Lorene Scafaria’s smart, thoughtful dark comedy begins with the acceptance of failure: as an enormous asteroid continues steadily on its collision course toward Earth, all efforts to destroy or divert it have come to nothing. We immediately learn the necessary details: human resistance is pointless, and escape is an impossibility—the earth will be destroyed, everyone will die, and there are no bargaining chips. These are the facts.
If it’s possible to over-immerse oneself in a movie, I almost always do. Append this tendency to my condition as a chronic worrier, and I’ve got myself a cocktail of tribulation ready to go, as far as Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is concerned. Each time I sit with this film, I feel as though I’ve been grabbed by the scruff of the neck, and yanked into the screen. It’s all a little too real, somehow—for ninety minutes, I have to actively remind myself that I’m not actually in the path of any (known) asteroid, and that as far as I know, there is no verifiable news that the world will end in thirteen days. Then again, rational thought can only do so much to allay animal panic. But I’ll come back to fear later.
Scafaria’s film plays with both apocalypse and absurdity, as mismatched pair Dodge (Steve Carell) and Penny (Keira Knightley) must take on the inevitability of their deaths with some modicum of purpose. As things quite literally fall apart, we see various characters throughout the film handle their impending mortality with disparate degrees of reaction: some party, drug, and self-medicate themselves into oblivion. A few build elaborate underground shelters, hell-bent on survival. Some take their own lives, rather than prolong their wait. And some seek God.
Within such inalterable powerlessness, nihilism appears to be the only logical recourse. Everything material is rendered inconsequential—civic duties, bills, job promotions, and life insurance all seem silly, at best. “I just can’t spend the last month of my life getting to know someone,” Dodge protests just five minutes into the movie. “It’s ridiculous.” And so, perhaps, it is. Which is precisely why Seeking a Friend invites us, with a benevolent dose of humor and comic relief, to witness the beginning and culmination of an inexpedient love story—as imperfect, knotty, and human as its subjects.
For me, the film’s realism often translates itself into a frighteningly personal space, albeit coincidentally. In one scene for example, as Keira Knightly makes a phone call to her family back in England, I can’t help but think of my own relatives across the pond. The world is ending. She speaks to her mother and father, saying how much she misses them, and all I can think of are my own parents. The world is ending. And as she banters with her brother over the phone, asking after the welfare of her niece, I’m quite ready to turn the TV off just thinking about my own younger brother, and my year-old niece. All of it. It’s ending. I find myself asking the one question I don’t wish to consider: how would I feel if I knew that I—and everyone I love—would be dead in a matter of days? Even now, the aphoristic mantra “Life Is Short” continues to gnaw at me with all its stupid veracity. And I still wonder how much more a film could possibly uncover, with absurdly uncanny exactitude, every earthly, God-devoid anxiety I’ve ever had.
Of course, the affective power of Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is not contingent on mimetic personal experiences. The film simply remains joyful and humane in its outlook, finding the personal in the universality of its themes. We see people laugh with and at each other. We see them worry and cry. We see them lose love, and gain it. We see them suffer. We see them muddling through—day by nonsensical day, trying to make sense of their own failures and missed opportunities. We see them seek salvation. We see them think. We see them living.
Which is, I’d say, a kind of affront to death—being alive at all. And Seeking a Friend, in its empathic treatment of different kinds of love, causes me to think of a further affront, as I personally hope to live out in my own life: to think and act beyond the self, to love God, to love others. There’s the old cliché, “Only two things in life are certain: death and taxes.” Well, we know this isn’t true. A person can evade taxes until she dies; the end comes regardless. But if death can’t be escaped, I wonder if it can’t be defrauded in this life—living in recognition of our smallness, accepting grace where it is offered. With whatever time we’re given, apocalypse or not.