July 24, 2008

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Encounters at the End of the World (G)
Werner Herzog travels to Antarctica and captures the strange inhabitants (both the animals and the people) who call it home in the documentary Encounters at the End of the World.

Herzog tells us that he is enchanted by photos taken under the ice at the bottom of the world, photos that show a strange and alien landscape filled with creatures unlike those we normally think of when we think of sea-dwellers. He also tells us that, when he made the decision to learn more about the continent, he was determined not to make another movie about penguins (a plan which, perhaps because of the inherent watchability of the penguin waddle, he doesn’t completely stick to). Herzog mixes the video of the sparkling Antarctic landscape and the fascinating animals that live beneath it (much of the “land” we see is actually a thick shelf of ice) with snapshot portraits of the people who live there. These people are professional travelers, as a worker at a greenhouse in the main settlement of McMurdo Station tells him, people with PhDs who are washing dishes. These people are just as interesting as the cucumber-shaped sea creatures and the tuxedoed penguins. They are scientists drawn to the unknown and, in some cases, ancient life forms that live in Antarctic waters and engineers and machinists drawn to the adventure.

Part nature film, part video diary with those quirky Herzog touches throughout (he’s a sucker for a weird personal story), Encounters at the End of the World is as good an Antarctic travel experience as you’re likely to get without boarding an airplane to Patagonia yourself. What elevates the movie from simple nature slide show are the glimpses of Antarctica’s human culture — previous life history and personality oddities (nerdiness, not unexpectedly, seems far more accepted there) aren’t nearly as important as a person’s day-to-day demeanor and ability to bring some kind of entertaining skill to Antarctic talent shows. What saves all this quirkiness from turning to a southern hemisphere version of Northern Exposure is Herzog’s genuine fascination with the natural world and his willingness to let that nature be the unembellished star for long stretches of the movie. B+

Rated G. Directed by Werner Herzog, Encounters at the End of the World is an hour and 39 minutes long and is distributed in limited release by ThinkFilm and Image Entertainment. Locally, the film is scheduled to play in the coming weeks at Red River Theatres.