starring Dylan O'Brien, Jessica Henwick, Dan Ewing, Michael Rooker
screenplay by Brian Duffield & Matthew Robinson
directed by Michael Matthews
by Walter Chaw The kind of movie someone like Joe Dante might have made for Roger Corman once upon a time, Love and Monsters, Michael Matthews's follow-up to his Five Fingers for Marseilles, is a joyfully, unashamedly silly American kaiju modest in its ambitions and occasionally poignant for that modesty. In Love and Monsters, a broad (very broad) updating of L Q. Jones's deep-cut cult movie of Harlan's Ellison "A Boy and His Dog," a lovable schlub named Joel (Dylan O'Brien) is ensconced in a bunker with a handful of other survivors thanks to a plague of monsters that has obliterated 95% of the human population. It's possible to go deep on how these monsters are the result of "chemicals" raining down on the planet because emergency rockets were fired into a looming asteroid, and how if this is a quarantine allegory, its ultimate message that you should leave quarantine is unfortunately-timed, but the picture is too good-natured to deserve much opprobrium for misreading the room.
Once Joel does leave quarantine, he befriends a brilliant heeler (they are brilliant and good, good dogs) and undertakes a journey of about a hundred miles to reunite with his girlfriend, Aimee (Jessica Henwick, who's about to be a star). The journey goes as you might expect, with babe-in-the-woods Joel (his apocalypse skills are making minestrone, mostly, and talking on the phone with his girlfriend) needing the help of his good, good dog and, for a while, a pair of kindly survivalists (Michael Rooker and Arianna Greenblatt) in the "Last of Us"/Hunt for the Wilderpeople mold to teach him the ways of the wasteland. The special effects are large and ambitious, walking that fine line between goofy and scary, and Matthews offers a few humble action set-pieces to showcase them that are less scary or exciting than cool and fun. What I like the most about Love and Monsters is that it's interested in the power of kindness and even art for the survival of the species. As a hero, Joel is more a, well, Joel than a John Wick: a lovelorn nebbish who, in a good film's best sequence, finds a little bit of peace sitting next to a dying robot (voiced by Melanie Zanetti), watching something like a floating-lantern show one night after the end of the world.
When he reunites with his lost love, Love and Monsters avoids the standard YA tropes and provides a scenario where the dangerous idea of soul mates is jettisoned in favour of loving and appreciating not just the families into which we're born, but the ones, too, that we build for ourselves like rafts to carry us over treacherous waters. I thought of this quote from Moby Dick, of all things, as the film found its conclusion and epilogue: "As for me, I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts." With the door left open for more stories from this world (which is less a world than a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, really), what Love and Monsters manages this time out is a sweet little adventure tale, free of bitterness or unbecoming cynicism, where a person can be measured by the quality of his friends, his instinct to tell the truth, and how unembarrassed he is to be embarrassed. Joel is often afraid, and sad, and when he's betrayed, he expresses it with dignity and tears as opposed to rage and violence. The moral of this story is "be nice" and look people in the eye when you talk to them so that they might know your heart. It's also got a giant slug and a sad monster crab. It has it all.