Commentary: These days, heading to the theater requires stepping through death's door


NEW YORK -- It's true, as the Doors might have said, that no one gets out of life alive. But a movie theater?

Forget popcorn, Milk Duds and escapism. To take a trip to the cinema these days is to confront one's own mortality as some of the fall's biggest prestige titles have the meaning of life -- more specifically, the end of it -- on their minds.

(Beware: A few spoilers are necessary to explain the, er, end of several films.)

In "Seven Pounds," a character wracked with guilt over the accidental death of his wife begins a long series of preparations to kill himself. The film's climactic scene has him dying dramatically in a bathtub suicide.

"Synecdoche, New York" features a man who, after a string of flawed relationships and an attempt to create a grand work of art, comes face to face with his mortality. The movie ends when a God-like figure gives the one-word command "Die." (He obliges.)

And in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," a man heads inexorably toward his demise equipped with the knowledge of exactly how much time he has left. In the movie's affecting climax, he dies as a baby, closing his eyes for the final time in the arms of the woman he loved.

Watching these films that give new meaning to the phrase "end credits," one is tempted to ask some questions. First, does Hollywood need a hug? And second, what exactly is behind this sudden burst of Yeats-like tendencies?

Over the decades there have been many great, and even more not-so-great, films that feature death as a central element. But most have used it as a dramatic denouement, like the wartime romance, or as a story's engine, like countless family dramas.

What's happening here is perhaps something more subtle; specifically, the birth of a subgenre, one in which death is contemplated for its own sake. Call it mortality cinema. These new movies don't simply use death to propel the action or motivate (or enervate) the characters. They're built to concern themselves with death. They exist to ponder the end of existence.

All, it should be said, share another trait: They offer a peculiar mixture of bleakness and hope. Last fall's crop of so-called dark films might have explored man's baser impulses, but mortality cinema tries a more deft balance. The inevitability of death is underlined, but so is its meaning.

In all of these new titles, the act of dying is preceded by an act of great sacrifice or ambition: giving away organs to save the lives of others ("Pounds"), building an entire world for the sake of one's art ("Synecdoche") and walking away from the person you love to spare them from getting hurt ("Button"). Mortality cinema might constantly nag us that we're nearing the end, but it sure spends a lot of time telling us what happens before we get there.

Comedian Wil Shriner once said he wanted to die in his sleep like his grandfather, not screaming and yelling like the passengers in his car. Amazingly, though, no one at the theater seems to be screaming and yelling. In two weeks of release, "Button" has earned nearly $70 million, while "Pounds" is respectably above the $50 million mark.

Even more curious is why these movies are getting made in these uncertain times. With all there is to worry about in life at the moment, why throw death onto the pile?

It's not as illogical as you'd think. With the percentage of Americans over 65 now at more than 20% (the highest in history), aging and mortality are in the ether more than ever before.

More specifically for Hollywood, filmmakers who grew up during and were influenced by the American "golden era" of the 1970s are hitting age milestones. Someone who was, for instance, 14 when "The Godfather" came out would have just turned 50. "Synecdoche" director Charlie Kaufman, in fact, hit the midcentury mark six weeks ago.

Of course, filmmakers tend to have death obsessions in general. Woody Allen once said he didn't want to achieve immortality through his work, he wanted to achieve it by not dying.

That seems like a good approach. But if you want to be reminded of mortality these days, you don't need to make a movie. You just need to go to one.