Imagine: A 70-mile wide asteroid is careening toward Earth. The last-ditch attempt to deflect the space rock has failed. Newscasters are announcing everyone’s worst fears: the killer asteroid is going to hit Earth and we’re all, most likely, going to die. With only 21 days left to live, what would you do?
In an upcoming movie starring Steve Carell and Keira Knightly, this scenario is explored. But don’t expect dazzling CGI (because there is none) and don’t get excited for a chisel-jawed Bruce Willis-esque hero to save the day (because he died in that last-ditch attempt to save humanity). The planet is doomed. The End.
But before The End, director and writer Lorene Scafaria wants to take us on the weird, frightening, depressing, enlightening, funny, and downright odd journey of two strangers who just need a companion days before doomsday.
When invited to attend the Focus Features screening of “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” (to be released Friday, June 22), I was pessimistic about the likelihood that the “doomsday comedy” would impress me.
This year is, of course, the much-hyped year the movie “2012″ brought a horribly flawed cosmic cataclysm into the mainstream, glorifying the ancient Mayans as the profits of doom. Of course, the Mayans never predicted doomsday, but this fact matters little to the doomsayers stand to make a profit from people’s fears.
Would Scafaria fall into the “Mayan doomsday” trap in a bid for Box Office gold? Would Carell and Knightly be headlining a doomsday flick that serves only to stoke the embers of doom and gloom?
In a word: No.
“Seeking a Friend” provides a charming, emotional and thought-provoking ride through a society facing certain death; a beautiful story told with exceptional confidence by Scafaria. And with any Carell movie, awkward humor is never far away. What’s more, the Mayans aren’t mentioned once — no ancient mesoamerican culture was abused in the making of this film.
So, in the beginning, we find out that the final attempt at deflecting an asteroid, called “Matilda,” has failed. It’s not clear why a space shuttle — manned by 12 unfortunate astronauts — is used for the effort (wouldn’t some well-aimed nukes be a better bet?), but that’s not important right now, serious personal problems are at hand.
Dodge (Carell), an insurance salesman, sits in the car with his wife (played by Carell’s real-world wife) listening to the bad news on the radio. The realization that the “end is nigh” prompts his wife to leave him, running.
Somewhere along the way, Dodge meets Penny (Knightly), his British neighbor. Dodge and Penny couldn’t be more different. He’s a level-headed guy who finds comfort in certainty and predictability. Penny has a gregarious, carefree and bohemian attitude to life. But circumstances threw the pair together.
And there’s a dog called “Sorry,” a scruffy terrier, who was dumped on Dodge after a botched suicide attempt.
Prompted by a letter, Dodge and Penny (and Sorry) embark on an action-filled trek to find Dodge’s old love. Penny collects her treasured vinyl records — after a riot breaks out near their building — and they hit the road together.
Along the way, they run into a bizarre (and hilarious) orgy in a restaurant, come face-to-face with the weird phenomenon of assassination-suicides, get help from a determined underground team of survivalists (headed by an ex-boyfriend of Penny’s) and Dodge faces his father (Martin Sheen) who holds the key to Penny being able to be reunited with her family in England.
Although there are the expected hysteria, violence, death and destruction, probably the most jarring moments during the movie are how scenes of normality randomly appear during Dodge and Penny’s journey. Although society knows death is only a matter of days away, people carry on with their daily tasks — mowing their lawns and turning up to their jobs.
Throughout, the characters ask each other what they did “before.”
Although I found “Seeking a Friend” to be a thoroughly engrossing and fascinating journey through the quagmire of a doomed society, there was one particular science howler that will make any space-savvy moviegoer shudder.
The back-story behind the 70-mile wide asteroid Matilda is kept vague, but why was the forecast time of impact suddenly upgraded to arrive a week earlier than previously predicted? All known asteroids are tracked and their orbits are very well known, and assuming astronomers had the time to track the 70-mile-wide object — I assume they did, as it was so freakin’ big — the time of impact would have been timed down to the nearest millisecond. Laws of orbital motion are, by their nature, precise.
It’s obvious that “Seeking a Friend” isn’t a sci-fi movie that focuses on a small band of rescuers battling to save the planet. This is focused on everyday society during an undefined era (the movie was deliberately kept “timeless” by Scafaria) and how the average person would handle the news that everyone is going to die.
“Seeking a Friend” has some brilliantly-timed dark humor, particularly in the first hour, and if you’re a fan of Carell and/or Knightly, you won’t be disappointed. There is some wonderful tragic chemistry between the pair that I doubt many actors could pull off with such ease.
Although the second half of the movie becomes more depressed and drawn-out as The End draws ever-near, you are so emotionally invested that you find yourself wishing for that classic Hollywood ending.
Surely there was a mistake? The asteroid is going to miss, right? That Bruce Willis-like hero didn’t really die in the opening scene and he was able to destroy the space rock in the last moments? But as Dodge and Penny lie down, counting the seconds to impact, you slowly realize that there’s no happy ending here. The planet, including Penny and Dodge (and Sorry), are toast.
My verdict for ‘Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World’: A fascinating story about an often overlooked perspective of normal people facing the end of the world through a funny, charming and thought-provoking lens; 4/5 doomsday asteroids.
Image: Dodge meets Sorry for the first time. Credit: Darren Michaels/Focus Features