Just when you think you’ve seen every variation on the post-apocalypse movie, from zombies to hellscapes to Channing Tatum as some Road Warrior’s gimp, comes I Think We’re Alone Now, starring Peter Dinklage as a misanthropic librarian, a kind of human dung beetle determined to turn humanity’s leftover waste into orderly spheres. With that premise, you don’t need much else.
With all the stories that have been set during the aftermath of some unnamed disaster, you have to conclude that there’s something in our collective DNA that needs these stories. It seems to be a variation of “hell is other people,” a combination of our fear that we’re living in the end times with an unconscious desire to start civilization over again with a clean slate, without cyberbullying, the DMV, or Will.i.am. What a beautiful world… now imagine it without all the assholes.
As tired of these narratives as I would’ve surely told you I was, I still get a vicarious thrill out of characters wandering through an abandoned supermarket picking through the aisles for non-expired items. The scene shows up again in I Think We’re Alone Now, and I found it just as weirdly enjoyable as I did when I saw it in 28 Days Later. If that notion, that one might actually like living in a world where practically everyone else is dead, was an unacknowledged draw of past dystopias, in I Think We’re Alone Now it’s a stated motif.
Peter Dinklage plays Dell, whose solitary existence seems to suit him just fine. He spends his days methodically cleaning up his small town, burying the corpses, filing the family photos, sweeping the streets, and putting an “X” on his giant map over every individual house he’s cleared. All while collecting enough batteries to power his Discman full of Rush tunes (but never the film’s title song, strangely).
When he finally explains why he does this — something about creating order out of the entropy of the universe — it’s mostly unnecessary. Our own feeling of catharsis watching him tidy up a house or restack bricks perfectly explains the why, the ultimate show-don’t-tell. Just the image alone, of Peter Dinklage dutifully leaf-blowing a driveway when he’s the only one alive to see it, is a kind of perfect one-frame cartoon, a sardonic Gary Larson image. I could’ve watched variations on it all day, and the simple fact that it’s so enjoyable tells you something about yourself that you may not have known.
Into this milieu crashes Grace, played by Elle Fanning, who gives Dell what he claims to have never wanted — a companion. Someone to ask Dell annoying (to him) questions and pry into his past. A fun thought experiment is to try to imagine someone making this movie with the genders reversed, starring a 19-year-old boy and a 48-year-old woman. In any case, they’re a compelling pair, with more than a little of the Phantom Thread dynamic — a meticulous, mysterious man paired with a woman who grates on him but also challenges him in ways he needs and comes to depend on.
Grace, of course, joins Dell in his quest to clean up the town (a clever twist on the old Western trope, with a hero who’s the small, silent type), but all along seems to be hiding something. There’s a scar on the back of her neck, she’s cagey about her life and family, and then there’s the question of who she is and why she survived that’s hanging over the both of them. Not to mention the natural sexual tension that comes with being the last two people on Earth.
There are twists, but I’d rather not spoil them for you. Suffice it to say, Mike Makowsky’s script is constantly adding new wrinkles and detail work to the world he and director Reed Morano have built, without ever fully laying their cards on the table. Like The Leftovers (probably the best television show of the last five years), I Think We’re Alone Now is less concerned with the mechanics of the apocalypse than the human and psychological effect. That might not work as well without actors like Dinklage and Fanning, both of whom excel at a kind of pregnant withholding.
I Think We’re Alone Now is compelling from start to finish, yet somehow not entirely satisfying. Not because there’s anything wrong with it, simply because I wish there was more. It felt like there were enough narrative avenues left unexplored to support three spinoffs. It would’ve made a great HBO series (maybe it still could?). Whatever happens, it’s a rare and wondrous thing in 2018 to see that not only doesn’t wear out its welcome but leaves you wishing it had been longer.