Reviews: Love and Monsters and J.R. 'Bob' Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius
A good teens-and-creatures movie, and a deep dive into a glorious fake cult
"I didn't really have your typical upbringing," says twentysomething Joel Dawson. "I mean, I did at first, but then the world ended."
The title of Love and Monsters announces the movie's components with the simplicity of a candy bar wrapper. Joel (Dylan O'Brien, of Teen Wolf and the hazily remembered Maze Runner movies) still loves his girlfriend, Aimee (Jessica Henwick), even though he hasn't seen her in seven years. They were teenage squeezes when an asteroid came hurtling down to Earth and polluted the whole planet. "Cold blooded creatures mutated and started eating us to death," he recalls. By "cold blooded creatures" he means everything from ants and roaches to lizards and crocodiles, all of which are now very large and still hungry.
This unfortunate event wiped out most of the world's population; the survivors are still hunkered down in caves and such. Joel is socked away in one of these "colonies," where all of his fellow hunkerers have paired off, leaving Joel very lonely. But he knows where Aimee is (the various far-flung colonies communicate by patchy radio transmission), so he decides to attempt a journey to her pod, which is 85 dangerous miles away.
The movie has the familiar contours of a quest story. Dylan is the meek protagonist whose mettle is tested by the many perils he encounters on his odyssey—mutant frogs, crab monsters, boulder snails. He grows into a fearless hero along the way, so when he reaches his destination and finds it to be not quite what he expected, he plunges on anyway, and finally prevails (sort of).
Despite the film's PG-13 rating, it's not exactly a kid flick—it's too witty (but not raunchy—this is a picture with not a breath of sex in it.). It's also more lovingly made than you might expect—one scene, in which Joel and a helpful robot gaze up in wonder at translucent entities drifting through the night sky, is strikingly imaginative filmmaking.
South African director Michael Matthews gets solid performances out of his actors, especially O'Brien, whose wry internal dialogue provides the story's narration. The monsters on the loose hark back to '80s teen thrillers ranging from Gremlins to the pitiful Troll films, but are considerably better-wrought. You don't have to be a 12-year-old to appreciate the craft with which this picture is made. But it maybe wouldn't hurt to have a 12-year-old standing by.
J.R. "Bob" Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius
The Church of the SubGenius was not, in fact, founded by a pipe-smoking salesman from the 1950s named J.R."Bob" Dobbs. You may have heard that, but you've been misinformed. The Church was actually launched in Dallas in 1979 by two gentlemen calling themselves Reverend Ivan Stang (real-world name Doug Smith) and Philo Drummond (Steve Wilcox). These guys, born outsiders and veteran malcontents, were irritated by the way the world was going. They'd been raised in the shadow of the 1950s, and while they'd presumably had a little fun in the 1960s, by '79, as Smith recalls, "Everything was getting too square again." They set out to fix that.
In a new documentary, director Sandy K. Boone lays out the amusingly unlikely story of the Church of the SubGenius: how it evolved out of a cheap parody pamphlet lampooning evangelists—brimstone merchants like Billy Graham and Pat Robertson and suicide boys like Jim Jones and Marshall Applewhite (of the Heaven's Gate cult)—and, in general, all things lame and culturally constricting. Surprisingly, this pamphlet, little more than a joke, slowly took off out in the wide world, drawing the attention of, among others, a young Penn Jillette, Nick Offerman, director Richard Linklater, and Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale of Devo. (All of these people appear in the film.)
As the Church grew, the founders had to decide what exactly it was. Performance art? A satire of religious cults? Or was it a cult itself, proudly soliciting donations (usually one dollar) from its followers? "We're probably the only cult that admits we're ripping them off every day," says Smith, "and teaching them to enjoy it."
Smith and Drummond and other Church insiders worked up an elaborate backstory for Bob Dobbs, and spread the alarm about a huge conspiracy to oppress the weird people of the world and to steal their "slack." (This key Church term is never quite defined, but as one adherent semi-explains, "You know it when you don't have it.")
The Church survived the collapse of its prediction that the world would end in 1998 (although how do we really know it didn't?). As hipsters and collegians took an interest in it, more and more possibilities presented themselves. There were SubGenius conventions. Television interviews. A deeply detailed book that set off a bidding war among serious publishers that topped off at $20,000.
The Church of the SubGenius prospered beyond the dreams of the men who created it. Things went wrong—some of the people who got involved in latter days were mentally unstable. Smith and Drummond and their partners realized they'd have to gear down. This may be the most interesting part of Boone's film: What do parodists do when people no longer get their joke? What do they move on to? The answer, which comes at the end of this carefully fashioned film, carries an unexpected emotional charge. And a couple of last laughs, too.