I missed this movie when it first came out (in 2012!) and just picked it up recently at my library. Another semi-comedy about the end of the world, I found it thought-provoking…in ways good and bad!
The premise centers around the end of the world by asteroid–everyone knows the asteroid is coming in three weeks, all of life will be wiped out, and nothing can be done to prevent it. Society is mostly holding together but starting to fragment (planes are no longer flying, phone service is down–which is plot convenient). Dodge (Steve Carrell) has no particular plans for his final weeks, as he seems to be the movie trope of a hero who wasn’t really living his life to begin with. But then he meets Penny (Kiera Knightley), his quirky, passionate neighbor. She wants to get to England to reunite with her family; he decides to seek out his long-lost first love. She has a car and he knows a guy with a plane, so they set out together.
The concept of the world ending, but with a few weeks notice, was really interesting. Maybe it helped that it was an asteroid strike–whatever the actual odds, it feels out there and unreal enough that I could think of it abstractly. Nuclear war and cancer diagnosis stories more likely make me anxious or depressed. But this was pretty good as a thought experiment, about what becomes really important under that kind of time pressure. How do you live your life when you have only a small amount of time left? Some people rioted, some partied, others went on as though nothing was changed, one woman decided to wear all the beautiful things she bought but had been saving.
People made good choices and bad ones, but the different choices were interesting. Penny in particular offered a lot of reflection on reevaluating how she had been living her life, and regrets about not choosing the right priorities. Dodge felt less active–he decided to seek out his old girlfriend, but in many ways he seemed to be riding along on Penny’s energy.
Okay, spoiler time! If Penny and Dodge had remained with a platonic relationship, and legitimately helped each other achieve their end-of-the-world (EOTW) goals as friends, I think I would have really enjoyed this movie. But.
Instead, halfway-ish through, Penny turned out to be a manic pixie dream girl with all the expected narrative results. For those not familiar with the term, it’s a trope of an appealingly quirky female lead, whose sole function in the story is to help the male lead embrace life. This made for a very disappointing result.
It was always clear that Penny’s EOTW goal was second to Dodge’s–the agreement was that he’d try to get her to a plane after she helps with his reunion. But then she falls in love with him…which I just don’t buy. Not even if the world was ending. Partially because he is twenty-two years older than her, but also because he had few appealing characteristics (or, actually…any characteristics) and they had zero chemistry.
After it’s become clear he has sentimental feelings for her too, he literally takes away her agency by putting her on a plane while she’s asleep. Though I might have been okay with that if it had worked. Instead, she comes back in the last five minutes of the movie, having made the plane turn around, sacrificing her EOTW goal and the chance to see her family again to be with him. While he achieves his goal, somewhat sideways, since his real goal was always to find love and not die alone. And I was supposed to be happy they found each other, but…no.
I found myself thinking how good this movie would have been if it had been Penny’s movie, not Dodge’s. We could have seen how her life wasn’t what she wanted even before the asteroid. Helping Dodge would have been an obstacle to overcome on her journey, instead of pushing her goal into secondary importance. In a story about her, I don’t believe for a minute she would have fallen for him, so her comments about being done with relationships and wanting to focus on other priorities would have been meaningful and not ultimately undercut. She could have willingly, intentionally taken the plane ride, whatever Dodge did or didn’t feel for her, because this was important to her. And the movie could have ended with Penny in her father’s garden, with her family around her and her favorite music (another strand of her character) playing on the record-player.
And that, I think, would have been much more satisfying, and also more original than another of Hollywood’s endless “romantic love is primary” and “the male hero’s needs are all that count” storylines.
So. A thought-provoking movie! It did make me think about life and priorities–and also about the kinds of stories I’d really like to see. Now the question is whether they’re out there, or if more need to be written…