You know, regular-sized insects are not among my most favorite creatures, so I wasn’t exactly going out of my way to watch Love and Monsters, a movie starring ginormous mutant insects (along with arachnids, crustaceans, and amphibians) who seem hell-bent on exacting revenge for every one of their kind ever squished, gassed, zapped, splatted, eaten, or otherwise killed. But, someone recommended it as an unexpectedly fun and funny movie, so I screwed up my courage, tamped down my squeamishness, and gave it a try. And I’m glad I did because I enjoyed its humor, its visual interpretations of giant monsters (well, some of them, at least—but I don’t ever need to see large moco-covered leeches), and its message about community, self-reliance, and perseverance.
In order to stop a giant asteroid from hitting the earth and wiping out a lot of humanity, many, many rockets were used to explode it. This was highly successful in destroying the earth-smashing asteroid, but had the unfortunate side-effect of dumping lots of rocket-related chemicals onto our planet. These chemicals caused insects—and a random assortment of other non-mammalian animals—to mutate into giant monsters who want nothing more than to stomp and nosh on humans. (I advise not thinking too hard about why, for example, it seems that crabs were affected, but fish were not. I’m sure if people hadn’t been running for their lives there would have been extensive studies done and many think pieces written.) Much of humanity was wiped out. The remaining survivors gathered in underground bunkers where they formed cooperative communities, with heavily armed scouts only breaching the surface of the earth in search of food. Death and danger are everywhere, but life also goes on.
Joel (Dylan O’Brien), who lost his family to monster attacks when he was a teenager, lives in a colony with other young, highly capable people. Joel is very good at making minestrone soup, radio technology, drawing pictures, milking their cow (I guess there’s no oat milk in this future), and dry self-effacing humor. He says things like, “I didn’t really have a typical upbringing. I mean, I did at first and then the world ended.” He also feels wholly insufficient. First of all, he’s the only person in his bunker not in a romantic union. (All the couples appear to be monogamous and heterosexual, which seems less likely than giant mutant people-eating ants.) Second of all, he tends to choke and freeze when confronting monsters, which makes him too much of a liability to take on missions to the surface. His bunker-mates tell him he’s enough as he is, but Joel is restless and unsatisfied, and he doesn’t want to die alone. Much of this is because he has recently reconnected (via a spotty radio connection) with Aimee, the girlfriend from whom he was unceremoniously separated seven years ago when they ran in different directions to flee the monster invasion. Then his bunker is breached by a big nasty beast, making him feel less safe and more aware of his shortcomings. So, like any young fool whose frontal lobe is not fully developed, Joel makes the somewhat rash decision to make the eighty-five mile above-ground trek to Aimee’s bunker community—where he expects they will immediately pick up where they left off (i.e. cracking jokes and making out a lot). His bunker-mates have many justified doubts that he will survive, but we the viewers, of course, do not because we know Joel is the main character who is attractive (but not too attractive) and will therefore definitely not die.
So Joel sets off with his crossbow (which he can’t really shoot), a hand drawn map, the illustrated guide to monsters he’s been building, and basically no idea how to survive on the earth’s surface. Along the way he meets a dog named Boy (Hero and Dodge) who has lost his human and decides to accompany Joel. (Mild spoiler to relieve your possible anxiety: Nothing bad happens to the dog.) The pair are saved from some nasty monsters by an older man named Clyde (Michael Rooker) and a young girl named Minnow (Ariana Greenblatt) who are headed to the mountains in the hopes of finding more safety. Clyde and Minnow take Joel under their more experienced wings by rolling their eyes and cracking jokes about his lack of survival skills and then teaching him to shoot, fight, avoid particularly nasty monsters, identify friendly ones (yes, there are some), and generally stay alive. (Is the quick-witted, sarcastic, and independent Minnow my favorite character? Of course.)
Miraculously, no matter how many arrows Joel shoots and how few he seems to retrieve, his supply never seems to dwindle. It’s never explained exactly what kind of magic this entails, but I’m assuming it has something to do with the rocket chemicals. Eventually, of course, they will part ways and Joel and Boy will continue toward Aimee and the inevitable climax of the movie.
Look, this movie is sweet and funny. Everything is pretty overt and clear, which is absolutely just fine when it’s what you’re looking for. I wanted to be entertained. I wanted a fun ride. I wanted to laugh. I wanted to feel all the emotions. I did not want the monsters to be too gruesomely gross. And I got all of that out of it. (Well, I had to cover my eyes for some of the monsters, but I have a very, very low ick and scare tolerance. Just ask the kid who used to pat my hand and cover my eyes during scary parts of Maleficent when she was four and I was thirty-something.) But, for a movie, with a pretty silly premise, it also gently touches on some pretty important things.
Take grief, for instance. Joel points out that with all the death you might expect that people would get numb to loss, but, he says, “You don’t.” Everyone in the movie has lost many someones and they all carry the loss with them even as they move forward with life. Even Boy is very attached to a red dress that he carries with him everywhere, though it’s never explained to whom it once belonged. (Perhaps because Boy can’t talk, and therefore can’t tell us about the person he lost.) On his journey, Joel has a touching moment with a robot who helps him remember his parents. Also, it’s worth noting that, from what we see at least, the colonies are cooperative, supportive, and pleasant. Even in the beginning of the monster apocalypse when people are scrambling for safety and watching their loved ones die in front of them, they stop to help each other, to save each other from danger. Like, it’s a post-apocalyptic world and a mostly post-power-hungry-assholes world, which is refreshing. A big result of Joel’s journey is his realization that community, support, friendship, and fresh air matter. He leaves his bunker because he doesn’t want to die alone, but it’s no spoiler to say that he learns that he was never really alone. His experience opens his eyes to how banding together and facing the dangers together is probably better than hiding out and waiting for the end of the world to come to you. And, perhaps most importantly, the movie reminds us that extremely good-looking people offering deals that appear too good to be true should always, always, always be met with a healthy dose of skepticism. Would it be going too far to say that they are the biggest monsters of all? If you’ve seen the monsters in this movie, then probably yes, it would be. But it’s not going too far to say that this movie about a post-apocalyptic world where danger and death are never more than a giant tentacle’s breadth away is a cheery, poignant watch.