If you’re a Christian, you aren’t surprised to hear talk about the coming Apocalypse. In fact, the last book of our Bible has that word in it. Even a mild familiarity with the teachings of Jesus recalls a considerable emphasis on “eschatology,” or teachings about the last things. Jesus says “Watch, no one knows the day or hour.” Jesus says, “The time is coming at an hour which you do not expect.” All of chapters 24-26 of the Gospel of Matthew deal with “the end times.” The idea is that it is a matter of urgency to embrace the faith, even if it doesn’t appear that the end of the world is going to happen very soon. Or even the end of your particular time living in it.
Ah, but what if the time was, indeed, very short? What if a giant asteroid was going to hit earth in exactly three weeks, and there was nothing that could be done to stop it? Isn’t that how all the dinosaurs perished?
Steve Carrell plays Dodge, a Mr. Everyman who’s kind of a sad sack, really. He’s sitting in the car listening on the radio to the announcement that NASA’s last attempt to stop the giant, hurtling asteroid has failed. That means the end is inevitable. His wife, upon hearing this, simply gets out of the car and runs away. And Dodge sits and watches her. Doesn’t even call after her. Doesn’t try to pursue her, either.
He goes home to his high-rise apartment somewhere in New York City. He even reports for duty at work, for an insurance company, where he’s still trying to answer the phone about catastrophe policies. Of course, just about everybody else has left. They’re literally giving away the office of CFO to anyone who wants it. Nobody does. Why bother?
Dodge accepts the invitation of friends to a dinner party, but people are already starting to act weird. Yes, they’re breaking out the good cigars and the expensive wine, but they’re also trying heroin. And they’re casually coupling with each other, as if all the social restraints are now abandoned. May as well eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.
But Dodge doesn’t feel that overindulgence is really going to help him any. Or seeking some kind of drug-induced oblivion. Or casual sex, even. He’s not sure what he wants, but whatever it is, it has to feel genuine to him. He can’t believe the cleaning lady keeps coming. At first he tries to tell her to forget it, but when that obviously hurts her feelings, he relents and assures her that she can come back next week, which seems to satisfy her tremendously. As if taking comfort from familiar routine and surroundings, even if in a position of servitude.
Dodge is idly playing a harmonica when a young woman appears at the window of his fire escape, weeping. She’s obviously British. She’s just as obviously distraught. It seems she’s missed the last flight to see her family, and broken up with the boyfriend whose attentions were meaningless, anyway. So now Penny (Keira Knightley) and Dodge, along with an abandoned dog, find themselves helping each other to make a connection: Penny with her family, and Dodge with an old high school girlfriend. Anything with meaning or significance, please, while the looters rampage the streets, and society is rapidly breaking down, and the survivalists are digging in their bomb shelters, and civilization teeters on the brink of complete anarchy.
Sure, they’re an unlikely couple. But the tenderness they finally develop for each other will put a lump in your throat. As if here, right at the end, they both finally find what they’ve been seeking all along, but didn’t know it. Isn’t it ironic?
Ronald P. Salfen is minister of St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.