Encounters at the End of the World
Seriously, the Earth will kill us all eventually.

Theatrical Release Date: 06/11/2008
Director/Narrator: Werner Herzog

Ever wanted to see Antarctica without having to deal with the hassles of buying a ticket, or winning some scientific grant that would first require years of mind-crushing schooling? Well, then you’re in luck because director Werner Herzog wanted to have a look-see himself and brought along a camera crew.

It may seem that Herzog is a little too gung-ho to take pictures of the South Pole but when you take a look at his filmography (“Fitzcarraldo”, “Grizzly Man“, “Rescue Dawn” – to name a few), a clear theme about the capabilities and inner workings of the human spirit is the common thread running throughout his work.

As such, after seeing underwater footage from Antarctica shot by a friend of his, Herzog appealed to the National Science Foundation (which basically runs the everyday operations of the continent) to allow him access to film a more thorough documentary. However, as he quickly points out in his narration, Herzog isn’t interested in filming penguins (though they do make up a segment of the film, albeit to prove a point about madness in the face of such a harsh life). What he wants instead is to discover the intrinsic motivators behind animal behavior, to find out what causes people, or any other living organism, to go about their day in the manner it does.

That sounds great but in the course of watching the documentary, that answer never seems to be forthcoming. That’s okay but it seems silly to write an opening segment based largely on this grandiose premise and to never really deliver … at least not directly. What Herzog does manner to capture is the resilience and curiosity of the human spirit as he interviews the intrepid explorers and workers on Antarctica.

One such “philosopher/forklift driver” remarks that the people who choose to come to this enormous, frozen landscape are “professional dreamers”. The people Herzog talks with come from all walks of life and from many different countries. While their backgrounds don’t share many similarities, they all share the same zeal for living closer to the edge; wanting to use this frigid and harsh environment as a measurement of their abilities, both physically and psychologically.

In trying to describe the type of experience you’ll get by watching this documentary, it’s almost like checking out samples from a music album online. Herzog gives the audience a glimpse of multiple jobs and lifestyles on the continent; spending enough time to flesh out the gist of things but leaving a full explanation off the table. Each element and location he chooses to cut together for the final version could likely have been developed into its own documentary (even if only an hour long version for National Geographic or the like).

I’d rather have seen him stick to a clearer focus but there were so many stories to tell that I’m sure trying to boil it all down would be an editorial nightmare and it seems Herzog’s goal isn’t so much to describe any one element in fine detail, but to give us a clear idea of what kind of person chooses to tackle such an intimidating environment.

To that end, the documentary is a success. The people we meet along the way all have their own stories and reasons for being there. While their jobs range from volcanology to plumbing to discovering new single-celled organisms, all of them are also looking to find greater meaning in their own lives and see Antarctica as the path to that destination.

I especially enjoyed the segment on the “Happy Camper” program – which is a crash course on survival techniques in the harsh Antarctic. Using a white bucket over your head to simulate snow blindness is both effective and humorous. Sadly, this segment doesn’t go over too many other survival methods but it was a welcome change of pace from the traditional interview-style film making that makes up the majority of the documentary.

Perhaps the element I found the most distracting, oddly enough, was the beautiful orchestral choir-like music that Herzog overlays on much of the footage revolving around exploring the landscape of Antarctica. For one thing, it seemed a little over-handed considering the visuals weren’t particularly awe-inspiring (more on that in a second). For another, quite frankly, it put me to sleep.

I saw a mid-morning screening and had counted plenty of sheep the night before but found myself doing that annoying head-jerk maneuver periodically for the last third of the film. Perhaps it’s my near-super human ability to sleep just about anywhere (and just about have) but it could also be the long stretches of slowly panning footage interlaced with angelic lullabies. You choose.

Cinematically, I was also a little disappointed at the landscape footage Herzog brought back. Having suffered through “March of the Penguins“, while the knowledge gleaned from that picture wasn’t mind-blowing to any great degree and lacked the introspection Herzog delivers with his film, at least the visuals were well done.

Here, Herzog has a few bright moments such as the gorgeous underwater footage which deliver brilliant shades of color and inspire the kind of awe I was looking for in the rest of the film. For the most part though, the focus isn’t on filming nature from its good side (honestly, some of the shaky VHS footage from a trip I took to Alaska when I was 17 is visually more interesting) – instead, Herzog sticks with keeping the documentary rooted in the human element.

I can respect that and applaud him for making the kind of documentary he wanted to make. It’s just not what I was looking for and should you be thinking of seeing the film, knowing what experience you should expect is key to your enjoyment. I’m going to give Herzog’s “Encounters at the End of the World” a 3 out of 5. It’s definitely an interesting look at the everyday life of Antarctic inhabitants – just don’t worry about catching this on a the big screen or worry that your puny LCD won’t capture the grandeur of the environment … it’s not that kind of movie.