The apocalypse, as according to the lens of Hollywood, is something that doesn’t exist. Cannot exist. “This is America,” they all seem to shout, “you can’t tell us what to do!” Armageddon, the movie about an asteroid that is threatening to destroy earth upon impact, has the very same message. As does Deep Impact, the only difference being a black President. The end does strike in 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow, however, almost because it’s America, they rise up and reclaim the planet from those pesky weather patterns and inconvenient asteroids that just destroyed half of it. This might be all well and good if you’re an American, but when you’re a member of the rest of the world, it becomes a little tiring when you’re reduced to a quick cutaway, if at all. There’s only so many times one can see America win before the only craving they have is seeing the country itself destroyed.
Fortunately, one American film last year had the good taste to not even consider saving earth. Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World, an apocalyptic romantic comedy that doesn’t feature spaceships or missile launchers, simply asked the question In your last days with whom would you spend them? On the other side of the coin the 2011 European film Melancholia, directed by Lars Von Trier, spent most of the film in rejection of the claim the world would end by collision with a rogue planet.
Both films are radically different in their ideas of armageddon, let alone the genres they acquaint themselves with (one being a rom-com, the other an arthouse drama) but they both share the same lens cap. There is no global panic nor are there presidential speeches directing everyone on how to act. Both films have accepted their fate – within reason – and this is their journey to understanding what the end actually means.
Melancholia posits Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg against one another as unlikely sisters, continuing what seems to be an almost forty year feud (the respective ages are unclear). Dunst’s Justine is suffering from intense depression, even appearing bi-polar at times, and can’t find the energy to be positive even for her own wedding. She falls asleep, has a bath and has sex with a young man she met an hour ago on the golf course, all in the space of time she is meant to be spending with her new husband. Not even his gift of an apple orchard is enough to impress her.
The second half of the film, named directly after the sisters, concerns Claire. Played by Gainsbourg, it concerns the fallout post-wedding – everyone acts as if it never happened. Claire potters around the castle, rented out by her stupidly rich husband John (Keifer Sutherland) and spends her free time horse riding. In turn she allocates an overwhelming amount of energy towards her sister who is either incapable of appreciating her or is the most ungrateful person in the world – she has to feed, bathe and clothe her, all while her own young son risks being ignored.
In the first half of the film, the apocalypse plays a very minor role and barely features. Claire senses something – what exactly, we’re not sure of – and occasionally looks towards the sky with a sense of glee, focusing on a red star that John identifies as Antares (one of the brightest stars at night). She spends the rest of the evening being as difficult as possible (a symptom of her depression, perhaps) but hints towards a greater knowledge of the events surrounding her and, to a much greater extent, everyone on the planet. It doesn’t become clear until towards the end of the film when she proudly replies to Claire’s desire they go onto the balcony to sip wine and enjoy their last few hours alive, “Do you know what I think of your plan? I think it’s a piece of shit.”
The minor declaration, almost a desperate one-upmanship, get-the-last-word-in final fight, is dripping with hatred and self-loathing. Even Claire thinks so, replying exasperatedly “I really hate you sometimes.” Justine had earlier demonstrated awareness towards immediate acceptance of her fate, announcing, “I know things. And when I say we’re alone, we’re alone. Life is only on earth, and not for long.” In contrast Claire is completely unsure and is far from making up her mind about the impending doom – in one moment she’s being reassured by her astronomy-hobbyist husband that Melancholia will pass us by, in the next she’s gone and bought suicide pills (cyanide?) in preparation. Despite being the most physically incapable person in the entire film, Justine is mentally sharp about the end, the complete opposite to Claire. One could make large assumptions and compare Justine to the Melancholia planet, creating a path of utter destruction, but this seems too simple. Besides, Justine was always there. She’s always been a destructive force (for Claire).
Seeking A Friend does things a little differently. Earth is on the meltdown after one final attempt to save it from an impending asteroid named ‘Matilda’ fails (blowing it up Armageddon-style). Dodge (Steve Carrell) is in his car with his wife listening to the news on the radio when they declare it will now hit in exactly 21 days. He mumbles, “I think I missed the exit,” and his wife, almost in reaction to this metaphor about the state of their own relationship, panics and runs away.
The film spends the entire running time answering a combination of the apocalyptic questions - what would you do and whom would you spend it with? The global meltdown is definitely there but it’s background noise to Dodge and Penny’s (Keira Knightley) escape not from the end, but themselves. Penny is living with a deadbeat boyfriend and Dodge is re-evaluating his life and how he wants to spend his final 21 days. They meet by accident – Penny crying on the fire escape outside his window, Dodge being oddly trusting of strangers – and form a bond out of a desire to help one another reconnect with loved ones.
Gone is the interstellar philosophising and in its place is the media, slowly being deconstructed by the absence of employees abandoning not the medium but the job to spend it with families. All that remains is one solitary tv anchor who keeps us updated on the progress of the asteroid until the final days. Where Melancholia had family rifts and life continuing almost as normal, Seeking A Friend features a backdrop of mayhem and desperation. Dodge attends a party where his friend’s wife makes a move on him (“Nobody’s anyone’s anything anymore.”) and finds himself on the outer circle when they all decide to try heroin for the first time, one of them crying “bucket list!” when the offer is declared. Their neighbourhood comes under attack from rioters who aren’t rioting against any kind of moveable force but out of panic and an urge to destroy the world before something else does. At a restaurant an orgy breaks out and before that they found themselves the unfortunate company of a man who is trying to find his own self-hired assassin.
This is how the unlikely pair find themselves together, 14 days from extinction. Neither is a force of any kind – these are two debilitatingly normal people trying to find a square insert in a world of round pegs. In the prison scene, the result of a misplaced arrest, Dodge remarks about a guy sleeping between his The End Is Here sandwich board – “He always knew the end was near and he is not surprised. You are looking at a vindicated man.” In this context it’s a nod to Melancholia’s Justine, that for all her destructive nature she is sound asleep without care, the only person capable of doing so. Where Claire wanted things to continue without interruption, the world of Penny and Dodge is filled with people living out their wildest fantasies without consequence.
At the point of the end the films become glaringly similar. Both position the central characters together in one final union, whether by development or via a begrudging reunion of sorts. Melancholia has them sitting under a tent of sticks (cloaked by an invisible shield, for the sake of Claire’s child) holding hands, where Seeking has the pair lying in bed, fully clothed and telling each other that they’ve finally found the one they were looking for all their life.
Both films triumph in not delivering a dumb macho, America-saves-the-world story. Their success lies in presenting an alternative and just how willing are we to accept that life is not infinite. Melancholia affirms we are merely specks of gravitational dust in the universe whereas Seeking offers an end with a future, were it not for the grim conclusion. In a world where such smaller films are almost shoved to the side, it’s a sign that we’re not willing to accept the finality they suggest and that we need the oiled American muscle to gift us with a future. The apocalypse will exist and this is what it will look like so make peace with mortality while you still can.
Nicholas Brodie - follow Nick on Twitter here: @fodusempire