Last night I watched two films that, in very different ways, focused on apocalypse and humanity. Both Nicholas Ashe Bateman’s The Wanting Mare and Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up note (as most of us do) that the world seems to be moving toward catastrophe. While the The Wanting Mare portrays an ambiguously though fantastical post-apocalyptic city, Don’t Look Up satirically / realistically mirrors the present world in the face of an incoming comet; a perhaps-too-on-the-nose “planet-killer.” Neither film is narratively perfect, but by the end each left me with a similar takeaway: in a senseless, ultimately empty world, realizing our ultimate codependence is the only way to find meaning.
The Wanting Mare follows a multigenerational story of women who have nightly dreams of the world that existed before an unnamed apocalyptic event. Nearly all of the story takes place in a devastated city called Whithren where wild horses are caught and exported to a city across the sea called Levithen. Whithren is devastated by the earlier catastrophic event, and much of the narrative centers on the curious detail that is possible to acquire a one-way ticket to Levithen alongside the horses on an export ship. These tickets are so rare that the people of Whitren regularly kill and are killed for them.
I’ll selfishly avoid saying more and spoiling the plot. Described in quite a few online reviews I looked at as a “tone poem,” The Wanting Mare excels in ambiance and, inversely, its insistent and at-times frustrating lack of both dialogue and plot exposition makes it difficult to put it into words that mean anything. I learned this in an earlier draft of this post, from which I’ve spared you.
Against the ambient, under-explained, apocalyptically-past-tense style of The Wanting Mare, the aggressive “satire” in McKay’s Don’t Look Up (which I watched immediately after) gave me whiplash. I could practically hear the movie saying:
This comet is climate change, you dipshit. It’s happening, everyone–including you–is ignoring it, and we’re fucked. The ever-tightening knot of political bureaucracy and various personifications of the profit motives are to blame. You know this already.”
Now, there is certainly value to the political messaging in the movie and its excoriation of modern life. And I share more or less all of the criticisms levied by the film. Yet, I can’t help feeling that all but those already on the same page will reductively over-focus on “how dumb everything is” (think Idiocracy and its cultural impact) rather than take in the film’s larger message. This is, in my opinion, the ever-present Faustian bargain involved in turning politics into art, which I tend to feel more often enervates than accelerates, and most often has no effect at all.
What’s more interesting about Don’t Look Up is that throughout nearly the entire narrative the catastrophic event has not yet occurred. And yet, it feels so much more determined, so much more possible, than whatever it is that actually, already destroyed the world in The Wanting Mare. I’m sure this is largely due to McKay’s realism and the directness of the commentary against the subtle, yet fantastical, elements presented by Bateman. And McKay is right: it is difficult to argue with the position that we are fucked.
But Bateman’s movie dares to hope and to find hope in human connections, relationships, and histories. Which is not to say that McKay doesn’t get there as well. Anyone who has watched Don’t Look Up knows that there is only one thing there before the end. And if you’ve watched The Wanting Mare you hope they’ll be there after, too.