Encounters At The End of The World
Review by Jack Foley
YOU’VE got to hand it to director Werner Herzog, he doesn’t ever conform to convention or expectation. At the start of his documentary on Antarctica, Encounters At The End of the World, he informs viewers that he’d left the National Science Foundation, which invited him, under no doubt that he wouldn’t be coming up with “another film about penguins”.
Rather, his Antarctic adventure is a far darker journey that, while frequently beautiful to look at, seldom does what you might expect from such a film, either in the footage it delivers or with the questions it asks.
Penguins and seals are kept to a minimum, as are sweeping shots of icy landscapes. Rather, Herzog (the filmmaker previously best known for Grizzly Man), opts for interviews with a number of scientists and researchers who shared time with him at the McMurdo Station in the massive Ross Sea, as well as candid observations about humanity.
He concludes, somewhat chillingly, that man’s preservation on this planet is ultimately not sustainable, and that the end of human life is all but assured.
And he revels in descriptions of the “horribly violent [miniature] world” that exists beneath the ice, and the possibility that the Earth is somehow reacting to humanity through what is happening on the ice.
Climate change is mentioned, but not dwelt upon for too long, while there are frequent insights into the banality of life at the McMurdo Station, even though Herzog concedes that “behind every door is someone with an interesting story to tell”.
Hence, his documentary contains extracts from some of these stories that are frequently interesting. But his film really comes alive when exploring the outdoors.
Underwater footage of life beneath the icebergs is spectacular and other-worldly, while a sequence atop a volcano gives rise to yet more incredible footage of lava fields and vent holes. There’s even advice on what to do should the volcano toss up explosions.
Equally incredible is audio of seals communicating with each other beneath the ice (referred to as something like Pink Floyd).
Penguins do make a belated appearance but even then Herzog drifts towards the more willfully obscure, questioning one researcher whether penguins can ever go insane.
Fans of March of the Penguins or the majestic beauty of David Attenborough’s BBC excursions may want to look away as a lone penguin is then shown venturing off to near-certain death, apparently confused by which direction to take towards feeding grounds.
Herzog, as a filmmaker, exists to provoke thought and intelligent debate. He seldom opts for the obvious.
Encounters At The End of The World is yet another example of why he is considered such an important filmmaker. It’s bold, cerebral, occasionally beautiful, often quite dark and unlike any other documentary on Antarctica that you’re likely to see for a while.
And while it won’t cater for every taste, or those that just want to marvel at countless shots of natural beauty, it is a fascinating piece of work that nevertheless remains an important entry into the current environmental debate.
Running time: 100mins
UK DVD & Blu-ray Release: August 31, 2009
- Buy it on DVD (Amazon)
- Buy it on Blu-ray (Amazon)
- Buy The Werner Herzog box set on DVD (Amazon)
- Buy The Werner Herzog box set on Blu-ray (Amazon)