Seeking a Friend for the End of the World begins with the grim news that humanity’s last hope for survival, a mission to intercept a 70-mile-wide asteroid on a collision course with Earth, has failed. The asteroid will hit the Earth in three weeks. Allow me an astronomical aside at this point. An impactor that large, roughly 10 times larger and 1000 times more energetic than the dinosaur-killer of 65 million years ago, would absolutely spell not just the end of civilization but of almost all life on Earth. A global firestorm would do the bulk of the damage, followed by starvation of pretty much everything else. Some tiny creatures would likely survive in some deeply buried or protected habitat. Perhaps worms at the ocean floor and bacteria in the oceans or underground would survive. But we would not. An impactor of that size would have to be a cometary (icy) object from the outer solar system as all asteroids that size have been discovered and none poses any potential threat of impact for the immediate future.
As soon as Dodge (Steve Carrell) and his wife hear this news over their car radio, his wife gives him one horrified look, then turns and dashes from the car and runs away without another glance back. It’s a perfect introduction to what the movie is about. His wife is more terrified of spending her last days with Dodge than she is, it seems, about only having three weeks to live. Not that Dodge is a bad guy. He’s a sweetly ordinary and unambitious insurance salesman who finds himself suddently alone at the brink of extinction. Chance throws him together with his neighbor, Penny (Keira Knightley), and they head off in search of Dodge’s high school sweetheart. She is not the one that got away, he tells Penny, but “the first one that got away.” Your heart has to go out to the guy.
The backdrop to their road trip is the broad range of reactions to the impending end of the world. The screenplay by Lorene Scafaria (who also directed) does a nice job of showing the full spectrum, from hard-core drug use at parties and orgies, to riots, to the policeman who unwaveringly follows the letter of the law. Assassins offer their services to people who want to die an unpredictable death. Others line up to be baptised in the ocean. A newscaster continues reporting the disintegration of society until the last day.
Penny is impulsive, quirky and emotional. Dodge, unlike his name, is steady. I felt an academic interest in seeing how different people reacted to their situation. The end of the world brings an entirely new level to the question of “what is important” beyond the more familiar terrain of movies about people with terminal illnesses. We all know (or at least have a strong suspicion) that we may one day die, but we expect that life and the human experiment will continue. For me, the hope that I have played some role in furthering that experiment, is a big part of what keeps me going. And chocolate. But if the experiment ends with me, what do I do? I found I did not want to give this hypothetical very much consideration.