Encounters at the End of the World

Encounters at the End of the WorldIn Encounters at the End of the World, director Werner Herzog allows his camera to roam the stunning topography of Antarctica, both above and below the ice.  But in doing so, he tells small stories about the scientists who spend much of their year in this frozen paradise, engaging the viewer in a philosophical discussion over what it means to be truly alive.

Herzog is an accomplished director who has never settled for being conventional.  If you have a chance, rent his movie Rescue Dawn (2007).  Starring Christian Bale (better known now as Batman) and Steve Zahn, it tells the story of the heroic escape by American soldiers from a North Vietnamese prison camp during the Vietnam War.  While it sounds dated, the movie is a powerful, and at times upsetting, human drama of survival.

While I am on the subject, you should also track down three of his prior iconoclastic contributions, Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1973), Nosferatu (1978) and Fitzcarraldo (1982).  Whether dealing with his own take on a vampire movie or a tale of a megalomaniac adventurer in South America trying to untangle his large boat somewhere on an Amazon tributary, Herzog’s movies are always exploring various depths of the human condition.

Seemingly bored with the moviemaking process, he has recently turned to the documentary format with stunning results.  One of the truly outstanding documentaries of the past ten years was Grizzly Man (2005).  Justly nominated for an Academy Award, it told the fascinating yet tragic story of Timothy Treadwell, a rank amateur who for years traveled to Alaska to live with grizzly bears in their natural habitat.  Part visionary and part fool, this incredibly naïve young man survived over ten summers before meeting his tragic fate.  Herzog’s documentary of this incredible madness is spellbinding.
While Encounters does not rise to the same level as Grizzly Man, it touches many of the same themes.  Principally, why would seemingly sane people leave the comforts of civilization to live and work at the ends of the earth?

Thus, despite the captivating scenes of divers going under the Antarctica ice sheet to reveal the wonders lying at those icy depths, this is not a documentary you are going to want to rent if you are looking for cute scenes about wildlife, be it seals or penguins.  While there are moments dealing with both, they are extraordinarily brief.  Simply put, this is not a documentary about the animal kingdom as much as it is a story about mankind itself.

There are some fine moments as Herzog interviews the men and women working in the stunning isolation of Antarctica.  There is the guy who drives a snowplow who is at heart a philosopher. There is another who runs a greenhouse who eloquently describes his background as a linguist. You also hear a bus driver being interviewed who was formerly a banker in Colorado, but who simply wanted to do more with his life than make money.
Joining this eclectic society are biologists who are studying life at the primitive level as it exists on the sea floor in an effort to try and identify the origins of life on earth.  Other scientists are trying to determine the effects of manmade global warming and what is likely to happen to our planet as icebergs the size of Texas break free and float north into the warmer seas.

In particular, there is an interview with a physicist from Hawaii who is studying particles so small that a trillion of them will pass through your nose and mouth while you are speaking for several seconds.  He talks in almost a mystical tone about trying to quantify and measure something that is so infinitesimal that it seems to exist in its own alternate universe.  He looks into the camera and says words to the effect that it is almost as if you are trying to “study and quantify the spiritual world.”

This movie is, at heart, a meditation on life and our purpose and role on this planet.  The music throughout is a version Gregorian Chant that takes on a religious symbolism in and of itself.

It is impossible not to admire Herzog for making a documentary that he knows in advance will have little mass audience appeal.  Herzog has the courage to pose this fundamental question.  If something as dominant as dinosaurs eventually disappeared from the earth, has mankind planted the seeds that will lead to our own destruction?  Can we really be that tragically stupid?  Can we?