The fear we feel toward the bleak and unnerving future scenarios laid out in sci-fi movies are rarely directed at the subject itself. Interstellar and Gravity and WALL-E weren’t just about the terrifying vastness of space. (They were about fear of the unknown.) The queasiness I felt during Mad Max: Fury Road wasn’t really about how unpleasant that waterless dystopia would be. (It was about the patriarchy.) When a sci-fi movie is good, it reflects our present-day anxieties and taps right into our surplus of collective-subconscious fears: chaos, alienation, loneliness, inadequacy. So it is maybe no surprise that a new genre has sprung up to confront a more modern but equally intense shared fear: dating.
The Lobster, written and directed by Yorgos Lanthimos and starring Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz, is the latest example of what I’ll call the sci-fi rom-com. (Other titles: Her, The One I Love, and the upcoming Equals.) In The Lobster, our dystopia is pretty much like the present, except the valued citizens are people in relationships and the underclass consists of the uncoupled — sort of like an extreme version of a couples-majority dinner party. To “help” — translation: control — the unwanted single population, all singles are required by law to report to a hotel, where they’re given 45 days to find a mate. (Sample dating exercise: “Do you suffer from chronic nosebleeds? Me too. Let’s get married.”) We’re given no backstory, but the consequences are made clear from the outset: Those who fail to pair off will be turned into an animal of their choosing and released into the wild. And those who refuse to enter the hotel have no choice but to remove themselves from society and join a nomadic fringe group that is routinely hunted for sport. Solid options.
I spent the length of the movie debating which animal I might want to become if I were ever in a similar situation (panda — lots of snacks), and then wondering, in the grand rom-com tradition, how to avoid dying alone. But that gave way to a much more unwieldy consideration of modern romance: If companionship is achieved only by something as soulless as a conference at a hotel — or, to bring it home, an algorithm or a swipe — is it even worth it? Is the idea of “find your lobster” an antiquated and outdated pressure? What is attraction when it’s forced into existence by an arbitrary and immediate selection process? Is being alone a better option? Or is the idea of a find-a-mate motel better than or just as bad as Tinder?
The Lobster doesn’t answer these questions; its only consolation is that romantic movies have finally gotten wise to how complicated real-life dating has become. That’s a good thing: I’d much rather watch a rom-com that reflects the anxieties and concerns of an app-happy, monogamy-wary landscape, even if it’s bleak. And also, at least in this dystopia, anyone who ghosts risks getting turned into a donkey. In which case, maybe the future of dating isn’t so grim.
This piece originally appeared in the May 13, 2016, edition of the Ringer newsletter.