Love and Monsters is going to remind you of a lot of movies. The post-apocalyptic premise has plenty of The Walking Dead flavor to it – that feels extremely knowing once Michael Rooker shows up – as well as a fair amount of The Last of Us. The inclusion of Dylan O’Brien and giant monsters can’t help but draw comparisons to The Maze Runner series of films. And an attempt at a slightly more comedic tone to surviving the world makes it all feel extremely indebted to Zombieland.
There are even more direct comparisons to make but it is not the simple act of derivation that makes Love and Monsters feel shaky. All of those inspirations were themselves derivative of other pieces of fiction. What made them stand on their own was some sense of individuality. They chose something very specific to focus on and made that a defining trait. One of the biggest issues with Love and Monsters is that it never feels content to choose a lane and stick in it. It flits about with tone, mood, and intention at a nearly constant rate. Doing this makes the movie’s derivative elements stick out like a sore thumb.
It’s a shame because there is a lot to like about Love and Monsters. The apocalyptic idea at the core of the story – humans blew up an asteroid headed for Earth, but the fallout from the missiles created giant mutated monsters out of natural wildlife and they wiped out most of the population – is a deeply wacky one. The “monsters” part of Love and Monsters is a total joy. Every giant bug creature or mutant toad is wonderfully designed and there is a clear love for the outrageous when it comes to any scene involving the monsters. Great practical and digital effects work are on display, and you can tell that the filmmakers really got a kick out of these critters.
Unfortunately, the “love” part of Love and Monsters is much less effective. Our hero, Joel Dawson (Dylan O’Brien), decides to leave the safety of his underground bunker to travel to another colony and reunite with his summer romance from seven years ago, Aimee (Jessica Henwick). Their relationship is extremely tenuous, though that is by design and plays into the plot later. By the time that storyline reaches a critical moment, the air is sucked out of the story. In fact, the entire third act of the film suffers from another desire by the movie to feel like it is constantly reinventing itself.
That’s arguably the fatal flaw in Love and Monsters: it feels like three or four movies attempting to take control throughout the running time. When Joel sets out on his adventure, he runs across two other survivors, Clyde (Michael Rooker) and Minnow (Ariana Greenblatt), who feel like they stepped out of the Zombieland riff of this premise. Eventually, they part ways with Joel and the film switches its tone once again to be more somber and straight-faced. Tonal shifts aren’t inherently a bad thing in movies but they have to be properly balanced or have a strong intention behind them. Love and Monsters just feels like it can’t make up its mind.
That’s a bummer because the movie often works as a passive bit of creature feature fun. Any time the movie strips down to its base pleasure of man vs. monster, Love and Monsters mostly works. The signature monster fights are all unique and well-shot, and director Michael Matthews understands how to make these sequences as fun as they should be. The movie certainly didn’t need more of these sequences, but they are undeniably the highlight of the film.
Otherwise, Love and Monsters is what one might call a “laundry-folder” movie. It’s a passive experience that’s mostly digestible enough that you can enjoy it without really giving it your full attention. Nothing is egregiously awful or truly remarkable. In a way, the movie ends up with one of the worst possible criticisms: it’s fine. That sounds like damning praise but it really is just a decent enough experience. If not for the legitimately delightful monster sequences, the film would rate a lot lower. Instead, it just manages to get a passing grade.