It’s tough enough for Joel (The Maze Runner‘s Dylan O’Brien) to get some alone time with Aimee (Jessica Henwick), the young woman he’s smitten with, on a good day. Throw in an apocalypse with giant monsters roaming the land and munching on anyone who crosses their path? Forget about it. Once upon a time, there was an asteroid heading toward our planet that threatened to wipe out all of humanity. The good news is that, having learned a lot from endless viewings of Armageddon, the people of Earth quickly fired a ton of missiles at the space rock and blew it to smithereens. The bad news is that the resulting cosmic debris raining down from said explosion caused insects, crabs, fish, lizards and other cold-blooded animals to mutate into gargantuan man-eating predators. This new development admittedly makes it little hard to nuzzle in the back seat of a car when 20-foot cockroaches are attacking your vehicle.
Still, in between helping his fellow survivors defend their underground bunker and cooking for the “colony” — the kid makes a killer minestrone — Joel can’t stop thinking about the girlfriend who he last saw fleeing for her life. He eventually tracks Aimee down via radio, and discovers that she’s nestled with her own group out west. It’s 85 miles away and a seven-day trek from Joel’s location. But if fighting off toads the size of Toyotas is the new normal, he’d prefer to spend the end days with her. Never mind that he has a bad habit of freezing under pressure. This sad sack is going to facilitate an in-person reunion or literally die tryin’.
A sort of incurable romantic’s guide to the apocalypse — think “putting the love back into Cloverfield” — this crowd-friendly creature feature plays like one-stop multiplex shopping: What if you melded an Apatovian-schlub rom-com onto a dystopic YA sci-fi adventure? O’Brien is the guy you hire when you want likable and inoffensive, which are the two qualities he brings to hapless no-man’s-land traveler. He eventually meets several companions on his journey, including a scrappy dog, a robot named Mav1s who’s down to her last few ounces of battery power and a rugged older gentlemen/prepubescent girl duo wandering the wastelands. (Just in case those early colony scenes didn’t already give you an extremely The Walking Dead-lite feel, the fact that this survivalist father figure is played by Michael Rooker, a.k.a. TWD‘s Merle Dixon, should do the trick.) Through all of his encounters with strangers and chirpy android allies, beasts both friendly and ferocious and five-stories-high, his Joel toggles between petrified and persevering. You believe he’s the kind of human-vanilla-wafer of a hero who’d both brave dangers to see the object of his affection and be dismissed or taken for granted by almost everyone around him.
That’s a pretty apt description of Love and Monsters overall as well. It has such a casual, kicking-back-no-big-deal approach to being a blockbuster with CGI behemoths, derring-do, late-act twists (when things seem too good to be true, they usually are) and set pieces involving crossbows, arm cannons and tridents that the thrills, spills and chills almost don’t register on the screen-spectacle Richter scale. The pitter-pattering of hearts provides as much momentum as the scurrying from stomping and chomping, though there’s little urgency to either. Filmmaker Michael Matthews (whose 2017 South African Western Five Fingers For Marseilles is a great example of how to make something familiar feel intriguingly fresh) isn’t one to rock the studio boat, though he’ll occasionally drop in a few left-field touches — a sky full of jellyfish set to “Stand By Me” sounds unwatchable on the page, and is both odd and oddly beautiful — that perk things up.
It’s a pity that, in this age of at-home viewing being both a necessity and a default, that Love and Monsters is primarily getting a push via PVOD — it’s not the kind of film that’d justify viewers paying a steep ticket price in “normal” times, yet it’s actually the exact sort of film that would play a lot better in a drive-in. Some old-fashioned, cranked-up Cormanesque wattage from a large screen and honking car horns could give this innocuous love-in-the-time-of-killer-two-ton-crustaceans romp a jolt. As it is, this is a perfectly fine postapocalyptic mash-up that really is just the sum of its parts, and nowhere near a gleeful, shriek-inducing whole. For some, that might be considered a feature. For the rest of us, it’s most definitely a ginourmous, gaping-jawed bug.