Just in case we assumed the apocalypse was a time and place specially reserved for flesh-eating zombies, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg – of all people – are here to handily remind us of a far more fantastical end-of-the world scenario, ripe for fantastical storytelling. Rooted in a real belief and host to many-headed dragons, a cracked, scorched earth and the lakes of fire that swell up in its fresh crevasses, the biblical Armageddon is, quite literally, God’s gift to the disaster movie genre. Rogen and Goldberg opt for the crass, comedic route; in place of an individual hero battling against insurmountable odds, the filmmakers take the only logical course of action for immoral, detestable caricatures caught off-guard by a sudden obliteration of earth: board the windows, stockpile the food and hide, hide, hide.
The fortress in which Seth Rogen and visiting buddy Jay Barunchel perform lockdown belongs to none other than James Franco. The three movie stars play themselves, as do additional survivors in Craig Robinson, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride and a brief but amusing cameo from Emma Watson who quite rightly concludes that life on the hellish outside is preferable to being indefinitely locked inside with these delightful gentlemen. Their numbers have dwindled significantly from a larger cast of celebrities, convened at Franco’s mansion for a debauched Hollywood bash. Cameos – and by extension, gruesome deaths – come from the usual suspects: Jason Segel, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Paul Rudd, an awfully wooden Rihanna, and Michael Cera, who is exaggeratedly presented here as an insufferable, coke-addicted sex fiend.
Having this many A-listers together in one place and giving them original character names does seem a redundant exercise; familiarity with these people and some of their crude escapades – Your Highness is mocked here, as are the rest – loads the cast with ready backstories required to deny them entry into Heaven during the first-act Rapture sequence. Seth Rogen is the stoner he portrays in almost all his films, Franco the ‘pretentious nerd’, although Jay Baruchel holds the audience’s point of entry as someone who invests heavily in the implications of the Apocalypse, and tries to redeem himself in the eyes of angels – even so, he is far from angelic.
The majority of the jokes fall into one of three camps. The first: “Aren’t we such awful people?” Open-handed self-loathing translates as self-loving, however; these celebrities lampoon their personalities so mercilessly that they seem less fixated on winning the favour of their heavenly father than that of us, the audience. What does it say of us, that the outward admission of these men’s rancid behaviour comes across as hilarious and endearing, rather than repulsive? Michael Cera’s perverse turn is emphasised to a tiresome extent, amusing at first though grinded into exhaustion through its repetition, yet his self-mocking will likely be remembered as one of the film’s highlights. Self-deprecation is expressed with the adverse intention of inviting affectionate regard.
The second category: “I like this man onscreen, but hate him offscreen”. What a turnout for the books! But as ever with so many volatile personalities trapped in one room together, it’s inevitable that a variety of contrasting colours may come to clash. Jonah Hill secretly despises Jay Baruchel, yet conceals this unfounded dislike under a thin veneer of overegged civility. James Franco didn’t even invite Danny McBride to the party, and so tension between the two rackets to an incredibly violent level. The third kind of joke is what this troupe traditionally excels at most: toilet humour. Six men trapped in a house together, scrambling desperately to atone for their sins and become good people, are all but fated to rattle off in the other direction. And when the self-referential nods and self-deprecation become full-on monotonous, the vulgarity surprisingly sits as an appreciable ingredient. There’s a sick, strange appeal in watching these men attempt to be moral, but moreso in letting them ruin these same attempts through selfishness, sinister prayers and one particularly uncomfortable argument over porno mag etiquette.
Because the gross-out humour – extended to an amusing exorcism sequence and a last-act showdown with an impressively rendered CGI Satan – is the film’s ironic strong point and the source of our wilful schaudenfreude, there arises an inexplicable appeal to the film’s worst offender. Danny McBride, the Cartman of the group, gorges himself on rationed food supplies, pours one of two remaining water coolers over his head, and at one point attempts to shoot his friends dead in one fell swoop. And these are not the worst of his actions. The destructive urge here, our sick investment in the text, manifests in the wish for someone like Danny McBride – a blot in the redemption arc – to run roughshod over absolutely everything. Jay Baruchel’s moralistic pleas for collective selflessness come off as a predictably boring by comparison.
The film has a strange conception of heaven as an immoral paradise where celebrities pack bodies together to shake it alongside scantily-clad ladies, smoking marijuana and generally continuing business as before. This pokes a hole in the story’s overall logic – of these men being consigned to damnation for doing exactly the same thing previously – but one gets the sense that such nitpicking is nary worth the time nor effort. What’s more, when the inevitable salvation does eventually arise, it’s clear that these celebrities have come full-circle in venerating their earthly mortality. First barricading themselves into an elitist party, then using the same environs as an exclusive shelter, and then dominating the afterlife with their boorish antics. In their world, nobody else exists – not even God, funnily enough.