Sandra Oh in Don McKellar's Last Night.
With his latest doc, The End Of Time, visionary Swiss-Canadian filmmaker Peter Mettler travels from Detroit to Hawaii to the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland to analyze our perceptions of time. As a movie about "the end of time," it's no doubt unique (see our feature), not so much consumed with apocalyptic forecasting as shifting concepts of perception. And it got us thinking about some other movie dealing with the end of time, or the end of the world, in similarly creative ways, ducking depictions of rag-tag post-apocalyptic survivors for more dramatically emotional (or comic) investigations on what our time on this fragile rock of a planet really means.
1. Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb (1964)
In Stanley Kubrick's apocalyptic comedy, the world ends not with a bang, but with the squawking of politicians stewing in a subterranean bunker. After a nutty U.S. Air Force commander (Sterling Hayden) orders a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the USSR, Kubrick cuts between the various degrees of banality and comic insanity gripping the pilots charged with delivering the atomic payload and the military brass trying to finesse the situation from an underground command centre. Seizing on Cold War nuclear panic, Kubrick's film relentlessly skewers the bigwigs safeguarded with the existence of the human race (who run the gamut from the hawkish to the idiotic to the ineffectually milquetoast), while also pointing out very real flaws in the existent chain of command. And unlike most other films on this list, Strangelove makes it explicitly clear that mankind will be the architects of our own demise. JS
2. Last Night (1998)
Commissioned as part of a series of millennial features - other participants included Hal Hartley and Tsai Ming-liang - Don McKellar's directorial debut imagines a uniquely Canadian apocalypse, counting down the final hours before an unspecified solar event due to fry the Earth at precisely midnight Toronto time. Callum Keith Rennie, Sarah Polley, David Cronenberg, Arsinee Khanjian, Genevieve Bujold and Tracey Wright are among the locals coming to terms with their impending doom; Sandra Oh and McKellar himself form an unlikely couple thrown together by circumstance amidst the (respectful) chaos. Working in a pretty restrictive genre, McKellar does something no other filmmaker has quite managed: he uses the extinction of the human race as the springboard for a moving, life-affirming work of art. NW
3. 4:44 Last Day On Earth (2011)
Along with Lars Von Trier's Melancholia, 4:44 is another recent example of a serious director toying with end-of-the-world scenarios usually reserved for the Michael Bays, Roland Emmerichs, and other blockbusting Hollywood hacks. (This statement takes for granted that King Of New York director Abel Ferrara is as "serious" a director as Lars Von Trier, which of course he is, right?) Like Last Night - which it almost plays as a remake of, in places - 4:44 forgoes images of the world crumbling into the sea for a more intimate portrait of a New York couple (Willem Dafoe and Shanyn Leigh) idling away their last hours on earth. Though it received next-to-no proper release, 4:44 is an incredible moving study of two lovers flailing and fumbling on the edge of the world. JS
4. Beneath The Planet Of The Apes (1970)
Sure, the original Planet Of The Apes stunned audiences with its now-clichéd revelation that the topsy-turvy world strange world where apes spoke English and humans were cattle had, in fact, been Earth all along. (Oh, quit your whining, Homer Simpson spoiled it back in the 90s.) But that's nothing compared to the nihilism of the sequel, which found Charlton Heston's understandably despondent astronaut detonating a super-bomb buried underneath the Manhattan subway system to obliterate the accursed planet completely. Suck it, ape civilization! Or not: thanks to a handy wormhole, the saga would continue in 1971 with Escape From The Planet Of The Apes. NW
Lorene Scafaria's comedy-drama employs a variation on the Armageddon scenario, opening as a heroic team of astronauts fails to destroy a massive asteroid on a collision course with Earth and following a few ordinary people - primarily Steve Carell's depressive Dodge and Keira Knightley's manic Penny - as they watch the clock tick down to doomsday. The film's highlights are the glimpses of how other people are coping with their collective death sentence; suburbanites Rob Corddry, Connie Britton and Patton Oswalt get to experiment with all the indulgences on which they missed out ("I wanna try heroin to Radiohead!"), and our heroes stop in at a theme restaurant which has been turned into a bacchanal by employees Gillian Jacobs and TJ Miller. Seems like a pretty reasonable reaction, honestly. NW
Honorary Mention: Groundhog Day (1993)
If anything, Harold Ramis's oddball existential comedy of repetition gets closest to the "end of time" in the way suggested by Mettler's movie. Though it's largely remembered for its madcap premise-Bill Murray's smug newsman is forced to relive the same day again and again, for what may be centuries-Groundhog Day cleverly plays with notions of perceiving time. As we watch Murray's Sisyphean a-hole go off the cliff (literally, in a few scenes), we get a sense of how maddening it would be if our basic constructs of time and progress were upturned. JS