In her introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness, writer Ursula K. Le Guin explains that “Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.” She describes the genre’s conceits as “thought-experiments” intended to explore contemporary phenomena, regardless of the timeframe in which the story takes place. Le Guin’s statement certainly applies to those films contemplating apocalyptic events, especially Melancholia and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. These two films both explore the nature of relationships, both romantic and familial, using the imminent demise of humanity to highlight the absurdity of social conventions and the drawbacks of optimistic thinking.
While thematically similar, these two films have very little else in common, at least upon first glance. The trailers below showcase differences in style, tone, and genre:
Seeking a Friend strikes a comedic note, following the exploits of neighbors Dodge (Steve Carrell) and Penny (Keira Knightly) as they each attempt to reunite with loved ones in preparation for a catastrophic meteor’s collision with Earth. The unlikely pair forms a bond over the course of the film, ultimately finding in each other the love and companionship each had sought during the film’s journey. It sounds a bit corny because it is, but I also found Seeking a Friend moving in spite of its predictability.
In contrast, Melancholia strives for something more subtle and complex in it’s dramatic approach to the same concept. This film portrays sisters Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The women live together on a picturesque estate when a rogue planet, called Melancholia, appears in the sky. Claire’s husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland) reassures her that the planet will merely fly by, despite contradicting opinions in the scientific community. Ultimately, Melancholia subsumes Earth but not before testing Claire and Justine’s ability to cope with the reality of impending doom.
This dramatic challenge to character that the apocalypse brings is the thought experiment at the heart of Seeking a Friend and Melancholia. With the destruction of the planet drawing near, characters must choose how to spend their remaining days and hours. In Seeking a Friend, you see many characters defying the social order in anticipation of death, with one scene depicting an end of the world party in which characters decide to try heroin. Another scene parodies the friendliness of casual chain restaurants, with waiters and customers engaging in orgiastic behavior. More absurdly, some characters cling to routine, in spite of the awareness of death. The drawn out nature and social setting of the film allows for an exploration of both responses, largely to comedic effect.
Melancholia’s more confined setting limits such an exploration of responses. What we do see, however, is a contrast between the sisters, whose roles also reverse in the course of the film as a result of changing circumstances. In the first half, labeled “Part 1: Justine,” we see Justine struggle to enjoy her lavish wedding reception much to Claire and her husband’s chagrin. In “Part 2: Claire,” this half initially portrays Justine as crippled by her depression; however, it is Claire who panics at the realization of the world’s end, while Justine remains calm and in control of her emotions. Her depression, it becomes clear, gives her the ability to cope with a crumbling world, and the pessimism to care little when contemplating the end of all life.
Penny and Dodge’s dynamic similarly plays upon the optimism/pessimism dichotomy. Penny openly describes herself as an optimist, with Knightley laying down the Manic Pixie Dream Girl charm to contrast Carrell’s at times wooden portrayal of the depressed Dodge; however, unlike Justine in Melancholia, Dodge does not initially seem better able to cope with the end of the world, though he does claim that he feels validated in his pessimism by the apocalypse. In their very last moments, though, it is Dodge who comforts Penny, staring into her eyes and asking her questions about her upbringing–he’s so enamored of her and so satisfied in the moment, he seems completely unfazed by the sounds of the meteor crashing to Earth.
Justine similarly demonstrates strength in the film’s final scenes, while Claire struggles with the knowledge that the world will end. After realizing that Melancholia will not merely fly by, Claire becomes hysterical. She suggests that they sip wine together on the terrace, a plan that Justine mocks as a “piece of shit.” As the weather turns volatile, Claire picks up her young son and races away with him on a golf cart, despite the inescapable nature of the threat before them. When this fails, Claire returns to the house with her son, whom Justine takes into the woods to gather sticks and build a “magic cave” for them to sit within. The scene below demonstrates their differing responses:
As in Seeking a Friend, Melancholia’s final moment is one of acceptance, but also of human connection, for the planet’s destruction unites all beings, regardless of their strengths and weaknesses. In this way, it could be said, as philosopher Slavoj Zizek does in the clip below, that Melancholia in its embrace of Justine’s pessimism, actually becomes an optimistic film:
The same could be said for Seeking a Friend. Instead of surrendering to Penny’s desire that the end be she and Dodge “saving each other,” Seeking a Friend concludes with the two accepting their demise and showing gratitude for the little time they spent together; here, though, the two films part company. Melancholia undermines romantic love by portraying Justine’s wedding ceremony as a joyless sham, while Seeking a Friend seems to reinforce it through Penny and Dodge’s connection.
Nevertheless, I would argue that the outcomes of Seeking a Friend and Melancholia’s thought experiments are not so different. Even with their contrasting generic approaches, both show how pessimism enables its characters to accept the end, resulting in peaceful last moments through connection with others.
Theorists of postmodernism such as Slavoj Zizek and Jean Baudrillard explore the ways that post-Fordist capitalist societies present reality as a replication of that which has its origin in texts. Similarly, the film The Matrix presents a world in which human beings live in a computer-generated simulation designed to distract their minds while artificially intelligent machines use their bodies for energy. The film, then, literalizes the idea of a textual world; however, it does not merely convey this point through plot but also through cinematography and mise-en-scene since the world within the matrix resembles computer code in terms of color and downward vertical motion.
The opening shot of the film establishes the formal elements of the computer code. Green lettering runs downward in vertical lines, eventually revealing the film’s title. This shot signifies the concept of the matrix as text, using a specific color scheme (green on black), motion (vertical), and pattern (lined). Following this first instance, the film repeats this use of code throughout, raising it to the level of a motif.
The film reproduces the formal qualities of the computer code in scenes that take place in the matrix, emphasizing green tones during these segments of the film. The scene of Neo’s first interrogation by the agents demonstrates the use of green tones through cinematography and lighting.
Other scenes bring green tones out through costume and set design. The Oracle, for instance, wears a green patterned dress and her kitchen’s tile and counter tops also display the color. As a result, the mise-en-scene and cinematography align the color schemes of the world within the matrix with the motif of computer code.
On-screen motion and patterns during scenes within the matrix also mimic the vertical fall of the code. One scene in which Neo meets Trinity under a bridge brings the code to mind through heavy rain. Kristen Whissel makes this connection in her essay on contemporary cinema and verticality, stating, “Fragments of marble and concrete, spent bullet casings, shards of glass, and water from a sprinkler system create a constant stream of downward motion that mimics the descent of binary codes seen falling across the screens throughout the film” (850). Hence, the downward vertical motion within the world of the matrix replicates the motion of the computer code.
In essence, the film portrays the world of the matrix as a simulated text through these formal elements, literalizing the postmodern notion of a reality based on text. Still, The Matrix’s aspiration to allegorize the work of Baudrillard falters in a significant way: by so dramatically contrasting a simulated world with “the desert of the real,” The Matrix suggests that what Zizek would call a “real reality” exists beyond the simulation (19). For Baudrillard specifically, “the era of simulation is inaugurated by a liquidation of all referentials,” and only simulacra remain (2). In many ways, then, The Matrix offers a comforting narrative in which the simulated world can be identified as such, and cinematography and mise-en-scene help make that distinction.
Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor:
University of Michigan Press,1994.
Whissel, Kristen. “Tales of Upward Mobility: The New Verticality and Digital Special
Effects.” Film Theory and Criticism. 7th ed. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 834-852.
Zizek, Slavoj. Welcome to the Desert of the Real. New York: Verso, 2002.