The Daily Stream: Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World Finds Hope In The Apocalypse

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Movie: "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World"

Where You Can Stream It: HBO Max

The Pitch: A massive planetary body is on a collision course with Earth, leaving the entire human race with only a limited time to prepare for the end in a movie that also happens to feature actor Melanie Lynskey in a supporting role. If that oddly specific premise sounds familiar, well, it's become a freshly relevant topic in recent days with "Don't Look Up" releasing on Netflix to mixed reception. But where the Adam McKay political satire takes a predominantly cynical perspective on how humanity would react to the impending doom of our planet — in all fairness, our collective response to the ongoing pandemic only adds further and further evidence in favor of the bleak observations made in "Don't Look Up" – "Hustlers" and "Succession" filmmaker Lorene Scafaria finds a much different approach to eerily similar material in her 2012 directing debut. Against all logic, "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World" chooses to look at the impending apocalypse as one last chance for connection and hope, which is precisely what makes it so worth watching during this current moment in time.

Why It's Essential Viewing

It may be odd to read this next sentence after just describing the film as about hope, but "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World" doesn't hesitate to rip the Band-Aid off right away and deliver the bad news in its opening moments: a 70 mile-wide asteroid is headed for Earth, the shuttle mission to save the world has ended in disaster, and humanity only has a scant three weeks left before it all ends. No muss, no fuss, and no pretense otherwise.

This doom-filled news report — casually delivered on a classic rock radio station before abruptly (and hilariously) switching over to "Wouldn't It Be Nice" by the Beach Boys — immediately has an overwhelming effect on all the characters in the film. Steve Carell's Dodge essentially shuts down, caught between running away from both his unfulfilling life and the inescapable fate bearing down on everyone versus giving in to the most existential case of ennui anyone has ever suffered from. His wife Linda (Nancy Carell, the actor's real-life wife), meanwhile, takes one clear-eyed look at him for the first time in her life and promptly runs for the hills, choosing to spend her last days free from the confines of an unsatisfying marriage. It's equal parts amusing and depressing to watch this early examination of humanity forced to come to terms with its own mortality, lending a touch of darkness to the more lighthearted proceedings that follow.

Dodge, a loner by nature who is also terrified of dying alone, finds himself being set up by his friends for a pointless relationship with Karen (Melanie Lynskey) to get over his failed marriage. But just as he resigns himself to a final three weeks spent wallowing in his absolute worst fear, he suddenly runs into two major developments that change everything: the appearance of his incorrigible neighbor Penny (Keira Knightley), and a letter mistakenly sent to her from Dodge's old flame Olivia, the "one who got away" who's now hoping to reconnect one last time before the very end. It's never too late to find love, the movie seems to be arguing, but Dodge eventually learns this lesson in a much different way than he ever could've expected.

Saving the World

The buddy-comedy road trip that follows could've easily fallen into convention or twee, but Scafaria is searching for something much more meaningful than that. In her capable hands, the indie dramedy approach to both camerawork and tone injects the film with a weight that few others could've hoped to recreate. When we're treated to extended stretches of Dodge and Penny simply observing other people trying to make sense of it all — whether it be as silly as a group of revelers having the time of their lives at a Friendly's-equivalent restaurant, as serious as a somber crowd waiting at a beach to be baptized, or as darkly comedic as hitching a ride with a driver who has contracted an assassin to take himself out before the asteroid does — otherwise mundane depictions of humanity living out their lives in quiet defiance of the end somehow hit all the harder.

We never actually see the asteroid that's putting an end to civilization as we know it (or even the object of Dodge's decade-old affections, for that matter), but the ever-present threat nevertheless forces us to shift our perspective and take stock of everything we usually take for granted. For Dodge and the refreshingly complicated Penny, that means slowly but surely realizing that facing the inevitable is much easier to do together than alone. Over the course of a few weeks (in the film) and 1 hour and 40 minutes (in real-time), we get to watch these two strangers transform from neighbors to friends to lovers, with every step along the way feeling earned and with every high or low point in their dynamic reflecting some deceptively profound truth about our own existence. By the time the film ambles towards its foregone conclusion, the final exchange of dialogue (which I won't spoil here) hits with more force than the planet-killing asteroid ever could.

Much like Penny herself, "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World" is ultimately a gooey romantic at heart. At a time when we're collectively struggling through multiple catastrophes at once and nobody seems to have time for such sincerity, I can't think of many better or more hopeful ways to tune out the outside world and feel optimistic again ... for a little while, at least.