You wake up one morning and discover that the only safeguard standing between you and impending death has been obliterated. Death is coming. It is relentless and swift. You have three weeks remaining. Suddenly, years lose their meaning. Every second counts. How will you spend them? This is the scenario constructed in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.
Critics could easily accuse the film of being confused – it has a hard time figuring out if it wants to be a romantic comedy, a raunch-fest, or a serious drama. In actuality, this array of responses might be precisely how different people might really react if they knew that the world was to be destroyed in the very near future. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World does not provide an answer to the problem of annihilation, it just describes possibilities – and, as a result, for those who see it, it may become one of the most personally illuminating films of the year. What would you do if you knew you were going to die?
Fair warning: the following analysis contains a number of major spoilers that have to be revealed in order for the arguments presented to make sense. The goal here is not a review of the film, but a way to use the film to engage viewers with a discussion about life, death, and what comes after.
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World supposes a time in the near future. A giant asteroid is hurtling toward Earth. All efforts to deflect or destroy it have failed. The news now consists of a final countdown to planetary extinction. Dodge (an interesting name for an insurance salesman) is abandoned by his wife. His best friend Warren is losing it. He tells Dodge that the Earth is no longer an ark, “It’s the Titanic, and there’s not a lifeboat in sight.”
Dodge fears dying alone and determines to seek out a lost love. His neighbor, Penny, suddenly realizes that she misses her family in England. She has a car. He has a friend with a plane. So the two become allies, helping each other to fulfill last wishes. And on their surreal road trip, they encounter every conceivable response to the apocalypse.
Denial and Death
Some of the humor in the film is generated by a few characters who continue blithely to live their lives as if nothing is going to happen – as if, by closing their eyes to their fate, they can somehow avoid it. People continue mowing their lawns, showing up for work, living out their daily routines. The famous evangelist D. L. Moody was once asked what he would do today if he knew that Jesus Christ was coming back tomorrow. Moody replied that he would “plant a tree.” In other words, he would continue living his life the way he had, trying to be faithful to his calling. I don’t know that continuing with your appointed tasks in the face of impending death is all that bad – as long as you recognize what is coming and you are trying to be faithful.
Another branch of denial, which occurs in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World on a much smaller scale than viewers saw in, for example, 2012, is the idea that through the use of technology we can survive our encounter with the Apocalypse. Penny’s ex-boyfriend, Speck, believes that he and his para-military friends have constructed a “safe room” sufficient to overcome the impact of a 70-mile-wide asteroid. Postmodern author Zygmut Baumann argues, "What distinguishes the postmodern strategy of peak-experience from one promoted by religions, is that far from celebrating the assumed human insufficiency and weakness, it appeals to the full development of human inner psychological and bodily resources and presumes infinite human potency." Good luck with that. Self-delusion is what follows from believing a fatally flawed presupposition. Finite creatures do not have infinite potency. We have limits – one of which is our lifespan. Even if elaborately constructed extensions of technology could stave off an asteroid attack for a few clever survivors, it would not really save their lives; it would merely postpone their deaths.
The more troubling parts of Seeking a Friend for the End of the World come from those who refuse to, or lack the resources to, follow the advice of the film’s title. They don’t seek friends. Rather, they choose to die now rather than face the death that is coming. The hopelessness represented by the characters who make these choices – and they are mercifully few – put the rest of the film in sharp relief, and point up how important it is to reach out to the lost and lonely. In Luke 14, Jesus instructs His followers to come alongside those who are considered wretched by the world’s standard, to befriend the rejected, just as He came to save us, even while we were His enemies. Connecting with people who feel lost will not keep every soul from tragic actions, but friendship and hope are excellent antidotes to desperation.
People as Trash, Toys or Treasure
Other reactions to imminent demise in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World concern how people treat one another. When the news reports that the last hope for humanity – a space mission designed to remove the threat – has failed, riots erupt across the world. People run through the streets looting, burning, destroying property, and worse. It is as if 2 Thessalonians 2:7 has come to pass, and all that restrains lawlessness has been removed. Incidents of this kind of behavior can be seen any time there is a breakdown of authority in a region. Imagine the violence if godless, lawless people truly believed that no earthly or divine authority could ever catch, prosecute, or punish them.
While some characters resort to violence, others sink into sensuality, trying to drown out the advancing footsteps of their fate with drugs, alcohol, and sex. None of the interactions carry the hallmarks of people seeking relationships, but only self-gratification. The sense the viewer gets is not that these characters want to feel everything, they just want to feel something. It is the culmination of a self-centered, body-focused generation; a living embodiment of the rejection of a God-centered universe in which human beings will ultimately give account for their actions. If this is all there is – if, as the Apostle Paul hypothetically suggests, the dead are not raised to judgment, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”
But other characters seek genuine connection and relationships with people. They want to get beyond themselves by engaging in what Will Rockett in Devouring Whirlwind describes as a sideways path to transcendence. These characters truly value others, seek forgiveness of past wrongs and reconciliation. They want to love and comfort one another in the midst of terrible circumstances.
The fact is that we do live in an often-terrifying world. That many in the West live in relative peace compared to the violent hot spots on the globe is little consolation. Just pick up a newspaper, and story after story of human loss and tragedy will parade before you. The Bible describes the world as engulfed in sin, and compares us to grass, which springs up and then withers away. The question is not how will we die, but how will we live in the midst of a dark and troubling world?
The Upward Path
In order to truly live with purpose, for our actions to count, life must have meaning – a meaning that transcends the idea that morality is nothing more than a mere cultural construct. And Seeking a Friend for the End of the World does not shy away from this idea. Early in the film, when Dodge and Penny first meet in her hallway, they discuss their “life plans” for the three weeks that remain. As if going over a laundry list of how they might best spend their remaining days, Dodge indicates that he is looking to spend some “me time” and that he might try to “find God.” Penny says that perhaps she might see him around, maybe at “an orgy.” The list indicates meaning-seeking, and, in fact, they do run into nearly every scenario they describe – to one degree or another. However, the fascinating aspect of the film is that some of its most powerful scenes deal not with mindless introspection or desperate sensuality, but with acknowledgement of, or a search for, God.
In a short, but intensely realistic, scene, a newscaster is giving his final report. He looks directly into the camera before signing off, telling the viewers that he is going home to spend time with his family. And, in a voice emboldened by the certainty that this is his last appearance to them, he tells the viewers that his family will be praying for each and every one of them.
Later, on their road trip, Dodge nearly crashes their car into a line of people who, we discover, are on their way to the beach. In a long shot, we notice that the people are patiently waiting their turn to enter the water to be baptized. It is left to the viewer to determine whether Dodge and Penny participate, but what follows is a scene of delightful family communion around firepits in the sand. People – clearly strangers before this event – play and talk together. Depending on your conjecture about what the scene means, it can be either a surreal or remarkably reassuring moment. What happens on that beach densely colors the rest of the action in the film.
The Inevitable End
You are going to die. This is a statistical certainty. In fact, about 150,000 people will die today. I am not sure why we are more attuned to death when it occurs suddenly to large groups of people than we are when it happens to an individual (unless that individual is us, or a close friend or relation), but we are.
We are interested in the end of the world because we recognize that this will mean an end to us; all of us. Unlike Deep Impact, 2012, or Knowing, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World does not focus on spectacle. There are no super-volcanoes erupting or mile-high waves inundating the earth. It is mostly a quiet, personal film about how we approach impending death. In that regard, it is a much more useful film than many other apocalyptic films. It forces us to ask ourselves, with which path do I most closely identify? Why choose this path over that one? Is there a God and, when I die, will I face Him? And if so, what will I say? How will I account for this life that I have led? It is better to ask and answer these questions earlier in life, rather than later.
It is true. We all will die. But very few of us know when or how. For many, death will come as a swift surprise, and for others a slow descent. But since it is inevitable, we should consider its implications and plan accordingly. Seeking a Friend For the End of the World presents a host of real-world alternatives. Perhaps we should discuss them with our loved ones long before it is too late.
Marc T. Newman, Ph.D., is the president of MovieMinistry.com, an organization that provides sermon and teaching illustrations, Bible studies and discussion cards, drawn from popular film, and helps the Church use movies to reach out to others and connect with people. Dr. Newman is an associate professor in the School of Communication and the Arts at Regent University. Requests for media interviews, or reprints of this article, can be made to firstname.lastname@example.org.