The makers of Love and Monsters couldn’t possibly have guessed the thematic resonance their movie would have by the time of release, and that’s not necessarily for the best. It depicts a world that has become so dangerous outside that everyone stays inside in bunkers and secure locations. And the danger — in this case large mutant bugs and wildlife — is the result of man’s hubris.
But then the movie’s thesis is, essentially, don’t stay inside and be afraid. It’s better to go outside and risk life and limb, and maybe the monsters can even be defeated. Any similarity to the sentiments of pandemic anti-maskers is probably coincidental. But of course life’s not a movie. Staying inside may seem a lot safer, and in real life it is — that this big studio feature is debuting Friday on home platforms attests to that. Yet there’s no monster movie if people don’t go outside and fight monsters at some point.
More likely, director Michael Matthews and writer Brian Duffield just wanted to make their own Zombieland. So much so, in fact, that the main four characters are almost exactly the same. There’s the nerdy protagonist who obsessively catalogues every detail of the new world for survival pointers (Dylan O’Brien). The smart, tough love interest (Jessica Henwick). The survivalist good ol’ boy in a big hat (Michael Rooker), and of course the precocious little girl (Ariana Greenblatt). In this case there’s also a dog, who gets his own subplot involving a red dress that bizarrely never pays off.
O’Brien’s Joel lives in a bunker where everyone but him has coupled up. He also talks to his pre-apocalypse girlfriend Aimee (Henwick), who’s at another colony, over the radio. Embarrassed that he proves to be useless when giant ants start breaching the perimeter, Joel decides he’s tired of being scared. And he wants to make good on his early apocalypse promise to find Aimee. Joel’s colony mates suggest that he should run and hide from trouble, due to his unfortunate proclivity for freezing in the face of danger.
Thus begins a solo journey toward the coast, with various monster confrontations and other human encounters like Rooker’s Clyde and his adopted daughter, Minnow. As in any good video game, this experience basically levels Joel up with skills for the final stage. Suffice to say, Aimee’s colony contains the biggest challenge yet, one that will require the use of all Joel’s accumulated knowledge.
Monster apocalypses are only fun if the monsters are actually visible. A fact that the recent Legendary Godzilla movies never quite seemed to grasp. Paramount shelled out the big bucks on this film, though, as almost all the fights take place in broad daylight. Thus the creatures remain fully visible in all their grotesque glory. Bearing enough resemblance to the real animals they’re meant to be mutated from, most also have just enough recognizable facial features that they can get scarily expressive. A giant crab is scary; a giant crab screaming in somebody’s face with angry eyes is even scarier. And each monster requires different techniques to kill, which automatically makes the action more diverse than a zombie apocalypse’s endless headshots.
O’Brien has to deliver a whole lot of comedic voice over, just like Jesse Eisenberg in Zombieland. Joel’s matter-of-fact even tone about the whole thing induces several laughs. Henwick gets the more thankless role of playing straight woman to mostly wacky characters. She is also adept at getting her ass kicked in the final fight. In contrast to Henwick’s better-known work in Netflix’s Marvel shows that usually had her on the giving end. Ariana Greenblatt seems the real find here. The attitude she gives Joel feels like legitimate pre-teen sass, with no excessive cuteness forced.
It’s also worth mentioning that in its patently absurd apocalypse origin story (which I won’t spoil) and the nature of the creatures, Love and Monsters often plays like a throwback to atomic age monster movies like Them! and Tarantula. The social subtext seems more muddled. If the film intends climate change or other pressing threats to subconsciously play in the background like nuclear war back then, it’s seriously unclear. Regardless of politics, everyone with a pulse can enjoy a good giant critter-killing flick.
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