Last weekend I saw Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, starring Steve Carell and Keira Knightley. Its run was short lived and after three weeks only two theaters in Manhattan were playing it (which is strange since NYC usually keeps movies around for a while). From the previews, the film looked like a dark comedy about the apocalypse. Instead, I walked out thinking the film is a deep existential meditation on our fragility and how taking advantage of life is so very important. I’m actually amazed how deeply this film moved me. And yes, everybody dies at the end. I don’t care if you say I spoiled the film but the title is pretty self-explanatory.
Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria (the lady behind Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, which I think is nothing more than an excuse to have Michael Cera get to second base with Kat Dennings), I didn’t understand at first why the film was such a commercial failure. The reviews were decent—Roger Ebert gave it three stars—but the film didn’t even recoup its $10 million dollar budget. People liked Nick and Norah, even though it was complete drivel, and people flock to zombie movies and end of the world films regularly. Hell, Michael Bay’s embarrassing Armageddon made five times its $120 million budget yet Seeking a Friend couldn’t break even. Why?
I left the movie theater feeling a sense of calm, a feeling that my life is valuable (at least to me), and I shouldn’t squander it or take it for granted. Yes, this bastard movie really had an impact on me, in a way usually reserved for serious dramas, incredible books, or real life. About twenty blocks down I realized why people wouldn’t see this movie: it’s because it was absolute. It wasn’t like Armageddon, where Bruce Willis destroys the asteroid, saving Ben Affleck’s life so he and the Aerosmith daughter can fill the world with more large mouthed children. It’s not even like a zombie movie, where you can survive the apocalypse through cunning and a little luck. This movie is final, with no happy ending, no chance of survival, and no redemption. That’s a pretty harrowing concept, especially when you have to buy a ticket to experience it.
Lars Von Trier’s 2011 film Melancholia presents a similar situation but without the comedy. However, Von Trier has a reputation for being extremely bleak (click here to see the ending of Dancer in the Dark for an example of his work) whereas Scafaria doesn’t. Don’t let this take away the clever comedic instances in Seeking a Friend, of which there are many, but the overwhelming sense of doom permeates everything, even if it’s somebody sitting down and listening to Herb Alpert’s cover of Burt Bacharach’s This Guy’s in Love With You. Yes, Scafaria is making a love story, and a touching one, but humanity’s imminent destruction never leaves the conversation, infecting every single frame of the film. For all the tough talk from Americans about the world’s end (see any of the Race War advertisements on The Drudge Report for an example) they can’t actually face a story where that happens. I find this odd since so many Christian Americans are clamoring for the Second Coming, waiting to die so they can find paradise. I can accept this but I’ll never understand it.
It’s like Americans want their apocalypses tied up in a two to three hour time frame, so they can get home and get back to their lives, watch SportsCenter and fall asleep with the television on. Don’t get me wrong, I went to this movie, which one can argue means I want the same thing, but I actually went to this movie whereas others didn’t, instead flocking to The Avengers, where horrendous destruction is acceptable because superheroes will solve their problems for them. I liked The Avengers but it was pure fantasy; Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, while also fiction, was much more realistic. Just this past weekend an asteroid, said to be the size of a city block, came pretty close to us. This isn’t a rare occurrence either, as I’ve seen articles about this for years and even heard scientists discussing this possibly happening in the future. While dwelling on such a catastrophe isn’t healthy, it makes Scafaria’s movie all the more lifelike, stripping away the Hollywood twaddle usually associated with these kinds of films. It’s an adult way of approaching our collective mortality and maybe the film’s failure indicates our adolescence, our inability to accept that we all die.
Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film Children of Men is also a very bleak vision of humanity’s future. However, unlike Seeking a Friend, which offers no hope, Cuarón’s film gives a glimmer of humankind’s redemption, even if the ending doesn’t guarantee anything. Children of Men is another prime example of people avoiding stark depictions of reality in film and was also a financial failure, recouping only about 90% of it’s budget. Yet even Children of Men hints at deliverance where Seeking a Friend is devoid of it. Is it that our culture can’t handle the grim reality of existence, even in a fictional representation, without a way out? Do we really need an exit strategy for every story?
Personally, I think it’s a shame nobody saw Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. It’s a brilliant film and even though it’s themes are somber on the surface it’s a touching movie that’s life affirming instead of soul crushing. It validates life instead of destroying all hope. Maybe when people see the phrase “end of the world” in a non-religious situation they steer clear, hoping to stave off thoughts of their own demise, as we all live in a youth obsessed culture where aging is seen as a weakness. If only people could see past their own phobias regarding life and death they can watch a film like this, reevaluate their choices, and treat their short time on this little rock differently by focusing less on the mundane, trivial aspects of 21st century living and embrace the art of being alive.