Filmmaker Denis Henry Hennelly Discusses Futility of Isolationism

A certain sect living in the modern world fantasizes about living off the grid, away from the pervasiveness of technology, what we perceive to be an inorganic way of life and the pettiness of human interactions.

Apr 2, 2014 at 8:51 am
click to enlarge Goodbye World
Goodbye World


certain sect living in the modern world fantasizes about living off the grid, away from the pervasiveness of technology, what we perceive to be an inorganic way of life and the pettiness of human interactions. It doesn’t require much in the way of thoughtful transference to imagine previous generations feeling the same way about themselves and their connections to the prior social/cultural iteration. We are always susceptible to this kind of nostalgia, this longing for simplicity.

And it doesn’t get any easier when you add the approaching apocalypse into the mix, right? If the mythic end of days is right around the corner or if even a more pedestrian man-made collapse of fundamental power and financial structures looms, then this system reset demands a return to something that resembles the natural order.

Co-writer (with Sarah Adina Smith) and director Denis Henry Hennelly, rather than crafting an epic philosophical treatise on humanity, presents an intimate case study with a cohort of millennials caught up in their own insular spheres on the eve of a global collapse that, it turns out, is triggered by their own hands. The lingering specter of Y2K, political sex scandals, the continuing rapid advancement of technological innovation and conflicting profit motives and, of course, the more mundane affairs of the heart pollute the social landscape for James (Adrian Grenier), Lily (Kerry Bishé), Nick (Ben McKenzie), Becky (Caroline Dhavernas), Benji (Mark Webber), Laura (Gaby Hoffmann) and Lev (Scott Mescudi aka Kid Cudi), so it comes as no surprise when Lily and James retreat to the hills a few years before the big event to create a neo-utopian haven in which to raise their daughter and hopefully save some essential aspect of themselves.

The fundamental question, though, revolves around this idea of getting away from it all, and that is where I begin with Hennelly during a phone interview a few days after watching the film. I want to know what it means to get away from it all.

“I love the way you put that,” Hennelly says, “because it has this double meaning, right? It’s like, can you get away from it all, meaning can you separate yourself from modern society? Can you live in isolation in our world? And then, can you get away from it all, meaning the conflicts and problems and challenges that other people are facing? They (the characters) try to isolate themselves (largely from each other), but you can only do that for so long.

“My personal opinion is that we are inter-connected,” he continues, “whether it be our small groups of friends and family or our community or our country or our world, and I think we are connected across species to everything that is alive. So, for me, you can’t isolate yourself completely from the connections you have in this world, and any attempt to do so is ultimately going to fail. Think about it, any individual problem becomes our problem.” 

The real challenge arises once technology gets added into the mix because, Hennelly admits, “There is a value in being able to take yourself away from it.”

“That’s what James, played by Adrian Grenier in the movie, initially thinks. He wants to know if he can live separate from the technology that he has become so dependent upon. So (he and Lily and their daughter) make a stab at it, to go somewhere this little family doesn’t have a television, but there are still things that they are holding onto and that’s the process the movie takes them through, challenging the things they are still holding onto.”

Members of Generation X, like myself, may approach this issue from a different place than, say, those generations that have come later. We have embraced these technological tools that were developed during our lifetimes, but that do not pre-date us. We remember the analog world and its unplugged pleasures, which means we can appreciate the idea of living without many of these modern accouterments. It is fascinating to watch the characters of Goodbye World, a mere half-step of a generation later, who came of age at the dawn of this new techno-savvy age, and then to imagine a further half-step ahead, to a teen audience hyper-engaged in social media. What would isolation look like to them? 

That is the curious philosophical joke (in that funny, strange way) embedded in Goodbye World, which takes hold in ways beyond the meta-Hollywood hijinks of last summer’s This Is The End. Hennelly imagines the apocalypse as the end of the modern world and the beginning of a society without media. Now that’s how you reboot the natural order. (Opens Friday at Mariemont Theatre)

CONTACT TT STERN-ENZI: [email protected]