Love and Monsters (2020)
Directed by Michael Matthews
Who’d have thought the apocalypse could be so . . . green? Most fictional dystopias or disaster movies on celluloid are often expected to—or at least try to invoke—a color palette reverting to the bleak, muted shades of a doomed existence—one that is expected to follow a catastrophe. Love and Monsters by director Michael Matthews radically departs from such genre codes, and the result is strangely soothing. Many ingredients go into making this concoction—gloriously macabre monsters (obviously), nature in its absolute wildest ecologies, diverse colonies of survivors, talking robots, and the steady undercurrent of self-deprecating humor much needed to literally navigate the routes of a perilous journey—but the standalone aspect among all would be a classical quest for love. At its heart, Love and Monsters is a rather simple yet quite daunting tale on what it means to love, and what companionship means in disaster ecologies where the limits of both nature and human bonds turn unpredictable.
The story follows one Joel Dawson of Fairfield, California—an adolescent boy seemingly in the early throes of love with high school sweetheart Aimee—both completely oblivious of the unforeseen military consequences of blowing an Earthbound asteroid to bits. Cut to seven years later, the world’s quite a different landscape, and quieter too. Cutting through the silence is mostly the ominous chitter of creepy-crawlies now fearlessly roaming about the planet, camouflaged in plain sight—and the radio correspondence shared between colonies through an open frequency through which Joel and Aimee are both miraculously able to reconnect. Things aren’t looking up for Joel who is evidently bottling up a lot of emotions within, like any teenage-turned-adult processing the near-end-of-the-world would. The only way he can maintain a semblance of normalcy in such ultra-solitary times is by reliving his last memories of Aimee and a faint hope that they still might stand a chance as lovers. It is not until Joel’s own colony suffers a breach and a casualty that he decides to leave the relative safety and comfort of his bunker/home and sets out on a minimum seven-day journey to break his lover’s hiatus.
The question “How far would you go for love?” is an overcooked staple in the lovers’ discourse. Turns out, venturing too far with mutated giants as literal roadblocks on love’s warpath turn that question a lot more interesting. In a near Lovecraftian fantasy, the biological horrors of an apocalypse strangely turn into a paean of coexistence, not triggered by bloodlust but a basic, primal urge to adapt and survive amidst wreckage largely wrought by human incompetence. A greater part of the narrative is thus sustained by an awareness of this commitment: that maintaining bonds are much harder than forging them in moments of euphoria—heightening the nominal difference between ‘companions’ and ‘allies’—both, two distinct kinds of otherizing, warranting two distinct approaches towards love, one would presume. In a particularly poignant moment in the movie, we see an abandoned dog, who finds a companion in Joel, genuinely puzzled about whom to follow: the people he befriends along the way who now must depart, or Joel himself. And he makes a decision. But for those few moments’ worth of hesitation, we’re made to realize—ever so eloquently—that for all the choices we make in the name of love, the confusion inherent in those choices never truly leaves us.
Intersecting with the narrative components of scenic wilderness and occasional (mis)adventures are central questions of trauma, grief, and loneliness—how the prospect of catharsis becomes insurmountable within a crowd, even if such crowds have your best interests at heart. Solitude becomes at once the anguish and the answer. Technology—the beating heart of loneliness for millennials and boomers alike—often uncannily prefigures discourses on emotional intimacy and Doomsday in neoliberal theocracies, and it’s almost political how Michael Matthews reminds us of its redeeming qualities; where technology, instead of leading astray, may actually guide us forward, help us reconnect with our grief in a manner that catharsis is possible.
Although Dylan O’Brien, as the protagonist Joel, delivers a memorable performance of a dystopian lovelorn Braveheart, Jessica Henwick as Aimee—a relatively estranged character and sharing less screen time than O’Brien—equally sails through. Part of what makes Aimee intriguing is the lack of information about her persona or struggles that are revealed, which is why the climactic moment of two old lovers finally meeting suggests a script beneath, cautiously invisible. What is refreshing is how this apparent ‘mystery’ about Aimee tests the chemistry of an old friendship whereby two very different, hardcore characters negotiate the aftermath of not merely an apocalypse, but an inevitability all partners dread—separation. Does absence make the heart fonder or falter? Do grand romantic gestures always bring about that significant other’s elation which the heart so desperately seeks? Is agreeing to literally walk that extra mile the litmus test of fidelity? Probably yes. Maybe not. You see, the reason love and monsters work so well together is that, at the core, they’re fundamentally volatile concepts. You never quite know what to expect of the other, and by extension, yourself. But I guess that’s good news on the post-apocalyptic front because, in a dystopia, you don’t survive by being a stickler for rules. You improvise.
— Anuja Dutta