Let's talk about the end of the world.
Pacific Rim, the candy-colored B-movie infiltrating this sci-fi summer, pulls some familiar heartstrings for SF types and movie buffs alike: for the former, a handful of epic robot vs. monster fights; for the latter, a veritable buffet of tropes, right down to the rousing speech at the edge of the climactic action. This time around, it's Idris Elba, headed out to the epicenter of the overwhelming kaiju infestation to blow it shut or die trying, and in a clarification of the stakes characteristic of a film that doesn't want you to worry about what sort of film it is, he promises his crew and the audience alike, "We are canceling the apocalypse!"
That's pretty upbeat of him, but what do you know? Things turn out all right after all. Pacific Rim is an earnest movie, and an optimistic one, one that gives us an apocalypse so that it can show us that even the literally monstrous problems of the near future are surmountable after all. (As Raleigh Becket assures us, "[W]hen you're in a Jaeger, you can finally fight the hurricane. You can win.")
The survivable apocalypse is a time-honored story, one that's enjoyed increasing popularity in the post-atomic age, and one ready-made for film: from War of the Worlds to Mad Max to Armageddon, pop culture has no shortage of imagined apocalypses in which humanity comes out the other side still fighting the good fight. Occasionally they even get away with a cautionary tale; Klaatu delivers his message and departs, or the zombies starve to death, and there's a future in the future.
But the apocalypse can be an awfully hard stop. An increasingly cynical outlook to an increasing list of humanity's failures has been mirrored in the apocalypse narratives it presents; sometimes there's only Ragnarok. In the movies that operate under these rules, even if everything doesn't vanish into the cosmos all at once, things are not going to look good, and the cast is probably not going to make it. (La Jetee, Dr. Strangelove, and several dozen zombie flicksall file here.)
One of the most absolute apocalypse narratives of recent years is Lars Von Trier's Melancholia, a meditation on depression that juxtaposes the minor disaster of a wedding reception with the metaphor of all-encompassing planetary destruction that manages to be slightly less traumatic than sitting through the wedding reception. After the disastrous wedding, the depressed and crumbling Justine lives in a fairy-tale estate with her seemingly perfect sister Claire; the sisters are disconnected, with Justine particularly static, until she realizes she's awaiting the arrival of the planet Melancholia, which Claire expects to do a fly-by, and which Justine knows is going to swallow them all.
These two apocalypses couldn't be more opposite, but they're more alike than they may seem. (Even in small style choices, they echo one another; Pacific Rim introduces the kaiju, the Jaegers, the aesthetics, and the stakes in its prologue; Melancholia's prologue establishes its visual motifs, and ends with Earth being consumed—neither movie wants you to worry about what sort of apocalypse this is, exactly.) But more than that, both Pacific Rim and Melancholia illustrate the manner of the end, and humanity's approach to it in each case, through an emphasis on doubling. The purposes are different, but the use of the trope is notable, and defines each film's thematic approach to the end of days.
Pacific Rim, here as everywhere else, wears its heart on its sleeve. Amid a background of international cooperation, the Jaeger technology is developed—but is too complex for one person to handle, necessitating a pair of pilots in each cockpit and explicitly defining heroism as a shared commodity, making communication within the neural Drift the paramount defensive quality. (Oddly, this success doesn't extend beyond the pair bond; overall communication in problem-solving isn't granted anywhere near this supernatural power, and even the Wei triplets are the first pilots to malfunction and die.) And the idea of doubling isn't just a combat measure; the two scientists in the research division, initially presented as opposites, also pair up and enter the Drift, solidifying both their research and giving them a unity of purpose and efficacy previous missing. Interestingly, even this only happens after proof of the kaiju's unity of purpose—proven by the appearance of a pair at once.
Visually, as well, director Guillermo del Toro makes sure the universe of Pacific Rim constantly reinforces the idea of the dual as balanced halves of a whole. Mako and Raleigh's rooms are directly across the hall from one another; Raleigh's white armor from his days as his brother's co-pilot is countered by somber, sleeker black in his new suit, providing an instant visual counterpoint when in his memories, a bright echo of a dark present. The other, background pilots appear together (no pilot goes anywhere alone), and have little presence in the movie other than the visual, which means the entirety of their connection is conveyed through mirrored body language and physical appearance (the Kaidonovskys and their bleached hair, the family mirroring of the Wei triplets). Even its lead character's most personal motif is symbolic of the necessity of balance—the loss of a shoe as symbol of catastrophe. And the movie promises that in that balance is, ultimately, victory.
In Melancholia, doubling is equally important, though as befits a movie about oblivion, it's in slight asymmetry that the core visual themes are found. Thanks in part to the prologue's assurance of disaster, it's also more dreamlike in its approach; there's no urgency to unlock the mystery or rebalance what has gone askew when it's a hopeless case. Still, the idea of the dual is pervasive. In one of the movie's most striking visuals, it can be seen during the early appearance of the blue planet Melancholia, looking like a second Earth in the night sky; Claire stands at the balcony, looking down the symmetric lane of trees on the lawn to where Melancholia and the moon are mirrored, and soon her sister Justine comes out from the house and crosses the lawn, one sister for each floating body. But in keeping with the motif, the women are offset—they are in the same situation, have yet to face anything together. (The closest they've come so far is an hour before, during Claire's attempt to hold Justine's wedding reception back from the brink of disaster, reluctantly mirroring the role of bride. In another mirror, both women lose their husbands; Justine's husband disappears after the wedding, and Claire's commits suicide upon realizing the planet won't just be flying by after all.)
In Melancholia, doubling occurs often through memory, through hauntings and echoes, as much as through explicit pairing. Textually, a dual instance of a jar of 678 beans both highlights Claire's frustration with Justine and proves Justine's supernatural abilities to her; visually an accidental constellation of floating lanterns at the wedding reception echoes the constellation Scorpio, from which the disappearance of Antares signals the arrival of Melancholia. The mirroring of the sisters is more complicated, less a symbiosis than parasitism; their duality is such that one waxes only as the other wanes. The movie itself is split in half, one section named for each sister, and each section tracks the dual descents of the woman in question. For Justine, it's a fairy-tale wedding torn slowly to pieces, as her overwhelming depression drives her away from those she loves, until her only solace is looking up at the dark and, before anyone else does, understanding what it means when a star goes out. For Claire, it's her struggle to accept the inevitable, as Justine becomes increasingly engaged and capable, the closer they get to the end.
Fittingly, the most significant character mirroring in Melancholia happens in its final moments, when Justine and Claire, both abandoned by their husbands and having come to accept the inevitable, sit on either side of Claire's son Leo, take his hands, and, just before the blast hits, take one another's (though even here, the final image of them joined is still offset in the frame). It's the closest Melancholia comes to the idea of mirroring as victory; it's all the victory this universe allows.
Neither of these movies is a prescription for the end times over the other. The apocalypse scenario has as many outcomes as the pop-culture imagination and internal architecture will support; if a group of dedicated young people can overcome their political differences in the face of catastrophic environmental threats, that's as solid a metaphor as the idea of a planet actually named Melancholia engulfing every last person on an inert and lonely planet. But the visual and thematic language of duality is used in both Pacific Rim and Melancholia to demonstrate utterly opposing philosophies, with equally disparate outcomes; it makes for an interesting apocalypse, any way you slice it.