Tuesday, April 16, 2024

‘Love and Monsters’ Plays It Safe

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Love and Monsters is a light-hearted but ultimately frustrating post-apocalypse adventure. I’d say it’s a romantic comedy but there’s very little romance, despite the plot of the movie. To be honest, calling it a comedy seems sketchy since there are few laughs.

Thankfully, Micahel Matthews does a wonderful job of building a post-apocalypse world. Lately, post-apocalyptic worlds have been portrayed as either desert wastelands or desolated urban cities. But Matthews gives us pristine countryside, scattered with long-abandoned houses with overgrown foliage.

The scenery and even the monster designs are what keep the movie afloat for the most part. The design of the creatures, radiated mutated insects, are rendered well but most importantly have a vitality to them lacking in most large-scale creature features. It’s not Godzilla: King of the Monsters but few films are.

Joel Dawson (Dylan O’Brien) is the only person in his colony without a romantic or sexual partner. Oh, he had a girlfriend, Aimee (Jessica Henwick) before the apocalypse happened but they got separated and now he lives a monastic life of loneliness. They keep in touch over long distance ham radio and talk every night.

Then Joel finds out that someone has shown up to Aimee’s beach colony with a boat and has offered to take them with them. Joel now must race to find Aimee’s colony before she’s gone forever. A grand romantic gesture.

Except, here’s the thing, it’s been seven years. Seven years since Joel and Aimee last saw each other. In those seven years, there’s also been a devastating apocalypse that has essentially restructured the natural order of things. But none of this ever occurs to Joel or anyone in his colony.

To give the script by Matthew Robinson and Brian Duffield some credit, they understand this on some level. The characters never say it outright but there are glances and pauses as they fervently hope that the penny drops for Joel. But it never does. 

Seven years ago, an asteroid, Agatha 616, was heading towards earth, so we fired chemical rockets at it to blow it up into smaller pieces. The chemicals rained down onto our planet and mutated all the cold-blooded creatures. The water is still safe to drink and humans are fine as well. The world inside Love and Monsters isn’t so much a world as much as it is an excuse to put character A in certain situations. 

All of this would be fine, but O’Brien’s Joel is not the type of character you want to spend too much time alone with. For one thing, once finding his faithful companion and dog, Boy, he never quite gets that Boy can sense danger. So when the dog runs away or hides, without fail Joel will look perplexed or annoyed before realizing he’s in mortal danger. The first time or two it would be funny. But Joel is so thick he never learns, not once, until the script calls for it in the climactic battle.

The structure of Robinson and Duffield’s script feels like a cross between a video game and a YA novel. Had they done it with a tad more finesse it might have been quite enjoyable. Instead, we’re treated to endless voiceovers of Joel writing letters to Aimee, telling her about his adventures and what he’s learning from them.

Everything Joel tells her, though, we just watched, so we’re essentially forced to watch it and then listen to O’Brien tell us about it as Joel. Joel is a nice boy but he’s not the type you want to listen to for long periods, despite what Love and Monsters may think. Thankfully he’s not alone for the whole movie.

One of the bright spots is two other topside travelers that Joel encounters. Clyde is played by the great character actor Michael Rooker, who’s very appearance causes the audience to smile. He’s traveling with Minnow (Ariana Greenblatt), a resourceful, blunt 8-year-old girl who is not afraid to tell Joel how stupid he is.

For a brief time, Love and Monsters become engrossing. Rooker and Greenblatt have a terrific rapport with one another and assimilate Joel into their group with ease. Minnow even shows signs of a crush eventually, Joel is the first older man she’s seen who’s not Clyde. The two are not father and daughter so much as survivors of a larger group.

In these moments Love and Monsters hint at how the emotional baggage of surviving such an event as the apocalypse can weigh on you. Joel’s parents were killed right before his eyes and their death, as well as their absence, takes a toll on him. The three form a bond but alas Joel is going west and they are going north.

Clyde and Minnow are possibly the best part of Love and Monsters. True, they exist to help push Joel from being the guy in his colony who can’t fight to being able to handle himself and give him helpful advice on how to survive the surface, it’s done so effortlessly. I didn’t even care if they were only there to perform the mechanics of the script.

For the most part, Love and Monsters is an enjoyable movie. It never takes the danger too seriously and although the dog is often in peril, you’re never that stressed about it. If only because at no point has the movie hinted that it would be the type to kill a dog.

Part of my frustrations is not the fault of the film itself. It’s just that when I watch modern post-apocalypse movies, I am constantly amazed by how heteronormative and monogamous it all is. No one is gay or even the slightest bit bisexual and there’s never a hint of anyone sleeping with someone just for the heck of it. It’s particularly frustrating because Love and Monsters opens with Joel complaining about how everyone else has “paired off” leaving him alone. 

The world is being remade but Robinson and Duffield, along with so many others, simply cannot picture any other way to love or express that love. It’s a failure of imagination on a grand scale. It’s not the movie’s fault, but Love and Monsters never does anything to change that either.

Worse is Clyde’s advice to Joel, “Don’t settle.” Good advice but I don’t know in whose book Jessica Henwick is considered “settling,” and I don’t want to know. To make matters worse, when Joel finally does arrive at Aimee’s colony he discovers that she’s the leader. Granted Joel was the cook and communications guy back in his colony, but for some reason, the film views these vital jobs as being frivolous. 

Don’t get me started on that idiotic mindset.

Aimee is the handyman, the organizer, and everything else. She’s flattered by Joel making the 89 mile trip across monster-infested terrain but it’s been seven years since they dated. Joel’s realization of his selfishness and short-sightedness is the other bright spot.

Henwick’s Aimee is the type of character that if the writers were perhaps not white men, would be an interesting main character. Resourceful, kind, and conflicted, she treasured the conversations on the radio, as they were moments where she could pull down the stress and weight of running a colony if only for a few minutes. 

But that doesn’t translate into carrying a torch for some guy you dated when you were a teenager. She can even handle herself in a fight until the script decides she should arbitrarily lose so she can be rescued. Henwick is so charming and guileless as Aimee that we feel for Joel when he realizes she doesn’t return his intense romantic feelings.

The film doesn’t waste Henwick, but it should have done more with her.

One thing Love and Monsters does get right is the set design. Matthews does a splendid job in giving each colony and bunker a personality. The production design does a lot of the heavy lifting in fleshing out a world ignored by the script. Love and Monsters may not be perfect but it moves at a swift pace and looks good as it flies by.

Lachlan Milne, who shot Love and Monsters, peppers in shots of gorgeous landscapes to help embolden the idea of a depopulated earth. Milne and Matthews succeed in making the bunkers feel claustrophobic. The clutter is always in the frame giving us a sense of movement being hampered for fear of knocking something over.

Still, Love and Monsters is a world that feels incomplete. We never get to know the other people Joel lives with, so we don’t feel sad or anxious when he leaves. When Joel ultimately decides he wants to go back, we don’t feel relief or joy, despite what the music may try and make us feel. A brief glimpse of Aimee shows more depth and potential than the week we spent with Joel.

We’re left scratching our heads at what the point of all of this was if he’s just going to go back. Joel even ends up essentially leading a mass exodus and becoming a hero. Give me a break.

Love and Monsters is a movie without real stakes or dangers. It’s competently directed and is by no means an utter failure. Sometimes, though, just being fine is worse.

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures

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