If the world were ending tomorrow, you’d probably want to spend your final hours with better company than the central duo in “4:44 Last Day on Earth.” A less nihilistic and far less interesting companion piece to Lars von Trier’s recent “Melancholia,” Abel Ferrara’s latest cine-doodle likewise treats a worldwide cataclysm as an occasion for two individuals to exorcise their demons, here through acts of sexual, artistic and emotional release more perplexing than edifying to witness. Ferrara’s underlying tenderness at times creeps into his raw, unruly filmmaking, but beyond his international following, this apocalyptic melodrama won’t have especially deep impact.
The rare disaster picture to hilariously sum up its doomsday scenario with the words “Al Gore was right,” “4:44 Last Day on Earth” features footage of the global-warming spokesman explaining, vaguely, how rapid ozone depletion has scheduled the Earth for a date with disaster tomorrow at 4:44 a.m. “There will be no survivors. The world will end,” another broadcast ominously announces. We see these and many other images on the many TV screens and iPads littering the Upper East Side loft where Cisco (Willem Dafoe) lives with his younger lover, Skye (Shanyn Leigh).
Pic unfolds mostly within the confines of this rectangular multimedia space, a microcosmic representation of how technology facilitates the rapid dissemination of bad news, good news (the Dalai Lama makes an appearance), fond memories, distractions and whatever else human beings seek in times of crisis. It’s also the place where Skye, a painter, feverishly attacks a sub-Jackson Pollock canvas while Cisco, an actor, spends his time watching TV and occasionally railing against passersby in the streets below.
Faced with the prospect of imminent destruction, Cisco and Skye seek refuge in sex, occasioning an extremely hands-on foreplay sequence that lasts several indulgent minutes, captured with an up-close and frankly undesired level of intimacy. By around this point, auds may question why writer-director Ferrara chose to filter the end of the world through the ravings and gropings of this particular pair; a shot of the two meditating cross-legged fails to provide an answer (and indeed signaled the cue for several journalists to hastily exit the film’s Venice press screening).
The techno-savvy twosome also spend a great deal of time on Skype, saying their farewells to loved ones. This leads to the most dramatic rupture in the film, when Skype — er, Skye — catches Cisco video-chatting with his ex-wife and daughter, prompting the young woman to go ballistic and complain to her mother (Anita Pallenberg, memorable in her brief, blurry appearance). Cisco’s sudden itch for a cocaine fix only makes matters worse, and he soon storms out of the apartment.
“4:44 Last Day on Earth” becomes more involving at this stage, as Cisco drops in on some buddies (among them Natasha Lyonne and Paul Hipp) whom he hasn’t seen in some time and, he realizes, won’t see ever again. The sight of longtime friends having a drink and shooting the breeze, laughing on the edge of the abyss, at last inspires a genuine reckoning with Ferrara’s hypothetical endtimes scenario.
The hopeful message the director seeks to leave us with, of the need to draw close to our loved ones in what is literally humanity’s darkest hour, feels entirely sincere in the delivery. But it’s too little too late, begging to be taken seriously in a way this largely alienating picture hasn’t prepared us for. Even when they’re not ranting hysterically at each other, Dafoe (reteaming with the helmer after “New Rose Hotel” and “Go Go Tales”) and first-timer Leigh (also Ferrara’s g.f.) give performances that leave the viewer firmly on the outside, looking in.
Ferrara’s fans will be heartened by this essential New York helmer’s first Gotham-shot film in more than a decade. Given the subject matter, the Manhattan ambience is rather less than triumphant; what we see of the city is largely restricted to the view from Cisco’s rooftop, where the blue-green tint of the sky, captured in limpid outdoor shots by Ferrara’s longtime d.p., Ken Kelsch, imparts a subtle sense of the otherworldly. Tech package is expectedly rough and raw but achieves some nifty, even spooky low-budget effects in the final stretch.