Double Feature

Flawed Victories April 27, 2021 

  

On Love and Monsters and Mortal Kombat

T

he world might have been A-OK if not for those meddling humans. Seven years ago, we’re told during the prologue of the charming, if insignificant, adventure

comedy Love and Monsters, an asteroid was headed straight for Earth — and out of paranoia a sea of rockets was shot at it in an attempt to divert its course. It seemed to work at first — then came the monsters. As the movie’s protagonist, still-boyish 24-year-old Joel (Dylan O’Brien), explains via voiceover, the chemical compounds that resultantly rained back down shortly afterward remixed the animal kingdom as we’ve come to know it.

Now, most non-human creatures have morphed to expand in size and girth to classic kaiju. Almost every one of them — even the plant-eaters — has a brand-new proclivity to kill anything that stands in their path. Worms have transformed into leech-like squirmies the size of boa constrictors. Moles have become

Dylan O'Brien and friend in 2020's Love and Monsters.

the land equivalent of a Great White Shark. Snails — on the bright side still uninterested in doing much else besides destroying greenery — have shells the sizes of boulders. (Be sure to double-check if that rock you’re leaning on while taking a break on this hillside walk is attached to anything.) Jellyfish have evolved to roam the skies; they’re large enough to look like cotton-candy-colored clouds if you’re not looking closely. This new world is like a punch bowl all the creature features of the 1950s threw up in. 

 

Ever since the events of Love and Monsters’ nightmarish 2013, orphaned Joel has lived in a bunker with a cluster of other survivors. Only about 5 percent of the human population remains; how many factions like his exist? Everybody loves each other a lot in this makeshift family (although screenwriters Brian Duffield and Matthew Robinson permit us basically no time with any of its members), but Joel can’t help but feel like an outsider. He tends to freeze up when a monster crosses his path, so when his fellow survivors every so often trek out to kill an approaching beast he’s the one who has to stay behind. (Useless in most situations, Joel has been assigned by default the role of the encampment’s chef; he makes a mean minestrone soup, we’re told.) And everyone in this apparently heterosexual-only colony has found a soulmate except for Joel, who has yet to get over his girlfriend from all those years ago, Aimee (Jessica Henwick). To keep himself company, he writes out diary entries as if they were letters to her; the first girl he ever said “I love you” to is still vivid in his memories. 

 

Aside from meticulously tending to a field guide that has impressively detailed drawings of the monsters he’s encountered in his life, Joel doesn’t feel like he has a purpose. Then, early in the movie, he discovers Aimee has also survived when he manages to contact her over the radio. It isn’t that bad a walk to get to where she is if he dared to go — just 85 miles across a landscape where everything wants to kill you. He concludes that he has to venture out to see her, despite not asking her ahead of time what she thinks about such a move. Joel would rather die trying to get closer to a fulfilling life than continue wasting away. One just hopes the strategy his new-world loved ones always reiterate to him — “don’t fight: just run and hide” — can consistently work across unfamiliar terrain. 
   

One bothersome inconsistency in the world-building aside (unless you consider the one jellyfish school hundreds of examples, Joel confronts less than 10 monsters in the film’s entirety — wouldn’t there be swarms more according to the film’s science?), Love and Monsters is a perfectly amusing fantasy that makes the most of O’Brien’s neurotic charisma. I cannot, however, imagine many thinking about it for very long; I expect my brain to do the same thing it did to make me forget Dylan O’Brien had in the early-to-mid-2010s been at the center of not one but two commercially successful YA series (MTV’s Teen Wolf and 20th Century Fox’s Maze Runner franchise). Love and Monsters is neither generic nor transcendent: it's simply a film about love and monsters that has both a pretty good love story (O’Brien and Henwick have believably bittersweet chemistry) and pretty good monsters. It gives you what it promises with just-creative-enough flair; it’s an amiable summer blockbuster (though COVID has changed the meaning of that) that doesn’t make you feel cheated. When Joel sputters that he feels like Tom Cruise after improbably defeating a monster pursuant, we think about how the movie is about as efficient as a non-Mission: Impossible action film Cruise would potentially dip his toe into. Which is to say not that great, but also charming enough to make you happy to have watched it.

 

Love and Monsters has some additional heartfelt bonuses. Joel procures a sweet dog with beautiful brown and gold markings partway through his journey, and they develop a genuinely emotionally investing friendship. He also temporarily travels alongside an older survivor and an 8-year-old girl he has essentially adopted (Michael Rooker and Ariana Greenblatt). We almost want Joel to stick around with this funny, tough-love duo more than we want him to finish up this love quest toward a woman who doesn’t even know he’s on his way. These side characters don’t give much to the movie except for some supplemental emotional resonance (and some new survival tips to offer Joel). Still, we’re glad to have them around for the time being — kind of like Love and Monsters as a Friday-night diversion. 

T

he new Mortal Kombat movie, now on HBO Max, is in contrast to Love and Monsters thoroughly and unambiguously generic; when its closing credits begin it’s likely many viewers will think of it less as a satisfying

self-contained story and more a couple of hours worth of set-up. (The filmmakers seem even readier for Mortal Kombat 2 than what they’re currently working with.) But because all I really wanted from this movie was a few exciting-enough fight sequences with a comically excessive amount of gore and was given precisely that, nitpicking what’s bad about it isn’t that enticing — it effectively achieves the fundamental of garish, slickly staged violence. Neither the writing nor acting is very good, but was anyone anticipating either to rise above “passable”? Although all of them are overedited, there wasn’t a melee in Mortal Kombat 

I wasn’t at minimum a little thrilled by; the bloodshed is cheekily over-the-top. Faces are sawed in half, arms summarily ripped off, hearts torn from chests; blood leakages are even turned into icicles with which to stab. When one antagonist receives a blow to the stomach, the resulting wound makes them look like a human doughnut, though for laughs the special effects artists leave in the sight of a spine newly exposed to the elements still wet with gut residue. 

 

What there is of a storyline is predictably perfunctory. It mostly involves erstwhile MMA fighter and MK franchise newcomer Cole Young (Lewis Tan), now languishing on the local combat circuit, discovering his connection to the ancient fight tournament Mortal Kombat — a competition that pits chosen earthlings against foes from an alternate universe called the Outworld. Young’s “journey” begins after he and his family are attacked by a mysterious man named Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim) as good at throwing punches as he is turning people into human ice sculptures. His beef with Young is ancestral, though the latter won’t know that for a while. (Finally Young will discover why his chest birthmark is shaped like a reptile-museum logo.) There is increased urgency to Mortal Kombat 2021 because Outworld fighters have apparently won the last nine competitions, and if they win a 10th this universe could infiltrate Earth. 

 

Action henceforth is regular — any conventionally dramatic scenes to chop it up are so comparatively dull that one might disassociate during them  — as are introductions to the characters which defined the video game. (Save for Johnny Cage, who is teased at the end of the movie to entice viewers to watch the sequel if it so happens to come, we meet new iterations of Sonya Blade, Kano, Liu Kang, Shang Tsung, and others; I’m only passingly familiar with the game, which I’ve never played, but my Kombat-playing friends expressed excitement when certain characters stepped up.) Disappointingly, there is no climactic tournament in Mortal Kombat 2021 — a deletion that has understandably frustrated many. But the ride up is fun enough that it’s a fatality I can live with. 

Love and Monsters: B

Mortal Kombat: B