“Don’t settle. You don’t have to. Even at the end of the world.” Such is the triumphant optimism that emerges from the film Love and Monsters (2020), a film that chronicles the aftermath of a world in which 95% of the population has perished within a single year. In brief synopsis, the film chronicles the fallout of a world threatened by an asteroid. In response, global powers unite to launch a barrage of missiles into the sky. And while the planet averts immediate catastrophe, it simultaneously ushers in the apocalypse as chemicals from the exploding rockets rained back down to Earth. Benign to humans, these same elements cause cold-blooded creatures to mutate into gigantic, blood-thirsty predators. And as the monsters devour the planet, small bands of survivors dwell together in bunkers, spending their days vacillating between monotonous routine and fighting for their lives.
Hunkered down through years of desperate isolation, the film’s protagonist Joel (Dylan O’Brien) is a lone survivor trapped in an underground bunker full of couples. Offering his meager skills as a radio repairman and minestrone soup creator, Joel longs to reunite with his high school sweetheart, Aimee (Jessica Yu Li Henwick), who is enduring a colony-life of her own, just 80 miles away. After systemically contacting every known colony of survivors, Joel final reconnects with Aimee through the airwaves, and a perilous idea is born. Disregarding the obvious threats that lie “above ground,” and his penchant for consistently freezing in the face of imminent danger, Joel throws open the hatch to his underground prison and sets off in search of love.Love and Monsters, in particular, was able to punch above its weight precisely because the movie was willing to push beneath the familiar “unstoppable force of love” trope to unveil our varied attempts at quelling the painful longing that often hangs in the shadows of it: loneliness.
Despite the fact that Love and Monsters hardly meets the threshold for a true “horror” flick, it nonetheless topped my personal list of “most apropos films of the year” by offering us a full 109 minutes of fictional apocalypse to distract us from, what felt at times, the real apocalypse unfolding all around us. A global pandemic, crashing economies, political upheaval, and rising levels of anxiety and depression became the dystopian reality for millions in the past year. In times like these, apocalyptic films, regardless of how whimsical they may be, harness a weight that transcends even their most comical moments. Love and Monsters, in particular, was able to punch above its weight precisely because the movie was willing to push beneath the familiar “unstoppable force of love” trope to unveil our varied attempts at quelling the painful longing that often hangs in the shadows of it: loneliness.
The success of Love and Monsters came by way of its ability to highlight our yearning for belonging and human contact during an achingly long lockdown. The scenes of humans stuffed into close quarters and enduring a monotonous existence while the world outside is on fire ringed of truth for many of us this year. And while the insects ravaging Joel’s world outside were of a different sort entirely than the pandemic in our own time, the thin line between self-preservation and self-imprisonment was every bit as real. Especially during a year in which the word “divided” has become the most common adjective used to describe our nation, many of us discovered that our Zoom-mediated relationships, family gatherings, worship services, funerals, and weddings failed to deliver the kind of human connection were made for. As our sense of community eroded, we all discovered that, perhaps, loneliness was the bigger pandemic we were facing, one that plagued our world long before a virus invaded our land.
This is why the repeated refrain, “Don’t settle. You don’t have to. Even at the end of the world,” drives the story of Love and Monsters forward in both intentional, and unintentional, ways. On the surface, there is a transparent sentimentality offered which echoes the lovable, if not predictable, storyline of a John Hughes film. A sort of true-love-always-wins approach to the story where a young man is willing to trek across a landscape of devouring mutants in order to demonstrate his undying devotion to the girl who has won his heart. That has never ceased to be a winning recipe for pure entertainment gold. We all cheer for a triumph of the human heart. And yet, that is not where the movie ultimately lands. In fact (spoiler alert), when Joel finally arrives at Aimee’s colony, he discovers that seven years of absence was just too long for a teenage romance to endure, and Aimee has given her heart to another lover. So, the film adapts in much of the same way that our own hearts do when they fail to grab hold of their deepest longings—they simply move the goal post. Maybe Aimee was never the real prize Joel was after? Maybe it was community, or security, or family, or safety, or…?
In this way, the film wrestles openly with our varied and complicated responses to loneliness, purpose, and meaning. Similar to our own experiences, Joel’s trek across the scorched and monster-infested Earth serves as an apt allegory for the ultimate human search for hope. Hope found in a people, in a place, and in a larger story. Along the way Joel finds fragments of potential hope in the companionship of an abandoned dog, an orphaned girl named Minnow (Ariana Greenblatt), and a dying robot. And yet, the movie doesn’t flinch from the reality that such connections provide little lasting hope precisely because they are fleeting and temporary, no matter how deep. Indeed, even the very soil under Joel’s feet can’t be taken for granted as the once fertile landscape of his youth has been replaced by a wild, untamedness because creation’s stewards, including Joel’s parents, have all been devoured.
Joel’s hopeful search for human connection, community, and stability, gives way throughout the film to a poignant interplay between the virtues of love and wisdom, and the counterparts of foolishness and fear that highlight our collective need for true hope. It was G. K. Chesterton who correctly observed, “Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all…. As long as matters are really hopeful, hope is mere flattery or platitude; it is only when everything is hopeless that hope begins to be a strength.” Hope is the virtue the film is grasping for and is simultaneously the virtue it fails to deliver.
Unlike the cataclysmic start of Joel’s apocalyptic nightmare, the myriad of dysfunctions haunting our nation did not start in the year 2020—it was merely the year they were highlighted and ultimately revealed. Humming under the distracting noise of concerts, weddings, sporting events, movies, and vacations, the collective problems of our culture were ever-present for those who were silent enough to hear them. Rises in suicide, depression, and anxiety, as well as deepening lines of division across race, economics, and politics where always running around the stage. But it wasn’t until 2020 brought the curtain up that we could no longer dismiss it. And if Chesterton is correct, it was only after hitting the bottom, that hope became the virtue it was intended to be.
Distinct from mere optimism, the hope depicted by Chesterton is the kind of hope revealed to us by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Colossians. Writing from prison, Paul speaks of “the hope laid up for you in heaven” (Col. 1:5). Biblical hope transcends our current circumstances and anchors us to a foundation that no apocalypse can overcome. A hope that is “laid up in heaven” where moth, and rust…and monsters can’t destroy. Like Joel venturing forth into a world that is pulling apart at the seams, each step of faith brings a refreshing renewal of what it means to allow love to cast out fear, and the redemption available to those who choose to place their hope in the King of world to come, a world we can participate in re-creating, rather than merely hiding from the world we are in. It is a hope “laid up” for us in the sense that is stored and protected. It is “in Heaven” because that is precisely where Christ, the object of our hope, currently resides. In this way, Paul commends to a hope that we have full access to, regardless of how dark the night might become. It is a hope that is anchored beneath the churning waves of circumstance, to the bedrock foundation of a faith in the steadfast love of the one who has already rescued us from the ultimate apocalypse.
The singer-songwriter Jason Isbell highlights both the problem and solution for us in his song “Be Afraid” when he exhorts “See, every one of us is counting dice that we didn’t roll / And the loser is the last to ask for help.” Isbell’s wisdom serves as a glaring contrast to the oft-repeated proverb of Love and Monsters: “Don’t settle. You don’t have to. Even at the end of the world.” Admittedly, this advice has a deceptive ring of truth about it. When staring down an apocalypse, one hardly needs to struggle with issues of contentment. And yet, even the film itself fails to hide the frail romanticism of such a sentiment as the crossbar for what defines “settling” is constantly being raised. Indeed, with each of Joel’s new discoveries about himself, we find there was a need for a deeper discovery still. Joel’s search was not ultimately about love, or survival, or, community, it was an endless quest for hope that remains endless precisely because it is never anchored to something beyond the people and circumstances of his life. Hope that is rooted in quicksand is no hope at all.
In the end, while the film made great attempts at offering its audience love, and even a kind of faith, it simply could not deliver on the kind of hope envisioned with the slogan, “Never settle.” Keep searching the film echoes. Keep marching forward in search of anything but the only answer that will truly satisfy. Keep settling for pseudo-saviors. Look to one another, look to romantic love, look to adventure, and self-actualization, and a family to belong to. Look anywhere, but to a source of hope that promises not to disappoint even when the world is on fire—a hope that doesn’t remove you from the apocalypse but promises to never leave you or forsake you in the midst of it.