Love and Monsters is one of my favorite movies of the year (which is why I also did a podcast about it. Do the thing, click the link!) It was surprisingly sweet, honest, and had turns and beats I never expected from what appeared to be wholly a monster movie on the outside of it. I went into it thinking I would see a cheesy story about how true love saves the day and watch monsters battle it out with the humans. What I got instead was a subversion of the typical, basic love story, a reminder of the good in humanity, and several moments of laugh-out-loud fun.
So, let’s break down the characters, the love, and the monsters of it all.
With charisma and an acting ability that far exceeds his years, Boy (played by Hero) is undoubtedly the star of the show. The level and subtly to the pain he expressed, the love that he’s lost, and the willingness he has to grow are all worthy of countless accolades. Throughout the movie, he makes mistakes and has to learn to let the past go and conquer his fear, but he ultimately does in time to save the day, in a way that the humans wish they could. I’m sure we’ll be seeing more from this newcomer soon. In the meantime, I think we can all agree that he’s the best boy to grace the screen this year and that he deserves all the pats.
Played by Dylan O’Brien, Joel is a guy who, at the beginning of the film, freezes at danger, is being left behind by all the couples in his bunker, is caught mentally in his days as a teenager, and daydreams about the last and maybe only romantic relationship he had before the world went to the monsters. After he loses a friend to giant mutated cockroaches, he decides to embrace life and chase down his dream of being with Aimee, the girl he thinks he loves. He risks the outside world, and the monsters that own it now, to make it happen. The character is in every scene in the movie, so O’Brien has his work cut out for him. He shines in the role (and is a good co-star for Boy), giving Joel depth, earnestness, and a charm that carries the movie and makes you root for him as he learns to fight, faces his emotions thanks to a robot, and ultimately realizes where his true love lies. It’s not easy to have so many quiet moments and emotional beats depend on you, but O’Brien carries it well and his stellar understanding of the character helps ensure the lessons I love so much in the movie shine.
Aimee could have easily been a cardboard cutout, a picture of Joel’s imagination and nothing of substance, but she sparkles as determined, strong, capable, and a great leader. Jessica Henwick does the difficult job of making her feel lived in and realistic during the little time we get to know her – like a woman who has seen some shit, lived some shit, and is basically the antithesis to Joel’s naivete. She gets to fight, be messy, have a love life that has nothing to do with Joel, and be as charming as she is willing to believe the best in a villain because of how desperate she is for peace. She’s tired and she’s human, but when she’s ultimately betrayed, she fights with everything she has to protect the people she loves. Her setup made me wish for a sequel, just so I could see more from her and witness her journey as we did with Joel.
Michael Rooker surprised me the most while watching the movie. I came into the film expecting him to be gruff, rough and tumble, and unemotional. Instead, I got a man who takes the time to take a young dumbass under his wing, teach him how to live on the surface and thrive in the world, and one who takes the time to compliment Joel on his art. The scene where he tells Joel how important the art he’s doing is up there on my favorites list because it’s so affirming, sweet, and wholesome. Men don’t typically get to compliment each other about art in the movies and it was so vital and important to have it placed so casually in the movie. I loved Clyde for it and also for his love for Minnow. And while he was rough and tumble, it never crossed the line into toxic masculinity, which is so important and necessary, particularly for a guy who looks like Clyde. Rooker does a great job, and I only wish I had gotten more of Clyde and Minnow.
Ariana Greenblatt has the right amount of sass and fun to make Minnow’s scenes with Joel feel like how I felt while growing up with my brother. As a sister, you worry about them, love them, but you also really, really have to poke at them and make them feel dumb along the way. There’s a contract all little sisters sign in their fifth year to ensure that balance stays true, and it feels like Greenblatt understood the assignment perfectly. She also has to balance the sense of loss and pain Minnow’s endured with the comedy of her ribbing Joel, and Greenblatt does a wonderful job of it. Perhaps most importantly, Minnow teaches Joel to look for more than what’s on the surface of the monsters that populate their world, reinforcing the revolutionary idea that’s shown through Joel’s journey that compassion and love can coexist in the apocalypse.
Perhaps the most surprising part about the movie is the way that love is expressed and ultimately realized. Joel spends years pining after a daydream – a woman that doesn’t really exist because of the ravages of the apocalypse and the time they’ve spent apart.
Joel goes through a wonderfully grand adventure on the surface, to be part of the world instead of hide from it, and the catalyst of it all is a woman he doesn’t know and an unfulfilled expectation of the life he thinks he wants to live. And the best part of the movie is that he realizes it.
He realizes that he was using Aimee as a crutch to deal with the pain of his post-apocalypse life and that the real love he’s been searching for is the people who saved him after the monsters killed his mom and dad. His true arc is him realizing that they were the people he wanted to protect and find a better way of life for – that they were his love story all along.
It’s refreshing that though Joel and Aimee have their kiss and the resolution of what could have been between them, it’s not the final arc of the character. It’s not the culmination of everything Joel’s learned, rather a gentle end to a sentence that had only half formed.
Even Aimee, as little we get to see her, shows love for the people under her care. She wants what’s best for them, is willing to fight for them, and ultimately saves them all because of the depth of her love. Even in her grief, at losing someone she loved, she allows herself to keep caring about the people in the enclave, and it makes me love her more.
The idea that romantic love might be the daydream and the stuff that starts epic journeys but it’s not the only love is revolutionary for a movie like this. It’s not done nearly enough, and the subversion of the expectation allows viewers to witness all kids of love stories we might not have gotten otherwise.
Again, we see how love is grown and materialized in the relationship between Clyde and Minnow. They’re two people who had to reform what family meant after they lost everything following the monster apocalypse. They show it again for Joel, who they could have easily abandoned to the harsh realities of the surface. Instead, they maintain kindness, humor, and love as they guide him on how to survive in a world where humans are at the bottom of the food chain. The love Minnow and Clyde share is so great they extend it to Joel without a second thought, without expectation or selfish desire. And because of it, they ultimately help save Joel’s life and the lives of all the remaining survivors on the beach.
This all culminates in the truth that love comes in many forms; gracious, profound, and often most enduring in our relationships with friends and family. Romantic love is not the only love that exists in the world, but rather one way to add to our foundational and often earliest loves. It’s a bold risk to take on the idea of the main love story being familial when we have been so condition as a society to expect romance to be the priority, but it’s a risk that pays off by showing us that love is multifaceted, created and nurtured in the darkest of days, and, ultimately, worth fighting all sorts of monsters for.
There are two types of monsters in this movie. The ones that try to eat Joel, and the humans that are willing to hurt others in the pursuit of greed.
The humans are worse.
The monsters are hungry and guided by base desires, but the humans, the captain of the pirate crew that arrives on Aimee’s beach just days before Joel does, choose to hurt people because it’s easier, because they can, because they’ve allowed the worst of humanity to grow greed and fear in their hearts.
The thing that I loved the most about the storytelling here is that it showed that not all monsters are bad and not all people are good. Minnow and Clyde taught Joel that compassion for strangers, even though they were all hurting in the aftermath of the world ending, is possible; that you can help others. They also taught him to look closer, to look in the eyes of the monsters to find their truth outside of his personal biases and fear. This means that he’s an excellent foil for the captain’s greed and evil, and instead of being locked by fear as he might otherwise have been, chooses mercy at the climax of the film.
That mercy translates to freeing the mutated crab the captain was torturing into obedience, a risk that could have killed them all. Instead, it ensures that the captain never hurts another enclave of survivors again. Joel’s understanding that the scariest-looking creatures weren’t always the enemy and that the kindest seeming people weren’t always friends saved not only Aimee’s group, but any other future people the captain and his crew would have encountered.
Looking closer is an important lesson we could all stand to know better; one that reinforces the central theme of the movie that love is a strength on our worst days and our society is stronger when we’re guardians of compassion and creating space for others in our hearts.
We’re stronger when we look after each other, when we give our knowledge with grace, and when we love openly and in ways society might tell us not to.
Joel’s growth toward becoming a fighter and a person who lives in the world never dims the reality that love is an important and necessary measure of living. It reinforces it, ensures that we learn with him that becoming a fighter doesn’t mean hardening your heart or allowing violence to be your only means of survival in a world darkened by pain and grief. It means looking to your heart for mercy, for showing kindness to those who need it most.
It means a leap of faith, of trust when everything around you says to fear. Love is faith in motion and it’s a leap we could all stand to make more.
Love and Monsters is currently airing on Netflix internationally.