An admission of bias: To be frank, I lost my taste for most post-apocalyptic fiction in my junior year of high school. I had spent most of my teenage years consuming whatever media I could get my hands on that depicted the end of the world and whatever came after. I liked being chilled by tales of nuclear catastrophe (On the Beach) or ecological disaster (Oryx and Crake), and I liked seeing how life went on without us.
That changed dramatically with the release of Cormac McCarthy’s modern classic The Road, which put into clear focus how absolutely horrible everything would be, and caused me to start noticing the corpses everywhere. We like to think that we’ll be the only person left, to continue on our great adventures in an abandoned landscape potentially with other survivors, but you’ll most likely be that decaying corpse in the corner as a father and son raid your kitchen cabinets looking to stave off death for another day. So, even though I was pretty excited for Reed Morano’s I Think We’re Alone Now, I was worried that my body might reject it like a donor kidney.
Happily, I’m here to tell you that’s not the case: Morano has crafted something fascinating in her complicated and interesting portrait of two characters in conflict and in friendship at the end of the world, one that, as light as it may be, never forgets the corpse in the bed nearby.
Del (Peter Dinklage) spends his days cleaning houses, embedded deep in the dust-covered carpets of his Hudson Valley home. He fishes through things like flashlights, radios, toy cars and vibrators to look for batteries to power the few devices and creature comforts that he has, and empties out the refrigerators full of rotten food. He collects pictures of the people who lived in the houses, to file away in a desk, archiving who once lived in his small town. At the end of his visit, he finds the bodies and wraps them in sheets, burying them in a field near where he lives, the town library. He’s completely and totally alone, and as far as he knows, he’s the only person left in the world after some unknown catastrophe caused all the people around him to keel over dead (like most modern post-apocalyptic fiction, it’s never revealed what the caused the world to end, but I didn’t mind it as much here because it never once feels lazy).
One morning, he hears the sounds of a car alarm somewhere in his small town, and finds a wreck nearby, where a woman (Elle Fanning) sits unconscious in the driver’s seat, her handgun and the ammunition sprawled across the back seat. Del nurses her back to health, and she reveals to him that her name is Grace, and that she’s travelling across the country to see monuments (“Niagara Falls” she tells him when he asks her of her destination). But she decides to stay in town, despite Del’s objections, and the two begin to form an uneasy alliance that blossoms into an outright friendship. But there’s something Grace isn’t telling Del, and it’ll rend his world in half when she finally spits it out.
Morano, who’s best known for her amazing skills as a cinematographer (among other projects, Beyonce owes her a great debt for her work on Lemonade), recently moved into the directing sector — her first feature film came out in 2015 and she’s made quite a name for herself with her work on Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale — puts all of her talents to use here. I Think We’re Alone Now is gorgeously shot and it captures the textures and deadness of its post-apocalyptic world in a way perhaps not seen on film since the 1980’s, when The Quiet Earth hit cinemas. Her sound design is fantastic as well — an early scene with fireworks nearly shattered my ear drums, but it fits, especially when paired with Dinklage’s performance, the colors of the blasts reflecting on his face as his eyes shift from astonishment to wonder to cold-blooded fear.
Fanning, as well, is given her moments to shine under Morano’s spotlights, though she never dips into that kind of ethereal territory that other directors seem to cast her for specifically. She’s allowed to play a real person, one who misses dipping her pepperoni pizza in ranch dressing and is proud of her keeping a goldfish alive for two years. Dinklage and her come into conflict throughout the film, especially when a dog wanders into their situation, but the evolution of their relationship feels natural. It’s also tonally not what you’d expect: There’s some uproariously funny moments throughout the film, and it’s to Morano and her screenwriter’s credit that these laughs have some weight.
Some might accuse this film as being an example of the “cozy catastrophe” subset of popular science-fiction (and others will accuse it of ripping off The Last of Us, but it’s most definitely going to different metaphorical ends than that game tried to), and I would totally agree with them, but unlike writers like Brian Aldiss, who invented the term, I wouldn’t say that’s totally a bad thing. It enables us to see the lack that persists even in the sunshine of abundance like Dinklage has here, and to her credit Morano never dips into facile territory when it comes to his loner status. He’s Burgess Meredith at the end of the classic Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough at Last,” but instead of being confronted with tragic irony like that poor character was at the end of his tale, Dinklage finds his world expanded to include others for once in his life. And in the world of the film, one must adapt like that in order to survive, in order to be fulfilled.
I Think We’re Alone Now is masterful and empathetic science-fiction, and will be a must-see whenever it hits cinemas for anyone with even a passing interest in finding out what happened the day after the world went away.
Nick Johnston is running amok at Sundance. Follow him @onlysaysficus. Featured ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’ image courtesy of the Sundance Institute.