DIRECTED BY: Peter Mettler
FEATURING: Peter Mettler (narration)
PLOT: Documentarian Peter Mettler interviews people from various walks of life about their thoughts on time, using poetic footage of lava flows, particle accelerators, and digital mandalas as visual backgrounds.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While The End of Time is way, way outside the average filmgoer’s wheelhouse, despite a few acid flashback moments, it’s not really weird per se. It is also somewhat overshadowed by similar visionary non-narrative documentaries like Samsara and the Koyaanisqatsi trilogy, more expensive productions that achieve more spectacular vistas.
COMMENTS: The subjects of The End of Time include a 1960 record-setting skydiving free-fall from over 100,000 above the earth, lava flows on a volcanic island, and a squadron of ants bearing away a grasshopper’s corpse. None of this has much to do in particular with time, and yet it all does, because time is inescapable (despite the documentary’s occasional implication that time is an illusion). Rather than talking about time per se, the narration begins with the words “in the beginning there were no names,” and as the movie slowly flows and curls about like magma it returns periodically to what appears to be that central point: ultimate reality is inexpressible, and language (and abstract concepts like “time”) are our feeble (and possibly counterproductive) attempts to freeze and analyze the endless flux of reality. At least, that’s my view of Mettler’s position; the documentary is ostensibly time-neutral, giving equal weight to all experiences. Speakers are never identified by name or credentialed, and so the doc gives the same weight to the particle physicist’s opinions as those of the guru, the hermit, the artist colony potter, and a woman I’m guessing is the director’s grandma. Some of the earnestly proffered opinions, particularly the New Age-y ruminations from the granola crowd, are easy to mock, but please resist the urge. It is so rare for people to actually discuss grand, abstract concepts in movies in an irony-free way that it’s incredibly refreshing, and I’d hate to discourage future explorers from setting out towards similar territory.
Philosophy aside, the cinematography (by Mettler, Camille Budin, and Nick de Pencier) makes End of Time worth your time. Mettler draws visual parallels between the circular construction of particle accelerators and Hindu mandalas, between a corpse carried on a funeral bier and a meal carried away by ants. In between monologues Mettler throws in pastoral passages of eye poetry: stars dissolve into snowflakes, and we see a cat in a field quietly perceiving time in his own way, then camera draws back to show the same footage on a big screen television in an editing studio. The most remarkable scenes are the mesmerizing flows of magma from an active volcano; it’s amazing how quickly the outside edges cool to a black crust while the inside still glows red hot, and the entire mass creeps along, knocking down trees and incinerating the ferns that grew up since the earth’s mantle last leaked to the surface. The final act is a lysergic digital freakout presumably representing “the end of time,” beginning with the extinction of the sun, which turns into a bunch of glowing green mandalas and segues into a cosmic Malickian montage. The overall result—abstract and meandering, sometimes deep, sometimes pretentious, beautiful but frequently slow as molasses—is definitely not for all tastes. At times the movie gets a little too trippy-hippy-dippy for its own good, leaning too far to the “far out, man” end of the profundity spectrum. But you have to give Mettler much credit for his courage in thinking big and tackling deep questions that would terrify less ambitious filmmakers.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“There’s a touch of the acid mindset here, certainly: towards the end, many of Mettler’s images come together in an abstract montaged freak-out that might have made a very effective credits sequence, but feels too trippily ‘heyy-wowww’ when incorporated into the main body of the film. At moments, The End of Time come perilously close to a tone of nebulous new-age amazement, a touch too Koyaanisqatsian for comfort.”–Johnathan Romney, Film Comment