Joel Dawson is unlikely to be a dystopian stroke hero. He is friendly, insecure in almost every way, barely able to survive post-apocalyptic life, barely able to handle crossbows, and even more so freezes in the face of danger.
When such a person embarks on a week-long journey into a world full of deadly monsters, things are bound to turn out to be interesting, if somewhat predictable.
But lead actor Dylan O’Brien has the suitable charm to instill the audience in Joel’s story.
He rolls, stumbles, literally falls into the trench, but does not get discouraged and takes a few lessons along the way – for example, “not to settle down even though this is the end of the world,” and good instincts spring from error.
South African director Michael Matthews’ love and monsters are perhaps the funniest traits of the creature that appear after a while, and it makes him refreshing.
There are quite several monsters, but no dark clouds above this story. Joel is 17 years old and having a wonderful summer reunion with his high school girlfriend Amy (Jessica Henwick) when the world he knows ends in one fell swoop.
An asteroid fell to the ground, and people tried to fire missiles to destroy it. But while they managed to detonate the asteroid.
The chemicals emitted by the missile turned insects, birds, and sea animals into giant deadly mutants that wiped out 95 percent of the population, including their mothers. Survivors like Joel had to retreat to underground bunkers called colonies.
These seven years of hidden existence seem to have set everyone’s lives into patterns, and some have even managed to find romantic partners in their introverted existence. But Joel remains a heartbroken loner who keeps a sketchbook of the monsters he’s heard of and records their strengths and witnesses.
Other times he tried to radio Amy’s colony. After many failed attempts, she found success one sunny day and heard her voice seven years later. It didn’t take long before Joel made the unusual decision to travel the 85 miles to meet him.
With no survival skills, no direction – he didn’t even know where to go west – he left, driven by nothing but romantic naivety. The journey is, of course, important. A lot happened – they shaved very close to the drooling monsters and some friendly monsters.
They were surviving strange friends Clyde (Michael Rucker) and Minow (Ariana Greenblatt). Who took him under their wing until they had to part; the Mav1s sensitive robot gives the patients. The ears that last 15 minutes of battery life. And the friendly dog she calls boys, who are her loyal helpers.
Aside from monsters, there was one thing that connected them all – losses.
Among the calmer and gentler sequences in the film is a scene where he shares his vulnerability with Mav1, who sits with a ghost on the street and is surrounded by glowing jellyfish floating in the low air – Mav1 calls them “heavenly jellyfish”.
The moment is not missing from Joel. “It’s great when nobody’s trying to kill you,” he said. The director uses humor well in the film and especially in this scene, primarily when the robot lists the possible outcome of Joel’s best to worst trip with just the right amount of happy optimism.
Although the film is set in an imaginary world, Matthews views romance from a realistic perspective. Love doesn’t conquer everyone, and big gestures can only be majesty in your head – this is the message the film seems to carry.
Joel plans his big move to free Amy and forgets to consider the power of time to change circumstances and people so they won’t come back. And in the final act of the film, we also learn that while mutant monsters can’t hold back, humans should be the most afraid.