TIFF 2012 – This Thing, All Things Devours: Peter Mettler’s THE END OF TIME

This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down.

The passage of time is a curious thing – one that lends itself to all manner of philosophical, spiritual, scientific and, well, universal thought experiments. It is considered by many to be one of the most elegantly paradoxical and unquestionably important studies to all of mankind, as it affects us more significantly than nearly any other thing / idea / question in existence. So, when the Genie-winning, Canadian visionary Peter Mettler announced that the topic of his latest film, THE END OF TIME, would address just that, the bar was set fairly high. And, unfortunately, it never quite reaches the heights it strives to hit, even if it gets pretty damned close a handful of times.

Opening on a sickeningly heart-wrenching recap of Joseph Kittinger’s helium-balloon journey into the stratosphere and his subsequent dive back down to Earth, Mettler sets the tone for his film immediately: throbbing, atmospheric sonic textures dance behind stunningly beautiful visuals of the Air Force officer floating through the air on his impossible journey down through the clouds. Time speeds up and slows down with frighteningly human perceptiveness. Images float in and out of focus and frame. You are there with Kittinger, falling through the clouds, and every perfectly chosen word that spills from Mettler’s narration reminds you of the elasticity of the flow of our concept of time.

Then, the film starts to settle in. While THE END OF TIME features some of the most beautiful cinematography you are likely to see all year, Mettler seems merely content to transform his film into a veritable Rorschach Test for one’s own perception of time; a meaningful and powerful idea, but one devoid of any thought process beyond that which already exists in the viewer’s mind. Lava flows over a once-fertile, forested area. Weeds grow up through a sidewalk and over abandoned vehicles. Leaves bud, grow and die over the course of the seasons. And while the visuals are breathtaking, and Mettler gives the viewer more than enough time with each image for them to pour their own consciousness into the film itself, it never really reaches for anything more. For a film that lends itself to such theoretically abstract ideologies, it’s notably devoid of ideas. Instead, we’re merely treated to gorgeous visual after gorgeous visual, all within the tragic grasp of time’s icy hand. Architecture and infrastructure, agriculture and nature itself – not one is free from the tyranny of time’s flow.

But the film does feature a handful of powerful sequences, most notably in the moments where Mettler abandons his Rorschach approach and instead reaches for a human connection. In a pair of scenes – the former, a sequence which features a group of female, Hawaiian dancers and the latter, a techno concert – Mettler strives to imbue his film with its own thesis, crafting imagery that seeks to actually capture the feeling of Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity; something which the filmmaker references multiple times within the text itself. In these sequences, audio and video lag and fail to accurately synchronize, switching from subject to subject as we appreciate the distinction between each conscious being’s temporal perception: an old woman, still mouthing the words long after the music has stopped, soaking in the moment; a young woman, focused more on the delicate formation of her limbs than on her surroundings.

Then, in the climactic techno sequence, Mettler goes all-in on his Special Relativity exploration, diving into the crowd and capturing the impression of the moment from a variety of perspectives. The speed of the film accelerates and decelerates with shockingly intimate insight into each subject’s perception of the moment. The camera focuses on individual moments, rather than the scene – a bright glow-stick, a writhing hand, a faceless smile. It’s an incredible series of moments, and something that one wishes the director had felt more inclined to explore instead of the detached abstraction of time’s flow in relation to mankind that he settled on. Exploration of humanity will always trump exploration of mankind.

And though Mettler leaps headfirst into his film with an intimate look at the CERN super-collider, his approach to interviewing the scientists is admittedly disinterested: he cuts too early or too late for the audience to take the scientific jargon with any kind of seriousness (an almost-certainly intentional decision), and the overlapping snippets of dialogue come across as an overly detached curiosity of a meaningless perspective.

Still, the geometric images at the climax of the film are beautifully rendered, and are some of the trippiest visuals in this viewer’s recent memory. The sporadic spikes of brilliance peppered amongst the beautiful cinematography should be enough to get most viewers interested, but Mettler’s insistence on the abstract and allowing the viewer to reflectively analyze their own ideas about time is to the film’s detriment. A more curious (but no less abstract) exploration of the philosophical and spiritual consequences of time might have pushed this film from good to great.

7.5/10

d.a. garabedian

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