LOVE AND MONSTERS is pretty much what the title says – the story of a lovestruck young man in a world of monsters. It takes place in a post-apocalyptic California, after 95% of the world’s population of humans has died off and the survivors live in small colonies hiding from giant bugs and reptiles. The filmmakers are wise enough to know that explaining that too thoroughly is for assholes, so it gets brushed over in a couple minutes of introductory narration from our protagonist, Joel (Dylan O’Brien, AMERICAN ASSASSIN). Something about an asteroid that we shot with missiles but then the missiles rained chemicals down that mutated cold blooded creatures. The after effects are depicted in news footage, Joel’s drawings, plus some clippings, such as the front page newspaper story “WHITE HOUSE IN CRISIS: PRESIDENT KILLED BY GIANT MOTH.”
When the shit pops off in his home town of Fairfield, Joel is at the make out spot, just crawling into the back seat with his adorable girlfriend Aimee (Jessica Henwick, “Bugs” from THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS). Tragic and also convenient for us to get a wide shot of the chaos. The two have to hurriedly say goodbye before Joel evacuates with his parents (Andrew Buchanan [DRIVE HARD] and Tandi Wright [PEARL]). The pain of teen romance cut short by a move (in this case due to monster attacks rather than starting college or a parent having a career change) is palpable.
Seven years later the parents are no more and he’s living in an underground bunker called Colony 7045, which he says isn’t too bad. “It’s kinda what I imagined college would have been like.” But it’s a college where he doesn’t quite fit in. Everyone else in the colony is paired up, and also they’re better at fighting off the bugs or scavenging, because he always freezes up when in danger. They obviously find him annoying, make him stay home and be the chef (heat up canned soup), so he feels useless and in the way.
But after contacting 90 different colonies on the radio he finally found Aimee, who’s running Colony 3022, about 85 miles away. And he decides to take the seven day journey to get there on foot.
First his colony think he’s joking, then they think he’s crazy, then they give him supplies, tips, encouragement, and hugs. It would be easy to go for a joke about them being eager to get rid of him, but this is a better movie than that.
As he travels on foot with his bag and crossbow we see remnants of the old world (wrecked tanks, burnt buses, dilapidated buildings, an abandoned Frisbee) and signs of the new one (strange webs, eggs, hives). His first dangerous encounter is with a frog creature bigger than a van that comes out of a pond and shoots its long tongue at him. Luckily a dog intervenes, attacking the tongue and leading Joel to safety.
Without being anthropomorphic the dog communicates a tragic backstory by bringing Joel to an old bus, once decorated and lived in by a person, who wrote his name (Boy) above his dog bed. Boy sleeps with and zealously protects a red dress, his most cherished possession. But whoever wore it is gone now, so he goes with Joel.
I haven’t seen the MAZE RUNNER movies or the Teen Wolf show so I hadn’t seen much of O’Brien, didn’t know he was funny. Joel is a relatably well-meaning fuck up who awkwardly tries to put a positive spin on things, pretends he’s doing well. He reminds me of a character Jay Baruchel would play, and some of the little things he mutters to himself or to Boy really make me laugh, like when he falls into a pit where worm monsters called sand-gobblers nest, and his first response is to half whisper to himself “I fell in a hole.”
Luckily Joel and Boy meet two experienced nomads, Clyde (Michael Rooker, REPLICANT) and 8-year-old Minnow (Ariana Greenblatt, who was the sullen teen in BARBIE, young Gamora in AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, and young Ahsoka in Ahsoka). There’s a funny running gag that everyone who meets him assumes he was kicked out of his colony for being a “food stealer.” They see how terrible his survival skills are but they’re going the same direction part of the way so they travel together, Clyde teaches him how to handle various creatures (which he documents with drawings in his notebook) and Minnow gives him crossbow lessons. Joel is always embarrassing himself in front of them, but Clyde is impressed when he learns he’s from Fairfield, because it was pretty much ground zero and very few people got out of there.
It’s a nice friendship built over a relatively small amount of screen time, and it’s very sweet that Minnow is sad when they have to part ways. It’s also kind of refreshing to see a post-apocalypse story go this long without having to deal with unsavory individuals (like the one Rooker himself played in season 1 of The Walking Dead).
One little episode in Joel’s adventure that’s unique for the genre is when he spends the night in an old motel where he finds a robot called MAV1S (voice of Melanie Zanetti, BATTLE OF THE DAMNED, the mom from Bluey). This model of robot seems to have been a fresh new fad right when the shit came down, and Joel had a broken one back at the colony, but has never seen one working before. MAV1S tells him when her legs were bit off she powered down and conserved her battery power hoping someone would come along – and here he is. She’s kind of like a Siri with a little M3GAN and Teddy Ruxpin – she gives him too much information in a saccharine voice, squints with animated LED eyes, looks him up on the internet and shows him photos of his parents on her face. She’s comically unsettling, but he’s always wanted to see a MAV1S, she’s a symbol of the old world, and she does seem pretty human, so it’s beautiful that they get to sit on the porch together at night, watching fluorescent “sky jellies” fly over as she plays “Stand By Me” on her speaker until her battery dies (and her with it).
Unlike Joel, Aimee is an overachiever. She’s running her beach front colony, and it seems almost like being the manager of a building, or even a retirement home, since most of her group are older (including a brief appearance by the gyro captain himself, Bruce Spence, as “Old Pete”). Joel arrives shortly after someone they keep calling the “yacht captain” (Dan Ewing, Power Rangers RPM), a handsome Australian who showed up on a large boat with his crew Dana (Ellen Hollman, ROAD HOUSE 2: LAST CALL) and Rocko (Tre Hale, Platonic), has impressed everybody with his home brewed beer and is promising to bring them somewhere safer. Joel at first sees Cap as a romantic threat before realizing oh shit, these are those bad guy humans you expect in a post-apocalypse.
I think the climax brings everything together just right. It’s bigger than what came before, but not that much bigger. It’s still down to earth, it seems reasonably achievable for a recently reformed slacker like Joel. He uses his newfound bravery and battle semi-competence, plus several different things he learned on his journey through encounters with and conversations about the different creatures. It’s a victory won through knowledge and empathy rather than killing. But also there’s some killing, and a final monster that looks really cool and full of personality.
I really think the character-based laughs and emotions are the main attraction here, but I’ve undersold how delightful it is just on the basis of its monsters. There are probly some puppets but they’re mostly very high quality animation, designs that are slimy and goofy and fun to look at, not at all generic, and with lots of texture and weight to them. Like Ray Harryhausen creatures they don’t just rage, they are animals. In an Indiewire story, animation supervisor Matt Everitt explained, “A lot of them are just horrified and confused about what’s happened to them. They don’t know what to do and are just reacting as a bug would.”
The article says there are thirteen unique creatures represented, everything from a Queen Sand-Gobbler that chases him underground like a TREMORS graboid to a friendly “Boulder Snail” that reminds me of something out of THE NEVERENDING STORY. They were so well done they managed to nab this fairly obscure movie an Oscar nomination for Best Visual Effects. By the way, visual effects supervisor Matt Sloan (THE MARTIAN, THE PREDATOR), happens to have played Jedi Master Plo Koon in ATTACK OF THE CLONES and REVENGE OF THE SITH, which means he recruited little Ahsoka Tano to the Jedi order. For those keeping track.
So the monsters are great, and the “love” part is handled well too because Henwick as Aimee is so magnetic (and she gets to do a little action, making her even more desirable), they have a real chemistry, yet it realistically acknowledges that they’ve grown into different people and it was stupid for him to assume they could just pick right up where they left off. He learns that whether or not that works out the important thing is that he got off his ass and got out there, working toward achieving his dream, growing through the experiences and friendships on his journey. An obvious but appealing metaphor.
LOVE AND MONSTERS started as a spec script by Brian Duffield, sold to Paramount way back in 2012. Ultimately it was revised by Matthew Robinson (MONSTER TRUCKS) and directed by Michael Matthews (FIVE FINGERS FOR MARSEILLES) for release in 2020. In the eight intervening years Duffield wrote one of the DIVERGENT movies, his original scripts for JANE GOT A GUN, THE BABYSITTER and UNDERWATER all became movies that I enjoyed, and some of LOVE AND MONSTERS’ themes of longing and finding happiness as the world falls apart became freshly relevant to COVID-19 lockdown. Unfortunately that meant Paramount couldn’t give it much of a push, postponing it a few times before releasing it simultaneously on VOD and 387 screens before theaters had reopened in many parts of the country.
But now we see why the world needs a post-apocalypse movie with a positive attitude. I’ve watched it twice now and I’d do it again. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys love and/or monsters.