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After spending seven years as the only single dude in a survival bunker full of couples, maybe the prospect of a thrilling, quick death wasn’t so horrible. Playing like a family-friendly, less funny take on the template set by Zombieland, Michael Matthews’ follow-up to the well-liked Five Fingers for Marseilles boasts some fine action sequences and inspired beasties; adding first-love nostalgia to the mix ensures it will press enough buttons for enough viewers to be a living-room Halloween success.
Suggesting a milder version of Charlie Day, Dylan O’Brien plays Joel, a 24-year-old who was 17 when the world ended. Earth’s nations joined forces to destroy an incoming asteroid, but the toxic fallout from all the nukes they shot at it turned animals worldwide into giant, distorted monsters. Why weren’t humans similarly transformed? Brian Duffield and Matthew Robinson’s script neither knows nor cares. But 95% of the population was killed within a year, with survivors hunkered down in subterranean colonies that interact only via radio.
Tragically, all this happened just as Joel was bonding sweetly with Aimee (Jessica Henwick). The two were separated in the chaos, but he recently discovered she survived: Having made contact with her colony and heard her voice on the radio, Joel impulsively decides to leave safety and make an 85-mile trek so he can finally reunite with her.
Two big concerns will arise immediately for viewers. But Joel’s bunker mates skip “hey, did you ask her if she’s got a boyfriend?” and lean hard into “dude, you’re definitely going to die before you get there.” And they’re right. He’s a good guy, but he invariably freezes under pressure and has no experience defending himself. They try and fail, to talk him out of it.
Once he’s above ground, the movie hits its falsest notes, pretending that Joel (who doesn’t even know which way he’s going, a fact the script breezes past) would dawdle around the countryside instead of making a panicked beeline from one hiding place to the next. This holiday from narrative logic allows the filmmakers to introduce Joel to a brown mutt named Boy, who’ll steer him away from danger on many occasions and get him into trouble on a few others.
Matthews recovers his sense of the scenario’s dangers soon enough, building exciting scenes around encounters with mutated versions of centipedes, frogs, crabs, and the like. Design and FX teams do good work here, balancing the ick factor and unpredictable mutations with occasional notes of cuteness: As it turns out, not every one of the monsters out here burns with murderous intent.
That’s a lesson Joel learns from two other survivors he meets, Clyde (Michael Rooker) and Minnow (Ariana Greenblatt). Tolerant of his inadequacies (though the 8-year-old Minnow amusingly busts his chops), they give him a crash course on survival as they join him for part of his journey. By the time he reaches Aimee’s beachside shelter, he’s practically a manly man. (Well…)
The movie’s last act offers complications both expected and surprising. For the most part, it satisfies, especially in what proves to be the pic’s most elaborate action sequence. But likability carries it only so far, and an attempt to set Joel up as the inspiration for a “let’s take back the planet” effort (and the corresponding nods toward a sequel) is too big a stretch — even in a world where luminous jellyfish float through the sky.
In conclusion, I really enjoyed this little monster movie, although I didn’t think I would enjoy it as much as I did. It’s not just for the younger population because us old folks can enjoy it too.
Production company: 21 Laps
Distributor: Paramount Pictures (Available Friday, October 16, on Premium VOD)
Cast: Dylan O’Brien, Jessica Henwick, Michael Rooker, Ariana Greenblatt, Dan Ewing
Director: Michael Matthews
Screenwriters: Brian Duffield, Matthew Robinson
Producers: Dan Cohen, Shawn Levy
Executive producer: John H. Starke
Director of photography: Lachlan Milne
Production designers: Dan Hennah, Eugene Intas, Erin Magill
Costume designer: Luis Sequeira
Editors: Debbie Berman, Nancy Richardson
Composers: Marco Beltrami, Marcus Trumpp
Casting directors: Joseph Middleton, Janelle Scuderi
PG-13, 108 minutes
Edited via The Hollywood Reporter