Science fiction isn't just aliens invading, laser beams blowing up cities, or men in tights flying around and saving the day. Subtle science fiction looks at the human condition and explores how real people would deal with fantastic circumstances. Most of "Battlestar Galactica" wasn't directly about the war between robots and their masters, it was about defining life and the pain of birth - even as an adult.
"Seeking a Friend for the End of the World" is a movie that some would say isn't science fiction, but the premise is decidedly so. It is "sometime in the future," our only hint places it somewhere between 6 and 10 years forward, and an asteroid is coming to Earth.
The film begins with the last great attempt at stopping it failing in a spectacular and devastating way. Now, the world is ending. Instead of the situation room of the White House or the corridors of NASA facilities, however, this time the world ends with two simple everyday people and their journey to find some semblance of peace with just three weeks to live. The other people they encounter – friends, family, and strangers alike – help to further illustrate this surprising pair's experience while also taking their own to extremes.
The backdrop of the asteroid approaching Earth never leaves. Between most major scenes, there are news reports that continue to update, continue to show a countdown timer, and continue to report on the increasingly despair-ridden world. First there is major traffic; then commercial planes stop flying; riots ensue; finally, there is an eerie peace that returns as the final day approaches.[Photos: Scenes from 'Seeking a Friend for the End of the World']
The major stars, Steve Carrell and Keira Knightley, are extraordinary in their roles. Carrell continues to show just how far beyond a one-note comedian he truly is. There are some humorous moments, but his subtlety shines and helps viewers truly feel the pain and fear of a no-win situation. Knightley provides an optimistic angle to keep the moviegoers from falling into their seats in a heap of tears for most of the film, but in the moments that the two switch roles they both exceed even the lofty reaches from the rest of the film. With impending doom around the corner, the quiet moments seem to mean more, the music sounds more beautiful, and the laughter holds a unique kind of joy that wouldn't mean as much if there wasn't this looming disaster.
Likewise, the secondary stars — mostly name actors who only appear in one or two scenes each — serve the film and more importantly the feel of the scenario very well. With people like Patton Oswalt, Rob Cordrry, Connie Britton, Adam Brody, Gillian Jacobs, and William Petersen, there had to be a temptation to extend their stay in the movie, but their brief appearances serve as strong exclamation points instead of uncertain ellipses.
Some drink away the pain, some seek to screw away the pain, some dive into drugs, and some even decide to just die sooner rather than wait through a 21 day countdown. Seeing several individuals handle this in expected and extreme ways makes Knightley and Carrell's journey mean that much more. Not only do they get beyond the intensity of singular emotion, they find the intensity of a whole experience. [Poll: How Would You React if Earth was Doomed?]
The music in the film is a character as well, with vinyl records providing much of the soundtrack, keying lyrics and swells in an often overt manner. It could be off-putting, but the music choices are so perfect, thanks to writer/director Lorene Scafaria ("Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist"), that instead it becomes a real and necessary part of each scene. Like the approaching asteroid, you can't imagine feeling the same way from the unfolding drama without these songs.
A romance. A drama. A comedy. People forget that science fiction can serve as the backdrop to all these things. This is a story that as a short story would fit perfectly in place within the annual "Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy" anthology, and if it was a novel would fit just as easily in Oprah's Book Club. It is a story that reminds us to find hope in the deepest of despair, and shows that science fiction doesn't have to stray too far from science fact in order to reveal new insight into the human condition. Go see "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World" with a friend or loved one you wouldn't mind ending the world with, and you'll have no regrets.
"Seeking a Friend for the End of the World" is in theaters June 22, 2012