Thursday, May 16, 2013

Armageddon: The Prequel

And.. we're outta here!
WARNING: All sorts of spoilers ahead. then again, it's hard to tell.

For some reason I can't quite explain, over the last two months I managed to catch three very different films from three very different directors, all with an identical gimmick: in all of them, the world is coming to a sudden, complete and final end.

I don't know exactly what social situation or artistic impulse led to this strange little sub-genre over the last couple of years. It might be the logical follow-up to a lot of bigger apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic films, such as 2012, The Road, I Am Legend, and any of a huge slew of zombie thrillers. The crucial difference between these earlier films and the "At World's End" sub-genre is (and yeah, I'm either ••• spoiling ••• the endings or simply stating the obvious): post-apocalyptic thrillers concentrate on the survivors and tend to end on a hopeful note, signaling that humanity can and will continue. The three films I'm outlining all end the same way: cut to black.

A peaceful scene: Well-manicured estate gardens,
The End of All Things.
• Melancholia (2011) Is Lars Von Trier's entry in this peculiar sub-genre. He was one of the founders of the Dogme 95 film movement, and there are a few Dogme aesthetic elements to be found in the first half. This is a story about a two sisters (Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg) from a well-off family and the usual raft of personal, family and professional troubles: a full laundry list of "first world problems" played out within the walls of a fantastically huge family castle. The first half is one long unhappy wedding, and the second half is the same family mostly ignoring the fact that the Earth is about to be destroyed by a baleful blue rogue planet called, appropriately, Melancholia.

This is probably the strangest approach to apocalyptic cinema ever: a family drama disaster film, Deep Impact as directed by Douglas Sirk (it has been described elsewhere on the web as "The Tree of Life for pessimists"). It's remarkably similar to Rachel Getting Married (2008) except the destructive neurotic sister (Anne Hathaway) has been replaced by a destructive planet. In the end, however, Melancholia has a certain raw power: the awful inevitability of oblivion is shown in the humongous planet hanging in the sky. The effects are quite good: Melancholia plows right into the family castle's grounds. Flash white, then cut to black.

Willem Dafoe watching the Dali Lama obliquely
blaming the end of the world on ourselves.
• 4:44: Last Day On Earth (2011) is Abel (Bad Lieutenant) Ferrara's film depiction of…. well, the last day on Earth. It features Willem Dafoe as a downtown creative type, whiling away the final hours in his loft apartment with his artist girlfriend. The earth-killer is somewhat nebulous: at the appointed time (EST) waves of radiation will destroy the ozone layer and kill everything everywhere. So it's like Global Warming, but much much quicker, far quicker than depicted in The Day After Tomorrow, even.

Unfortunately, not much happens in this film. Sad Skype calls are made. Sex occurs repeatedly. The girlfriend continues to paint a huge canvas, ignoring the fact the art market is about to bottom out. Vietnamese food is delivered (it's New York City, after all). The girl runs out and does drugs with friends, but soon returns to Willem Dafoe for more sex. Sure enough, at the end, the screen goes hazy yellow, then cut to black.

The asteroid as depicted in the
promotional artwork does not
appear in this film.

• Seeking A Friend For End Of the World (2011) is the directorial debut for Lorena Scafaria, the scripter for Nick and Nora's Infinite Playbook. This one I liked quite a bit, and not just because of the appealing performance by Steve Carell: It shows how people in a larger world than a family estate or a SoHo loft deal with having three weeks left before asteroid 253 Mathilde hits Earth. I liked it because the film is an honest take on the human condition, far more than the brittle bourgeois fretting of Melancholia or pointless narcissism of 4:44. It says that people are going to react in all the different ways people react to anything, and Scafaria's clever script gives us lots of examples. Some people party, some kill themselves, some stay at their jobs, some stay at their jobs serving up burgers while whacked out on Ecstasy.

It's how any of us would react-- if nothing we did mattered anymore. A very funny exchange underscores this notion: Dodge's (Carell's) friend Warren (Rob Corddry) is throwing a party: Warren's sullen teenage son stomps out of the house, snarling to him " You ruined my life, dad!" Warren instantly replies: "Go fuck yourself!" Why not? It's not like he has to raise him anymore. As Warren's wife says (after she tries to seduce Dodge), "Nobody is anybody's anything anymore."

The very first scene of Seeking a Friend defines exactly the parameters of this odd "At World's End" sub-genre. Dodge and his wife (Carell's real-life wife Nancy Carrell, in fact) are in a car, listening to a radio report of how the valiant shuttle mission to deflect the 60-mile-long asteroid failed. So now we know what this film is NOT going to be about: survival, plucky resourceful folks who are going to prevail and rebuild the human race. The very next thing that happens: without a word uttered, Dodge's wife opens the door and runs away, shoeless, into the night, never to return.

It's not a perfect film: it suffers for having Keira Knightly as Dodge's love interest, yet another "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" with boy-like interests and no visible means of income. It was the same problem I found in David O. Russell's predictable, Oscar-bait Silver Linings Playbook, which I saw two weeks after this. But strangely enough, of the two movies the one that ends in utter oblivion was far more surprising and had a stronger emotional pull.

Cut to black.

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