What We Do When The Sky Falls

Consider these four films that all start from the same basic place: When Worlds Collide, Armageddon, Melancholia, and Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World

All of these movies have a big thing in common: Something large is headed toward Earth and will obliterate it. That’s it. Half a log line. But the characters the narrative focuses on, the degree of agency they have in the chain of events, and the tone the film chooses to take make each one unique.

When Worlds Collide focuses its story on a group of scientists and survivalists who discover that a star named Bellus is moving toward Earth and will consume it. They propose to build spaceships to take settlers from Earth to Zyra, an Earth-like body orbiting Bellus. With no hope for the Earth to survive, the movie puts its focus on the scientists, pilots, and engineers involved in the escape effort. The core conflicts involve the construction of the rockets to take people to the new planet, deciding who will be able to make the journey and who will be left behind, and the gamble of whether or not the escape from Earth will succeed.

Armageddon has a slightly smaller object hurtling toward Earth, but one that will still wipe out all life. Like with When Worlds Collide, the focus is on people whose efforts impact more than just themselves. NASA recruits a drilling team to go up and detonate the asteroid before it can hit Earth, and the conflict of the story focuses on whether or not this mission succeeds (since this movie offers the possibility that Earth may survive).

Melancholia opens with a flash-forward, showing that the Earth is definitely going to be crushed by a giant planet entering its orbit. There is no hope of escape. No chance of averting extinction and destruction. And then it cuts to a wedding. The movie focuses not on people who have any particular connection to astronomy, the government, or the military. These are people whose understanding of what’s happening is filtered through reports that they hear and strange events that they witness. The movie focuses on how these people deal emotionally with the certainty of impending doom; people who have no position or ability to alter the larger course of events. Because of their lack of agency against the large object hurtling toward them, their story comes from the way they interact with each other, and how they work toward resolving their interpersonal conflicts before the inevitable collision.

Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World is similar to Melancholia in that its main characters lack the ability to stop the inevitable extinction of life on Earth (For example, Steve Carell’s Dodge is an insurance salesman). However, the tone is different, and the focus more hopeful. Instead of waiting out the end, this is a movie where the main characters are looking to reconnect with others before the end: a long lost love, an estranged father, distant family members, etc. Despite the certainty that by the end of the movie all these characters will be dead, the movie plays out as a romantic comedy.

Doubts will come up about your writing, sometimes about whether or not you’re saying anything original, or if you’re doing anything different enough to get noticed. Similarities to other stories or conflicts don’t necessarily mean that you’re telling the same story. Elements like giant asteroids/planets hurtling toward Earth, vampires, terrorists, or the breakup of a marriage are jumping off points. Unique storytelling is all about who and how.

Who do we focus on in this situation?

How do they tackle the obstacles presented to them?

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