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There’s no end of apocalypse movies

In the movies, almost as a rule, the world ends with a bang. Fireballs engulf entire cities; asteroids crash into Earth; vast swaths of humanity are swallowed up in the iconic form of a radioactive mushroom cloud. The prospect of extinction — or, as Susan Sontag put it, “the imagination of disaster” — has been a cinematic staple since the days of Cold War science fiction, with its chronic, allegorical fear of alien invasion.

Planetary annihilation was the grim punch line of the classics of nuclear cinema (“Kiss Me Deadly,” “Dr. Strangelove,” “Twilight’s Last Gleaming”), and it has long been the nihilistic come-on of action blockbusters such as “Independence Day,” “Armageddon” and “2012.”

But strictly speaking, most apocalypse films do not imagine the end so much as a close encounter with it. The point is not to confront but to avert the ultimate disaster. And much of apocalypse-themed cinema is more precisely termed post-apocalypse. In films as varied as the “Mad Max” trilogy, “Children of Men,” “The Road,” “28 Days Later,” “La Jetée” and “12 Monkeys,” the heroes are the few hardy survivors navigating a depopulated wasteland and implicitly tasked with ensuring a future for the human race after the worst has happened.

Pre-apocalypse films — the ones that stare into the void, that dare to imagine what the end of all things would look and feel like — are an altogether rarer, not to mention quieter, breed. And as the current glut of doomsday dramas suggests, these films are more likely to be found at the art house than the multiplex. It’s not exactly that the world ends with a whimper in these movies, but the final cataclysm is usually suggested with the sparest of special effects, if at all. Less attention is paid to the pyrotechnics of disaster than on the specter of mortality and the interior states of those living through the end times: terror, anxiety, wonder, acceptance.

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To come to terms with The End, then, takes a cinema not of spectacle but of contemplation. The mere thought of universal extinction instantly gives human drama a cosmic significance. A case in point: Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” a film of ultimate beginnings and ends. Striving for nothing less than eternal truths, Malick frames the sense memories of a 1950s Texas childhood within the largest possible context: the life cycle of the universe, from Big Bang to final flameout.

Billed as “a beautiful movie about the end of the world,” Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia” (which many compared to “The Tree of Life” at the Cannes Film Festival this year) also counterpoints earthly and celestial tragedies. It begins with the end — a hyper-stylized, Wagner-scored premonition of the cataclysmic collision between Earth and the wayward planet Melancholia — then settles into a tense family drama, as its depressive heroine (Kirsten Dunst) and her seemingly better-adjusted sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg) await the arrival of the giant blue orb in the sky.

As in “Melancholia,” the apocalypse in “Take Shelter,” the new film by the young American director Jeff Nichols, looms on the horizon, here in the form of gathering storm clouds and prophetic nightmares. But the sense of imminent disaster is deliberately ambiguous — inseparable from the nameless dread of modern American existence and perhaps existing only in the head of its unstable, deeply paranoid hero (Michael Shannon).

In “The Turin Horse,” the latest from the Hungarian maestro of miserablism Béla Tarr (set for a U.S. release next year from Cinema Guild), doomsday is not depicted so much as evoked. Tarr chronicles the spare, ritualistic existence of a father and daughter, holed up in a ramshackle cabin as a ferocious wind all but sweeps away the outside world, and a palpable feeling of doom eventually overwhelms the film.

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More precise in its countdown structure — the global lights-out is timed to the minute — Abel Ferrara’s “4:44 Last Day on Earth,” also due to open next year (through IFC Films), observes a New York couple (Willem Dafoe and Shanyn Leigh) in their final hours together as the planet braces itself for environmentally induced extinction.

Whatever the reason for the onslaught of these death-haunted movies — 2012 cultists, rapture believers and hard-nosed rationalists will all have their own theories — it’s worth noting that dramas of terminal despair are hardly unprecedented. Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky, masters of spiritual anguish, both made apocalyptic films.

Bleak even by Bergman standards, “Shame” (1968) concerns a married couple who flee a civil war only to have it show up at their doorstep, and the domestic drama widens to encompass what comes to feel like the end of humanity. In Tarkovsky’s final film, “The Sacrifice” (1986), a birthday gathering is interrupted by the outbreak of World War III, prompting its stricken protagonist into a fateful pact with God.

Religion has of course supplied many of our visions of the apocalypse. The Christian notion of end times has inspired its share of depictions, not least in the mini-industry of “Left Behind” books and movies, although believers and nonbelievers alike will find more to chew over in Michael Tolkin’s singular Armageddon parable “The Rapture” (1991), which takes seriously, even as it rails against, the tenets of fundamentalist belief.

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Also inspired by the Book of Revelation, the conspiracy-minded “Southland Tales” — by Richard Kelly, perhaps the most morbid of young American directors — connects doomsday fantasies to post-Sept. 11 politics, just as “Donnie Darko” (2001), Kelly’s time-traveling debut, portrays the mood swings of adolescence as one long personal apocalypse.

What does oblivion look like? Anything from the blacker-than-black darkness that finally descends over “The Turin Horse” to the borealis-like lights illuminating the Manhattan skies of “4:44.” But whatever its literal manifestations, The End is usually metaphorical. In “Melancholia,” the apocalypse could just as well be an expression of its heroine’s all-consuming depression. “The Turin Horse,” which takes as its starting point Nietzsche’s supposed encounter with a beaten carriage horse, suggests an utterly godless universe, shrouded in a pall of mortality, and Tarr’s declaration that this is his last film only adds to the funereal gloom.

Besides dread and despair, the final countdown can also inspire awe: the fearsome lightning storms in “Take Shelter,” the otherworldly conflagrations of “The Tree of Life.” The act of acquiescence, even of erotic surrender, in the face of annihilation is startlingly captured by Von Trier in “Melancholia,” with an indelible image of Dunst naked on a riverbank, bathing in the eerie light of the planet that is about to obliterate her and her world.

But even though The End brings with it the weight of imposed significance, the banality of day-to-day existence remains, as do basic human needs and desires. With their time on Earth running out, the couple in Ferrara’s “4:44" have sex, order delivery, Skype their friends and relatives, argue, make up and wrestle with the same old bad habits — all for the last time. Despite its obvious, absurd momentousness, the last day on Earth is, in essence, like any other: one of the film’s offhand visual jokes reveals a row of exercisers on gym treadmills, mere hours before their preordained demise.

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The rueful, matter-of-fact tone of “4:44" calls to mind the Canadian actor-writer-director Don McKellar’s “Last Night” (1998). In McKellar’s sly, touching subversion of the disaster film, part of a series commissioned to mark the new millennium, the doomed inhabitants of Earth have all come to terms with dying but are struggling to find a final consequential gesture.

Films about the end of the world are essentially thought experiments. They prompt inevitable questions about how we would face the end. Some suggest that how we die says something about how we have lived, while others question the wisdom of finding meaning in endings. It’s easy, in any case, to see the appeal to storytellers of a narrative template with a ready-made conclusion, a definitive sense of closure.

Against the mystery of the abyss, apocalypse movies promise the clarity of finitude.

calendar@latimes.com


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