Love & Monsters is Dylan O’Brien’s breakout movie, and it proves that the actor is ready for bigger roles than The Maze Runner. O’Brien shot to fame with his portrayal of the sarcastic sidekick Stiles Stilinski on the MTV series Teen Wolf but on the big screen, O’Brien never quite received the same recognition.
O’Brien does already have a number of leading performances on his CV prior to Love & Monsters. Along with The Maze Runner trilogy, in which he played protagonist Thomas, the actor starred in the action thriller American Assassin which was released in 2017. Both were franchises, or attempted franchises in the case of American Assassin, that never landed as intended with audiences. Neither movie was outright panned, and both have their bright spots, but reviews were lukewarm and box office tallies weren’t encouraging. When it came to O’Brien, there was a general agreement that both movies failed to play to the young performer’s strengths. The opposite is true for Love & Monsters, which is directed by Michael Matthews. The post-apocalyptic adventure is headlined by O’Brien as the nebbish Joel, who embarks on a dangerous journey in an attempt to reunite with his high school sweetheart.
Since the release of Love & Monsters, a consensus has emerged that O’Brien is the film’s strongest asset. Plenty of responses, including Screen Rant’s review of Love & Monsters, makes note of how O’Brien’s charm elevates the Paramount picture. Joel is on screen almost from beginning to end, sharing scenes most significantly with a dog and a talking robot. Given this setup, it requires the actor to do a fair amount of heavy lifting. O’Brien more than rises to the occasion, embodying Joel with an innate sense of likability which helps viewers in rooting for the character to survive his encounters with a host of creepy-looking creatures. It’s a world of difference from Maze Runner and American Assassin, which obscured O’Brien’s charisma under a fog of self-seriousness.
This would seem to be by design, as both Maze Runner and American Assassin were the kinds of blockbusters that don’t lend themselves easily to being a performer’s showcase. Both movies were happy to rely on the familiarity that O’Brien built on Teen Wolf for marketing purposes, but he was ultimately secondary to genre cliches. Thomas, as well as American Assassin persona Mitch Rapp, were ciphers that existed to move the plot forward. The gap between O’Brien’s latest role and his previous leading roles would be comparable to the difference between watching Chris Hemsworth in Extraction, which is primarily focused on delivering memorable action setpieces, and then seeing Hemsworth in Thor: Ragnarok. The third Thor installment was much more invested in allowing the MCU stalwart to stand out which helped in revealing more layers to the God of Thunder.
Similarly, the narrative spirit of Love & Monsters allows O’Brien room to explore the trauma that Joel has suffered. While it’s hardly a somber experience, Love & Monsters does not aim to be as consistently hilarious as Zombieland. The two survival comedies have been rightly compared, though Matthews’ feature is noticeably more reflective. The best scene, arguably, comes when Joel is reminiscing with that talking robot about everything he’s lost since oversized ants took over the Earth. They sit together and watch the sky light up with glowing jellyfish to the tune of “Stand By Me.” It’s beautiful and moving, and it probably would fall flat if O’Brien had failed in his portrayal of Joel.
Going forward, O’Brien has said he plans to take on more independent films that would give him the opportunity to further explore complex narratives and unusual worlds. He’s set to star in the psychological thriller The Education of Fredrick Fitzell, in addition to leading a Vietnam war movie directed by Oscar winner Peter Farrelly. Love & Monsters, more than anything, serves as a sign that O’Brien is off to a great start.