by Niles Schwartz
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World begins with the climax of another disaster movie, Michael Bay’s Armageddon. Except with a different outcome. The new Apollo mission to board and reroute a colossal asteroid has ended in failure, Bruce Willis’s and Ben Affleck’s substitutes dying as the undeterred rock mass continues to fly towards Earth, bringing the end of civilization with it. One newscaster reports on the ground to the stoic, Brian Williams-like studio anchor, “We’re fucked.” And so we are.
If the arts reflect the consciousness – or unconscious – of the times, maybe we should address our current End Times obsession. Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe followed the nuclear ringing of the Cuban Missile Crisis (and the assassination of a president). Cold War rhetoric during the Reagan years nurtured Testament, War Games, Red Dawn, Whoops Apocalypse!, The Terminator, The Dead Zone, and that funky Genesis “Land of Confusion” music video, starring the Splitting Image puppets. Omens of millennium sounded off after Bill Clinton’s election, the tempest of a vociferous pro-lifer becoming manifested in Kevin Spacey’s John Doe from Seven, followed by Strange Days and Twelve Monkeys in 1995, aliens attacking in Independence Day and Mars Attacks! from 1996, and finally the aforementioned asteroids, plummeting to Earth in both Armageddon and Mimi Leder’s Deep Impact.
But in most of those instances, the world was saved, or at least, civilization survived with a head-up to rebuild. At the conclusion of Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys, set soon before the outbreak of virus that will wipe out billions, one of the post-apocalyptic administrators who send poor James Cole (Bruce Willis) off on his pawn mission introduces herself as an insurance agent. Is she insuring the planet? Or rather, is she insuring her own self-interest, as the planet’s demise has solidified her powerful status in the future?
Steve Carrell’s Dodge in Seeking a Friend is also an insurance guy, and it’s a little amusing to see him try to sell some Armageddon insurance – which is apparently expensive, and of course, absurd. There is no insurance for lost time or people. The End, and whatever it represents, takes the clothes off of various conveniences. Viewers and filmmakers read the news, in addition to knowing the Mayans and Harold Camping, so maybe this influx of new apocalyptic products is itself a brand of insurance, or consolation at least. In the last decade, after surviving the entrance into the year 2000, and the more rattling experience of 9/11 which has since put us on perpetual Orange Alert, omens of gloom, with no sense of a safety net, are congregating like the amassing zombies that transfix viewers on popular television serials like The Walking Dead.
The “End” has advanced beyond epic Hollywood Gotterdammerung, like in Roland Emmerich’s hilarious 2012, to serious art-film contemplation: Abel Ferrera’s 4:44 Last Day on Earth, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, and documentaries ranging from the alarmism of Collapse to the “poetic truth” of Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World and Cave of Forgotten Dreams. The Mayan calendar and Dick Clark’s death by themselves can’t be responsible for this cataclysmic itch. Is it the economy? The weather? Terrorism? Poverty? Population?
Commenting on Alfonso Cuaron’s modern classic Children of Men, the philosopher Slajov Zizek points out something interesting. In the case of climate change, we say that we know it’s happening, and yet we still, contradictorily, don’t believe it. It’s a beautiful June day in Minnesota; we couldn’t have had a more comfortable weekend for parades and picnics. The immediacy of something bad happening refuses to materialize in our heads. Such thoughts are swept under the fridge, into our dreams, only to re-emerge here, on film.
Moving pictures release a population, reinforcing our escape. Jean Claude Carriere wrote how a government wanting to ease its people or environmental fears would simply televise images conveying comfort, of trees and good climate serving as the background for both news and melodrama. Other movies address this paradox, undercutting the medium, the budding apocalypse genre being the best example. For the virus thriller Contagion, Steven Soderbergh wanted to originally shoot in 3-D, accentuating the theme of detached comfort, on an audience’s part, being disrupted. The added visual dimension would upset our distance.
As both audience and as citizens, detachment keeps us safe. The classic case is Peter Weir’s 1976 Australian masterpiece, The Last Wave, where affluent white citizens are forced to acknowledge a coming flood, an epoch-ending tidal wave prophesied by the aborigines. The necklaces and embroidery of organized religion, like with any ritual, only buffer the immediacy of something happening. This past decade, the soundtrack for current fears of new ice-age isolation and infertility may have been set to motion by Radiohead and Kid A (released in October 2000), the chorus of “This is really happening” (or “this is not happening”) occurring in the despondent sounds of “How to Disappear Completely” and “Idioteque.” Yes, it’s happening, and now it’s going to be more difficult to sleep soundly.
From The Last Wave to Kid A to Children of Men, the shock in acknowledging apocalyptic imminence might be essentially a sociopolitical metaphor, the artists describing an apathetic populace made docile by convenience and technology, unable to honestly look at its transgressions. In The Last Wave this pertained to white culture’s relationship to the aborigines, who were living in squalor. In Contagion, it is the corporation of a wealthy businessperson (Gwyneth Paltrow) – whose last name is Emhoff (evoking “Madoff”) – that is responsible for creating the environmental conditions resulting in pandemic.
Elsewhere, ending the world can be an artist’s almost erotic death wish, as Melancholia was Lars von Trier’s means of escaping a depression, his apocalypse being a Romantic longing expressed in the use of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. While in Malick and the documentaries of Herzog, the End relates to the artist’s awe of the world. We spy our dead sun in The Tree of Life, the camera’s “God’s Eye View” taking a whole new meaning as souls walk together on the shores of eternity, the end being symmetrical to the chaos we saw at time’s dawn.
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World may be the least impressive of all these works; its promise becomes an episodic adventure of predictable confrontations, as lovable dork Dodge and beautiful wild child Penny (Keira Knightley) are strangers coming together, searching for lost loves and being hammered by regrets. Nevertheless, the title for Lorene Scafaria’s romantic – and ultimately mournful – comedy nails the chief fear behind the apocalyptic scenario. Beyond civilization’s end, miles strewn with corpses, cities on fire, and a ghastly death by the hands of rogue cannibals, these stories are about loneliness, or simply as Dodge expresses it, “the fear of dying alone.”
In The Road, either the Cormac McCarthy novel or the John Hillcoat film adaptation starring Viggo Mortensen, the struggle to hold on to another person – in this case, a father and son – is the emotional hook for reader and viewer, connecting to the disquieting visions of collapse on the periphery. The frenzy and carnage has blotted out sympathy; there’s only the selfish race for food, where minutes are acquired at the price of diamonds. Who has time for perspective and pity? The apocalypse scenario has its heroes striving to see other beings as something more than mere “its.”
Dodge is so sensitive to his sense of aloneness that he pities a big spider in his bathroom sink, which he would have otherwise squished with the help of a paper towel. Hilariously, pity is repaid with the spider crawling across his face at night. He meanwhile adopts – or accepts - a dog he’s dubbed as “Sorry,” named after the note left with it. Dodge’s existence is an ever-ringing echo of apologies for being alive in an otherwise frivolous, pitiless, impersonal, and cruel universe. In contrasting Dodge and Penny’s relationship to the post-asteroid bunker plans of Penny’s militaristic ex-boyfriend (Derek Luke), Scafaria shows how human connection, however hopeless, is more precious than survival and practical necessity.
Whatever its shortcomings, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World ends perfectly, which is not to say its conclusion is positive or negative. Death, whether on an intimate bed or with the backdrop of worlds colliding, remains a lonely thing. There is hedonism, peppered with riots and suicide. People wish to get out of themselves, and so maybe technology has served us well in this restless time, months before December 2012, with those “wars and rumors of war.” As things are increasingly disembodied, stored on screens and discs, these films have the recurring motif of people, often strangers, embracing each other. The newscaster in Seeking a Friend is right – we are all fucked. And the best we can hope for is a hug, kiss, and some pillow talk to go along with it.