When biologist and statistician J.B.S. Haldane was asked by theologians what insights could be drawn about the Creator from the study of His creation, he allegedly replied “an inordinate fondness for beetles.”
That’s because, at a known 350,000 species in the order Coleoptera, there are more beetles than any other kind of animal on Earth. And that’s just the beetles — not any of their insectile cousins like bees and ants, nor other creepy crawlers like spiders and scorpions. Not to mention all the wormy guys, squishy slugs and crustaceans we dine on with gusto …
Humans like to think a lot of themselves, with our big brains and internal skeletons. But on biomass alone, the bugs have us beat. That conclusion is more or less the premise of brand new post-apocalyptic romance film “Love and Monsters” from fledgling director Michael Matthews (“Five Fingers for Marseilles”).
Set in the near future, the film stars Dylan O’Brien (“Maze Runner: The Death Cure”) as Joel, the standard weak-kneed, yellow-bellied underdog caught in quite the situation, thanks to the big honking asteroid that crashed into Earth seven years before the action begins.
In a charmingly doodled expository sequence at the beginning of the film, Joel gives the audience the rundown: “humanity came together, and we did what we do best — we shot a bunch of rockets at it and it was great! But it wasn’t.” The fallout of these rockets causes the Earth’s population of cold-blooded critters to mutate and balloon to monstrous sizes. Armies and kaiju duke it out to the death, a moth eats the president and everyone holes up underground.
But of course, “Monsters” isn’t lonesome in the title. Joel lives in a bunker full of grizzled, crossbow-wielding bad-asses oozing sprezzatura and possessing extremely high libidos. He can’t turn a corner without running into a lovey-dovey saccharine display of sexually and emotionally satisfying bliss. The only other bachelors are a baby and cow, both adorable. Bereft of love, he’s likewise bereft of courage, staying behind to take care of housework while the rest of his makeshift family heads to the surface in search of supplies. After reconnecting over the radio with Aimee (Jessica Henwick, “Underwater”), his high school sweetheart serendipitously located 80-something miles away, he resolves to swallow his fear and brave the apocalypse in search of love.
“Love and Monsters” is a pretty fun movie. It’s got inventive monsters mostly consisting of CGI with occasionally fantastic practical effects that go by names like “chumbler” and “sandgobbler.” The verdantly reclaimed landscape is familiar but beautifully rendered, with comically graffitied warnings from traveling survivors — premonitions that the clumsy Joel doesn’t fail to miss — dotting the scenery that dials up the tension just a skosh while keeping the mood light. Plus, there’s a dog. A dog named Boy. And Boy is a good boy.
It clearly owes a great debt to the long line of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic movies that precede it — comedic classics like “Zombieland,” classic classics like “Them!” and relatively recent films like “A Quiet Place” are all mixed in — but the audience’s familiarity with the genre is what “Love and Monsters” relies on to pull off its light and comic tone while still maintaining focus on Joel as he comes to grips with both the hamstringing fear of his environment and his soul-emaciating loneliness. Other characters get less attention — a delightful Michael Rooker (“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”) with an adorably adept little girl (Ariana Grennblatt, “The One and Only Ivan”) in tow add a little juice to the apocalyptic scene but are in and out, the introduction of Henwick’s Aimee is welcome but a little too late to really go anywhere, and a third act big bad (Dan Ewing, “Chasing Comets”) appears perfunctorily and predictably with post-apocalyptic accoutrements that push the Rule of Cool just a little too far.
But these are ultimately forgivable quibbles. The dramatic premise of the film is fresh, it’s fun and the ending is a satisfying change of pace for the genre. Some might be uncomfortable with concepts like “the apocalypse” and “95% of humanity dying out” given the straits the world currently finds itself in; and it’s true, the central conceit of the film is literally that the world’s population has to stay inside and can only communicate with loved ones over the airwaves. But it’s no “Contagion.” The film’s colorful, winning design, bubbly tone and sweet, hopeful take-home message of never settling even in the middle of the apocalypse might make “Love and Monsters” perfect for pandemic viewing.
Daily Arts Writer Jacob Lusk can be reached at email@example.com.