For better or worse, Peter Mettler’s new film, The End of Time, makes you conscious of the minutes ticking by. The documentary begins with archival footage of Joseph Kittinger, the air force colonel who, in 1960, parachuted from a helium balloon more than 30 kilometres above the Earth (in October, Kittinger, now 84, also assisted Felix Baumgartner in his record-breaking 39 km freefall). As we learn in the film, for Kittinger, deprived of visual markers on his descent, time seemed to stand still.
Mettler’s film aims for a similar distortion of time – what hippies would call a trip – with moody music, beautiful cinematography and opinions from people of various walks of life. Mettler, who offered a similar survey of ecstatic experiences in his 2002 film Gambling, Gods and LSD, takes a highly personal approach to his subject, side-stepping conventional philosophic or journalistic investigation. The loose structure serves as a survey of different ideas of time: There’s quantum-physics time, geological time, astronomical, biological and musical time. There are also visual motifs, particularly circular patterns of various kinds, from particle accelerators to religious mandalas.
We begin with a visit to the CERN Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, a reasonable place to start exploring research on time. Books on cosmology are popular science bestsellers, from Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time to Julian Barbour’s The End of Time: The Next Revolution in Physics and Sean Carroll’s From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time. But, no – we don’t tarry long here. The tunnels of the underground lab make for a moody journey suggestive of a sci-fi movie, but the brief interviews with the physicists and engineers at the facility barely scratch the surface of particle physics before we skip off to new territory.
Like the overgrown lawns of abandoned homes in downtown Detroit, where the motor city has become the moribund city (they’ve paved Henry Ford’s first automobile factory and put up a parking lot). Like Hawaii’s Big Island, where we watch a vast field of lava forming strange reptilian shapes as it curls around the cottage of hermit Jack Thompson. Like Bodhgaya, India, near the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment, where we see a Hindu funeral rite, complete with the burning of the body, all of which feels less about time than a kind of eccentric National Geographic exoticism.
Here and there, amid landscapes and swirling constellations, or a scene of ants devouring a grasshopper, a human pops up: a Buddhist here, an astronomer there. We meet Canadian techno musician Richie Hawtin, who says he lives between the present and the future, and see him perform before a crowd, looking like one entity with many waving arms, as they all groove to the music and a giant screen filled with pulsing green patterns. A woman gardener opines that time moves in a circle. Near the film’s conclusion, the director’s mother offers advice on using your time well.
In a sense, Mettler’s film poses a question of time management: If the goal is reverie, and you’re not too busy, The End of Time offers lots of opportunities to gaze and muse. If it’s about gaining insight into the subject of its title, you could more profitably spend a couple of hours elsewhere.