Sunday, June 24, 2012

Film Review: Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

Carell and Knightley in
Seeking a Friend for the
End of the World
This is an amiable, small and somewhat disjointed film which focuses on a man named Dodge Peterson (Steve Carell), who, as the world moves closer to the end, goes on a trip to find his one true love.  His travels are complicated as he is joined by a neighbor, Penny (Keira Knightley), a free spirit who recently split up with her boyfriend and longs to spend the last few days of humanity with someone who can help her reach her own family. 

Like many films based on quests, whether they’re classical, think “Jason and the Argonauts,” or Tolkien’s “Lord or the Rings” trilogy, or even more humorous films, “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle,” the leads in this film have a series of adventures. They meet friends and foes, attain some level of closure, but also leave themselves open (for as long as the planet exists) to maintaining their optimism and attempt to keep hope alive. 

I will not spoil the film for anyone, but let’s say that based on the script, they cannot make a sequel. This is not a typical end-of-the-world film.  Not quite science fiction, it is more a dramedy and love story.  It is written and admirably directed by Lorene Scafaria (of Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist).

The source of the end of the world is an asteroid heading towards Earth.  After a final futile mission to change the menacing space rubble’s path fails, the planet is faced with the same level of mass extinction that lastly occurred 65 million years ago and which ended the reign of the dinosaurs.

Throughout the film, you see people acting in a range of ways to the stress of vaporization. From news reports of ongoing mass riots, to others going about their daily routine, to a kind cleaning lady’s refusal to accept the end. In a scene repeated twice, the woman insists on coming back to clean Dodge’s home even as the final weeks of human existence come to a close. “See you next week” she demands and Dodge agrees, even though he knows that no such promise can be kept he supports the woman’s denial.

Luckily the religious allegories are contained to just certain catch phrases, like “last days” or “Armageddon.”  And while the lead characters in one scene come across a bunch of people waiting to be baptized in the ocean, their need to be at the beach is really about being connected to each other and also sharing time with others. So the spirituality of the film is limited to watching a sunset, rather than accepting some religious final exit.

In the film, humanity isn’t being extinguished because we’re sinners and the apocalypse isn’t occurring because we have failed god.  The world as humans know it (in the film) is ending based on natural causes. And while the end is coming from the extraterrestrial, it isn’t gods, monsters or space aliens from the past, present or future coming to end our time. According to NASA, space objects fly close to Earth with some regularity. So this is a plausible ending for our species.

What the film ultimately does is ask the viewer this, “If the world were to come to an end, who would you want to spend your final moments with?”  Basically, who would be the last person you’d want to see as the end comes since there is no escape from impending death?  It also asks, who do you need closure with; or to comfort and to be strong for as the world ends and as we again become the literal stuff of stars.

I think these are healthy questions to ask even without the doom of an asteroid hurtling towards Earth.  This, because we owe a debt of service to many people who have touched our lives, provide us our purpose and humanity, and give us the will to be humanists and accept each other. This in ways that religious faith cannot make happen even after several thousands of years of it trying.

On a personal note the answer is easy. While I’d want to see my extended family, my last moments would be with two special people. Their first names begin with the letters, “M” and “E.”  I helped bring them into the universe.  I would spend my last breath comforting them and would want to be there for them as the curtain on the planet came down.

If I were to rate the film, I’d give it three-and-a-half stars out of five. This for its rather choppy screenplay and somewhat disjointed direction.  However, Carell and Knightley do a fine job with the script, so the film’s acting and its overarching message is closer to a five. I recommend the film but warn you to perhaps bring some tissues. You may leave the theater a little weepy.

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