It’s the end of the world as Joel (Dylan O’Brien) knows it and, despite living in an underground bunker for seven years to evade the gigantic mutant reptiles, insects and amphibians that now roam the earth’s surface, he feels surprisingly fine. Michael Matthews’ cheerfully PG-13 adventure comedy quickly dispenses with any notional topicality threatened by its premise (it would be a reach to relate the comet-strike/radiation quandary faced by humanity in its opening moments to our current deeply uncool and uncinematic global disaster), but that’s all for the best. It leaves “Love and Monsters” free to get on with its splattery creature effects and silly but satisfying hero’s journey entirely unencumbered by importance.
Abetted by a disarming, charming O’Brien, liberated from the dourness of the last dystopia he battled in the “Maze Runner” movies, Matthews delivers a daffily lightweight throwback to the teen action-adventures of the ’80s and ’90s. Back then, it was more or less routine to summon entire apocalypses into being solely to provide some awkward white American kid with an obstacle course on which to Prove Himself. So when the previously un-kickass Joel splutters triumphantly “I feel like Tom Cruise!” having tossed a grenade into the maw of some slavering beastie, it’s a mark of the film’s benevolent, infectiously simplistic worldview that we can take it at face value. In “Love and Monsters,” love is good, monsters are bad and feeling like Tom Cruise is “awesome.”
In a self-deprecating voiceover, Joel brings us up to speed, with the aid of some pencil-drawn animations (he is more talented with coloring pencil than with crossbow). In an effort to deflect an approaching comet, missiles were sent up, which worked fine except the irradiated fragments then dropped down to earth and instantly mutated all cold-blooded creatures — cockroaches, worms, crabs, etc. — into massive, human-hungry monsters. Seventeen-year-old Joel was out canoodling with his girlfriend Aimee (Jessica Henwick) when disaster struck. They got separated, he witnessed his parents’ deaths, and since then he has lived underground as the sole single guy in a colony of loved-up (exclusively heterosexual) couples. Due to his tendency to freeze in the face of danger, Joel’s been left in charge of milking the cow, fixing the radio and cooking the minestrone, while the more vigorous colony members go on perilous overground forays for food and supplies. Charitably, we can infer that this overly protective environment has somewhat arrested his development; the weirdest thing about “Love and Monsters” might just be that Joel is supposedly the ripe old age of 24 while most of it is happening.
Recently, Joel managed to locate Aimee’s colony on the radio, and one day (it’s not very well articulated why now exactly), deaf to the entreaties of his colony “family,” he embarks on the kamikaze 85-mile journey to her coastal enclave. Soon he teams up with an excellent dog named Boy, then he encounters grizzled old-timer Clyde (Michael Rooker) and his precocious 8-year-old sidekick Minnow (an excellent Ariana Greenblatt). They teach him some sterling lessons in survival, as he’s assailed by a Harkonnen-like frog the size of a compact car, a mutant crustacean that would keep Maryland in crabcakes for a year, nasty underground worm-critters Minnow dubs “Sand Gobblers” and a slow-moving but insatiable final boss monster known as a “Chumbler.”
Brian Duffield and Matthew Robinson’s screenplay was apparently written on spec, but the familiar story feels like it was based on pre-existing material. That’s largely due to Matthews’ unapologetic, affectionate appropriation of other films from the post-apocalyptic and coming-of-age genres, the sum total of which represent a kind of smorgasbord of what “Love and Monsters” is going for. Joel and Boy are reminiscent of the equivalent “iconic duo” (as Joel dubs them) from “I Am Legend,” and even the dog’s name seems a winking reference to 1975’s “A Boy and His Dog,” a far nastier, grimier tale of a human-canine pair traversing a mutant-infested wasteland on a much less wholesome quest for female companionship. When Joel teams up with Clyde and Minnow, the film briefly becomes “Zombieland.” The subterranean monsters inevitably recall “Tremors.” And when Joel encounters a working MAV1S (a helper robot that feels like a subplot that got curtailed in the final pass) and it plays Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me,” sure enough, just a few scenes later, echoing Rob Reiner’s touchstone film of the same name, Joel emerges from a river covered in leeches — though these are of the fist-sized poisonously psychedelic kind.
The creature design team obviously had a good time. It’s a relief to encounter such varied and pleasingly lo-fi monsters in an age when everything else seems to be a riff on the “Cloverfield” thingamajig. And as slimy, toothy and gross as the creatures often are, Lachlan Milne’s sprightly photography and Marco Beltrami and Marcus Trumpp’s scrupulously generic “let’s go on an adventure!” score never allow for things to get too dark. It’s all quite forgettable, but in the moment so goodnatured that even the hopeful little “Hi! We could do a sequel!” hooks carefully planted throughout can’t spoil the fun. In fact, a sequel seems quite an appealing prospect, if we can just, as a civilization, make it our noble, quixotic mission to survive that long.