Love And Monsters
Is it just me, or did the market for young adult dystopia movies just have it’s bottom fall out and vanish? Even before COVID wrecked the industry, it seemed like that once all-powerful train had run out of steam, having been slowly chugging to a halt since The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part Two, rapidly overtaken by the rise to dominance of Marvel over the box office. That and I suppose the very best, and most adaptable, of the genre properties had already been done. Where to go from there?
Well, I suppose you just start to write them for the screen directly, and it seemed to me that this was what Love And Monsters pretty much was. You have many of the required plot-points for the sub-genre in place: an apocalyptic setting with lots of avenues for a mix of action-adventure and horror; a protagonist ripe for a coming-of-age story (played by the lead from The Maze Runner franchise), right down to being an orphan of Armageddon; the love interest that he’s striving for, who has her own tragic backstory; a host of what looked like archetypal characters; a journey to make. Yes, many films have similar points in them, but Love And Monsters had that YAD feel for sure, in its sense of teenage-esque pessimism mixed with idealism. Good reviews had me more interested than I might otherwise have been, but was it worth watching?
Seven years after a catastrophe mutated cold-blooded creatures to giant size, causing the deaths of 95% of the human population, Joel (Dylan O’Brien) lives in a bunker colony with a small number of other survivors. Haunted by his own fear of the monsters outside and crippled by loneliness, he determines to leave the bunker and take a risky solo trip to a coastal colony where he hopes to re-unite with Aimee (Jessica Henwick), the girl he loved before the apocalypse; but the journey will change him more than he realises.
I did kind of love this film. Love And Monsters has its flaws that I will get into it, but it does so much right, and crafts a universe so complete, that it’s almost hard to believe that it isn’t based on some kind of written property. YAD felt pretty tired and played out before I saw this movie, but not so much anymore: Love And Monsters proves that their life (and giant insects) in the old girl yet.
Like the best kind of cci-fi, Love And Monsters succeeds by wrapping some very human characters and some very relatable problems in an extreme setting. That problem is basically loneliness, which can strike in normal circumstances, and when giant ants are crashing into your bunker: Joel, a guy suffering through a bit of arrested development, can’t stand that he is the odd man out in his own colony, with everyone else having hooked up with someone. You could set this film in a college campus, in a high school, anywhere really, and still get the same feeling: the monsters are just set-dressing really. The point of the film is Joel dealing with that loneliness, and whether he is doing so in a positive manner (spoiler: he isn’t).
In the early looks of a young man who has to listen to other copulating, in the middle section as he balances his growing experiences in a harsh outside world with this idealistic dream of hooking up with a lost love, and in later sections when Joel has to really evaluate what it is he is really looking for, Love And Monsters handles this theme with a maturity and insight that I was not expecting. There’s also a commentary on the nature of worth and self-perception when it comes to the same: at every turn the film is at pains to present situations where Joel does not fully realise what he brings to the table, only belatedly seeing the truth. Feelings of uselessness can be as poisonous as loneliness, and the mixture is as dangerous as a giant ant: that’s a potent theme for this day and age, connected to another through line lesson of “Don’t Settle”. Joel thinks he’s embracing that idea when he leaves his bunker, but it takes a lot of life (and death) experience for him to realise there is more to it then that.
When it comes to credit a lot of it has to go to the cast, namely the leading pair. It would be easy for the Joel character to come off as very creepy, almost incel like (he’s basically lost his later teenage years and early twenties to a bunker life, so no wonder he’s obsessed with that one girl). He has to be pitched to the audience just right, but I think O’Brien does a really great job with him. He makes Joel actually rather charming: a well-meaning, if slightly repressed, goofball, who just wants to make a connection with someone. They could easily have taken this to a darker place, with Joel basically in “suicide by venturing outside” territory, but instead his effort to walk 85 miles to the coast is painted in tones of just wanting to live. Joel spends a lot of the film by himself, talking to himself – if you don’t count the dog – but he has an infectiously endearing quality that carries the day. On the other side Aimee could easily be a nothing character, just an object for Joel to coo over and chase, but through Henwick she comes into her own throughout the film, and has some excellent moments in the last act when she, in a gentle way, gets to outline to Joel that her life didn’t stop when she last saw him.
I think that’s kind of the core of why I liked Love And Monsters so much. It’s about male obsession in many ways, but manages to treat the subject with a degree of nuance. Joel may not be showing Aimee the proper respect in terms of her agency, but it’s made clear that his quest is not just some twisted sexual hang-up. He really thinks he’s in love with her, and wants to make that connection work again. At the same time, he’s not so far gone that he doesn’t have doubts, and the film never depicts him in a manner where we feel he’s going to take this “Aimee as Holy Grail” thing to an uncomfortable place. I don’t want to spoil the climax of the movie but suffice to say that both Joel and Aimee learn a few things about themselves they didn’t realise, and one of those is that star-crossed love is a bit more complicated than it may seem.
The film works well due to its supporting cast also. People drift in and out of the narrative as Joel heads west, but they tend to make an impact. There’s Michael Rooker and Ariana Greenblat as a wondering pair, where Rooker does better work as an unorthodox father figure than he ever did in Guardians Of The Galaxy 2 and where Greenblat forms a very easy back-and-forth with Joel that helps elevate him to more than just creepy bunker guy. There’s Dan Ewing as an Australian Navy veteran whose sudden arrival comes ahead of some darker developments in the film’s conclusion. Melanie Zanetti has a brief but exceedingly impactful cameo as a damaged robot. And there’s Hero and Dodge, playing Joel’s unexpectedly affecting canine companion Boy, who is heartbreakingly attached to a red dress belonging to his previous owner. While all of these characters could stand to have more of an involvement in the larger story, they all bring a little something different to the table, and there isn’t a bad performance from any of them. In the end the focus remains nearly always on Joel, and I think this is to the film’s credit: lone wanderers through a dystopia like this have been out of fashion in a world’s of superhero team-ups, so I appreciated the narrowing down of things.
The universe building here is of a kind that should be written down as a guide to other filmmakers in how to do it properly. Starting with a humorous recap of the catastrophe that doomed mankind, done with the aid of Joel’s drawings, we get tossed into a world where lizards, amphibians, crustaceans and insects have all become large, very large, and where mankind is now firmly to the lower end of the food chain. Director Michael Matthews, with writers Brian Duffield and Matthew Robinson, doesn’t overegg this too much, letting aspects of the this brave new world evolve naturally before our eyes: the life of humanity underground in bunkers, where a cow is a very valuable asset; smartphone-esque robots that are oh so helpful even when their batteries are dying; the necessity of having to choose between a hot meal or sleep (the #1 rule in the wilderness is “Not both”); distinguishing predatory creatures from the gentle ones by the eyes; poisonous critters, antidote flowers, lovable dogs, distant colonies and a hand-drawn book on how to identify them all, and their weaknesses (“Shotgun to the face, good to know” one character muses after reading a page). There’s a comfortableness in the way that all of this comes out, which I think might be to the credit of producer Shawn Levy and cinematographer Lachlan Milne, who pulled essentially the same thing in Stranger Things. All the while there is a delightful sense of wit and familiarity to proceedings: Love And Monsters takes itself just seriously enough, and just light enough, in the right measures at different moments.
There are a few problems that we need to talk about though, chief among them aspects of the films’ episodic nature. I’m certain Love And Monsters was a TV show at some point in its production, such is the way that every act seems to come with it’s own self-contained narrative, with Joel’s general journey to find Aimee the connecting thread. Establishing the universe and fighting off a giant ant in the first act, hooking up with Clyde and Minnow in the second, coming into his own in the third, there are some very good narratives there, but it starts to break down a bit in the last act especially, which introduces a brand new antagonist figure for Joel to deal with far too close to the end for them to be really effective. Indeed a lot of elements of the finale seem a tad rushed – Love And Monsters could certainly use a little bit more time to breathe, coming in at a concise 109 minutes – and as a result the resolution of the Joel/Aimee plot is a little confused. A sub-plot involving what we might call a psychological block within Joel’s head is also solved a little too easily.
Visually, Love And Monsters is surprisingly excellent. I say that as its distribution model probably shouldn’t mean you should get effects this good. The monsters of the title are very well realised, a seamlessly constructed mix of practical work and completer imagery probably more of the latter, but one appreciates the “real” touches. It would have been easy to simply blow up a bunch of bugs and lizards, but Love And Monsters makes sure to add the requisite mutations to make the obstacles that Joel faces truly scary. Only on a very small number of occasions do they not fit into the environment. Sets wise Love And Monsters is a wonder, with a great deal of care and attention put into the bunkers of humanity’s remnant, in the scattered detritus of civilisation, and even the flashback scenes set during the apocalypse. There’s a Spielbergian aspect to the way everything is married up – Jurassic Park was probably as much an inspiration as the more obvious Zombieland ties – and how the film takes the time for this brave new world to occasionally be more than just a horror-show: a quieter moment where Joel admires some bio-luminescent jellyfish alongside a dying robot makes that point.
I think it’s rare enough that you will find a film like this that seems to be able to make the most out of extremely cramped indoor spaces and extremely wide vistas outside. Scenes inside those bunkers are able to walk a very tight line between homely and claustrophobic (the latter when the creatures get inside) and the glorious surrounds of Gueensland’s Gold Coast are captured with an eye for dispelling agoraphobia. The lush greens of the real world provide an able contrast with the human experience underground, as does the sights of the ocean that dominate the last act. Love And Monsters is generally top notch all round on the visual front, and fully deserves the large amount kudos it has already received for its production, CGI and cinematography. The score, from Marco Beltrami and Marcus Trumpp, is simple enough really, but manages to add the required action/adventure beats when required in an effective manner, but is perhaps better when dipping into horror beats, with a metallic-sounding orchestral effects for some of the giant creepy-crawlies that are very memorable.
I really liked Love And Monsters. It’s got a great premise in a well-constructed world, some excellent visuals, a decent soundtrack and trips along very nicely. But the real reason that it is so good is the very human, very moving, beating heart of the film: a treatise on loneliness, warped expectations and the folly of young love, carried out to the best possible extent by two actors who prevent the film from being a much darker, and much less entrancing, thing than it nearly could have been. It’s the kind of sci-fi film that almost surprises you with it’s lack of connection to existing IP, which means that the writers deserve additional kudos. And for a world where we will hopefully soon face the scary prospect of venturing outside again, I can’t think of any films with a better allegorical pitch. I’d definitely watch another one of these if the production team has the time and space to make one: young adult dystopia has some life in it yet, if the sub-genre can keep pumping out offerings like these. Highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).