There’s all different types of love in Love and Monsters. Romantic love drives Joel’s (Dylan O’Brien) quest across a monster-infested surface for seven days, but in the end, the love of a found family endures the highs and the lows, and inspires the search for something more.
It’s quite profound for a film who’s turned regular animals into mutated monsters after the United States shoots rockets at an astroid heading toward Earth and the chemicals from that rained back down on the unsuspecting creatures, though not affecting humans, or dogs, apparently. Suddenly at the bottom of the food chain, humanity split into various underground colonies. Joel, the only single person in his colony, spends his days creating a monster guide, being the bunker chef, and trying to prove he’s a worthy member of his colony — all of whom look like they were born to be post-apocalyptic survivors, saving humanity from mutated animals. Either because he’s tired of not contributing to his colony in any meaningful way or because he wants to prove himself, Joel sets out on a seven day journey on the surface to his ex-girlfriend Aimee’s (Jessica Henwick) colony.
This road trip film certainly captures the spirit of self-discovery. O’Brien is quick-witted and hilarious, grounding Joel in significant ways to move him away from the typical fantasy protagonist. He acquires a dog — the best form of love in the film, actually — and learns how to survive in an environment he stupidly entered knowing nothing about. The monsters are interesting, even if they’re just slightly larger, more slimy versions of regular animals, and even they warrant a bit of love too.
Even as Joel moves through the standard training sequences, with Michael Rooker as his guide, there’s some small but genuine emotional beats that give more weight to Rooker’s Clyde and Ariana Greenblatt’s Minnow, a father/daughter duo who saves Joel a time or two. The two certainly liven up Joel’s 85-mile hike, mostly providing quips to make fun of Joel. But they each also recognize in each other the losses they’ve experienced.
The found family aspect is the strongest bit of this film, even though Joel’s colony ultimately has little screen time. It’s through Aimee that we can really see how important those colonies of people are, as Aimee takes care of the elderly but treats them like family. Aimee’s found a purpose in the apocalypse beyond killing monsters (though she does that too), and her and Joel’s understanding of how different they are now from when they last saw each other felt refreshing.
Inexplicably, robots exist in this world, which is on the aspects that takes me out of Joel’s emotional journey. It’s a bit of worldbuilding that’s confusing and one of the film’s only minor problems. There’s also some human villains who enter the scene, the most rushed the film gets, but amongst the blinding examples of strangers helping strangers and connecting on the very basic human need for connection, it hardly seemed worth it to include them.
In 2020, it’s difficult not to see things through a pandemic lens — but the final scenes of Love and Monsters gave me such a visceral reaction that I could not quite comprehend that I was getting that emotional during a film called Love and Monsters. As people start leaving their bunkers in the hope for something new, armed with the knowledge and the know-how to survive, it felt like hope. More importantly, it felt like hope was possible.