mega-sized creepy crawlies. He’s done well in a school of acting that has alums like Adam Brody and pre-Lars von Trier Shia LaBeouf—the art of being a little neurotic, with endearing self-deprecation taking the place of any stable cool—and this is an excellent display of O’Brien’s infectious imagination and comic energy. Plus, director Michael Matthews places him in a vivid apocalypse in which we’re the ones in danger of being squished, as towering centipedes, snails, and slugs and more have wiped out 95% of the human population.
It’s a funny start then, how O’Brien begins “Love and Monsters” as a type of sidekick to a whole team of sexually active, bad-ass apocalyptic fighters, and he’s the chef. Vengeful, mutated animals might have been created from missiles that tried to shoot down a massive asteroid seven years ago, but some things in life are constant—some folk shack up with others quickly than others, and some people are much better at facing danger head-on. And then there’s O’Brien’s lonely Joel, whose main skill is that he makes a good minestrone soup.
After he makes contact with an old love named Aimee (Jessica Henwick), who lives in a different colony 80 miles away, Joel decides to tackle the unknown danger of the outside world, and leave behind this makeshift family who seem to be in their own action movie. Everyone warns against it, knowing that he freezes when he's been face-to-slimy-face with the monsters that have previously tried to break into the colony, but fear can be so tiring. Credit to “Love and Monsters,” it makes an intriguing hero flaw out of simply being too scared. Their survival of advice to Joel is a stern, “Don’t fight. Just run and hide.”
By sheer determination to be with someone he first said “I love you” to right before the apocalypse, O’Brien’s Joel navigates his way through a new world, passing along cliff-sides that have been turned into honeycomb, and through suburbs that have been swallowed whole by the greenery of nature. While walking through a backyard, he's attacked by a massive frog in a swimming pool, and is saved from its tongue by a quick-witted dog named Boy. It’s absolutely not the last time the movie will use convenient timing to save our hero, but it’s charming because of the dog, and the tight action sequence that unites them. The “banter” that O’Brien shares with the dog after is a delicate expression of Joel’s loneliness, and amicability. Boy is a good dog, and a good listener.
Later on, Joel meets two more charming souls, who add character to the saga and not much else. But they share a good comedic chemistry, with Joel still as the clumsy underdog, who learns from the tough-as-nails kid Minnow (Ariana Greenblatt) about how to fire a crossbow, and Clyde (Michael Rooker) the secrets of surviving day by day. During their travels, Michaels spikes the goofiness with a few tense moments, not so much from grand surprise, but a festering dread. Especially as Joel’s flashbacks to seven years ago depict a gruesome end to everyone's loved ones, “Love and Monsters” has a vital sense of danger, mixed with its interest in using O’Brien for some frantic slapstick.
The script by Brian Duffield and Matthew Robinson (with story credit to Duffield) staples together its adventure using voiceover and a whole batch of characters' good timing, but O’Brien’s Joel is a strong guide: he's optimistic, excitable, and always likable. O’Brien helps give the movie a heart, and creates the movie’s need for connection in ways beyond finding his dream girl—he shares an unexpectedly sweet scene with a talking robot, which gives a sense of gravity that helps the later moments when he’s sprinting from an appropriately freaky centipede. “Love and Monsters” has a winning sincerity that helps it move along, even if you become more aware of just how narrow it is.
Underneath everything, “Love and Monsters” has the feeling of a director auditioning for something of a “Transformers” movie, especially in its third act. The final showdown feels like a tacked-on calling card, but it’s another smoothly executed set-piece of people scrambling during a monster attack, with some hand-to-hand combat thrown in the mix. It’s also a good moment for the film’s sporadic use of practical effects, when all of the crags, slime, and moss on a monster makes them seem even larger in close-up, something you just don’t get from the other CGI creatures that chase people around in this story.
But even more than for director Matthews, this is O’Brien’s showcase. He makes you believe that Joel is sprinting for his life from some fantastic beasts, and that throwing himself into an apocalypse to combat loneliness is noble enough. “Love and Monsters” openly tells you it’s not overthinking a single component, but with the spectacle of O’Brien’s athletic work, that’s not exactly the end of the world.
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Dylan O'Brien as Joel Dawson
Jessica Henwick as Aimee
Dan Ewing as Cap
Michael Rooker as Clyde
Ariana Greenblatt as Minnow