The End of Time: Locarno Review

The End of Time - H 2012
Courtesy of Grimthorpe Film
2012: A Space-Time Odyssey.

A visually impressive Swiss-Canadian documentary loosely explores the concept of time.

LOCARNO, Switzerland -- A freewheeling investigation into the nature of time becomes merely the jumping-off point for this high-minded documentary from the experimental filmmaker, visual artist and cinematographer Peter Mettler. Any sense of narrative momentum or intellectual focus quickly unravels as the film evolves into an almost wordless symphony of disconnected images, sounds and music. But the nature-heavy montages are mostly beautiful and bizarre enough to excuse the film’s pretentious excesses.

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A Canadian with Swiss family roots, Mettler has just premiered The End of Time at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland, with a North American debut lined up for his native Toronto next month. Much like his marathon 2002 documentary on transcendence, Gambling, Gods and LSD, the director is overwhelmed by his overly broad and vaguely defined subject here. But this film shares the same painterly eye for visually absorbing tableaux, recalling the work of Terrence Malick, Werner Herzog and the late Chris Marker. Though polished and spectacular enough for theatrical appeal, a future of festival slots and high-end TV screenings seems more likely.

The film opens with arresting archive footage of Joseph Kittinger, a USAF Colonel who parachuted from a high-altitude helium balloon 20 miles above the Earth in 1960. Teasingly, Mettler then leaves Kittinger hanging to train his globe-trotting cameras on a range of natural wonders, intermittently punctuated by human subjects. He quizzes particle physicists at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider in Geneva about the nature of time, but -- ironically -- never really gives them time to answer. He later poses similar questions to others including the Canadian techno musician Richie Hawtin, a hermit-like resident encircled by boiling lava flows on Hawaii’s Big Island, Buddhist pilgrims, astronomers and even his own mother.

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It soon becomes clear that Mettler is not interested in discussing complex ideas about time, more in striving for spiritual and philosophical insights that he can not quite deliver. Peppered with fuzzy fortune-cookie banalities such as “time can be really strange” and “we all see our own unique rainbows,” The End of Time increasingly starts to feel like a New Age self-help manual clothed in sumptuous National Geographic-level visuals.?

Frustratingly, the film skims across some fascinating subjects including the eccentric boffins of CERN, one man’s audacious stand against his neighborhood volcano, and a neo-hippie commune trying to regenerate Detroit’s derelict residential zones. All potentially rich material for straight documentaries, but Mettler treats all of them to impressionistic snapshots before his attention randomly drifts elsewhere. Factual information is scarce, journalistic curiosity minimal.?

But once you surrender to its eccentric tone and leisurely rhythm, The End of Time becomes immersive and hypnotic, mostly thanks to its gorgeous visuals. Mettler loves elemental nature, from accelerated time-lapse footage of clouds rolling down hillsides to whirling constellations of stars, from mighty mountain ranges to stunning super-sized close-ups of ants picking at the husk of dead grasshopper. Most mesmerizing of all are the long wordless shots of molten lava in Hawaii, diabolically lovely rivers of fire that leave stunning rock sculptures in their wake.?

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The film climaxes with a sustained experiment in pure audio-visual abstraction, a dazzling montage of symmetrical shapes and overlapping patterns set to pulsing electronic music. Mettler has claimed this sequence “works like a flow of consciousness suggesting several parallel realities,” modestly citing Plato and Isaac Newton as inspirations.

An equally valid comparison is the psychedelic, stoner-friendly finale of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Like the rest of Mettler’s sprawling visual feast, this closing section is highly decorative, achingly pretentious and low on useful information. The End of Time shows us everything, but ultimately tells us almost nothing -- except that the cosmos is, like, a big and complex place. Heavy stuff, dude. Fortunately, it is also a ravishingly beautiful experience.?

Venue: Locarno Film Festival premiere screening, Aug. 4
Production companies: Maximage GmbH, Grimthorpe Film Inc.
Director: Peter Mettler
Producers: Gerry Flahive, Brigitte Hofer, Cornelia Seitler, Ingrid Veninger
Cinematography: Camille Budin, Nick de Pencier
Editor: Roland Schlimme
Sales companies: Maximage, National Film Board of Canada
Running time 109 minutes