LOVE AND MONSTERS movie poster | ©2020 Paramount Pictures

LOVE AND MONSTERS movie poster | ©2020 Paramount Pictures

Rating: PG-13
Stars: Dylan O’Brien, Jessica Henwick, Michael Rooker, Dan Ewing, Ariana Greenblatt
Writers: Brian Duffield and Matthew Robinson, story by Brian Duffield
Director: Michael Matthews
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Release Date: October 16, 2020

 LOVE AND MONSTERS has a slightly misleading title. In the filmmakers’ defense, it’s easy to see where they felt that something a little more on target, like GOOD-HEARTEDNESS AND MONSTERS, wasn’t quite as catchy.

They are absolutely not kidding about the MONSTERS part of the title. As our main character/narrator Joel Dawson (Dylan O’Brien) informs us, we’re seven years into a post-apocalypse, when Earth was threatened by an asteroid.

Good news: humans managed to blow the asteroid to bits. Bad news: the chemicals from the missiles used to blow up the asteroid rained by down onto our planet. Many people got sick and died. Meanwhile, insects, amphibians and reptiles grew enormous and mutated. The upshot: ninety percent of humanity is gone. Most of the survivors, like Joel, are living in underground bunkers.

Joel is fond of his fellow bunker dwellers, and they seem genuinely protective of him. Joel is a terrific artist and great at patching up the radio used to keep in touch with other bunkers. Alas, he tends to freeze up when faced with creatures. Joel therefore seems the least likely person to be able to survive on the surface on his own.

However, when Joel speaks by radio with his pre-apocalypse girlfriend Aimee (Jessica Henwick), who is with another group of survivors on the coast, eighty-five miles away, he impulsively decides that he is going to join her.

Joel meets a few other travelers on his quest, including grizzled, canny Clyde (Michael Rooker) and eight-year-old Minnow (Ariana Greenblatt). Most significantly, Joel is befriended by Boy, a very smart dog played by two scene-stealing canines, Hero and Dodge. And of course, per the title, there are plenty of monsters.

Despite the supersized dangerous critters, LOVE AND MONSTERS isn’t properly a horror movie. It’s a little like an updated Ray Harryhausen quest, with a chatty, relatable guide instead of a brash adventurer. Joel learns from his mistakes, starting as an easily but understandably scared klutz who grows into his place in the world.

The screenplay by Brian Duffield and Matthew Robinson, based on Duffield’s story, seems to be born of a deep love of THEM! and its giant bug ilk of the ‘50s and ‘60s. LOVE AND MONSTERS takes this premise to a half-grim, half-playful extreme. It has solid messages about friendship, society and realistic expectations. Dog lovers will especially appreciate that Joel is first jarred from his paralysis by Boy’s needs. Humanists will be relieved that, at every turn, Joel is reminded that Aimee does not owe him any specific reaction to his solo decision to find her.

Director Michael Matthews maintains a good sense of pace, as well as a shrewd notion of when to use O’Brien’s voiceover and when to let action speak for itself. He uses natural areas beautifully (LOVE AND MONSTERS was shot in Australia) and reliably integrates the creatures into the live-action.

Speaking of the creatures, even the scary, disgusting ones are slightly adorable. There’s a little bit of Henson Shop vibe here. The illustrations that Joel does of the monsters he encounters are intriguing enough to make us hope for a movie companion volume that includes the artwork.

O’Brien is a solid focal point, friendly without being smarmy, believably going from terror to capability. Henwick, in a smaller role, likewise projects someone who has learned to cope well. Rooker has folksy charm, Greenblatt has energy, and Dan Ewing has his character’s wide-eyed aw-shucks manner down pat. Hero and Dodge jointly win the cast’s MVP award for playing Boy.

LOVE AND MONSTERS isn’t especially scary (if you’re looking to introduce youngsters to monster movies, this might be a safe gateway), its adventure side isn’t spine-tingling, and its humor is amusing rather than hilarious. However, it’s enjoyable and agreeable, both qualities that make it worth watching.

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