ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD Review
This is the way my mind works: I love good stories. The structure, the details, the characters, the pay-off. Call me literal-minded or a clod with limited imagination and intelligence, but it's always been difficult for me to appreciate more abstract films, those that lack a strong narrative drive. I can appreciate experimental films, to a degree, and recognize the artistry involved; still, I tend to become restless and uneasy.
Why, then, does Warner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World, which finally opened at a cinema in my neck of the woods this weekend, strike me as such a fascinating, revealing, and satisfying movie?
To a large measure, it's because Herzog himself remains such a compelling figure that his voice and his words provide the narrative force that is needed to make a documentary that is simulataneously loose-limbed and rambling in its philosophical meditations and starkly beautiful in its visual splendor.
If you care to click through and glance at my review of The Wild Blue Yonder from a couple of years ago, you'll see a mysterious still photo of an ocean diver. Yonder was, to my mind, a terribly confusing and disappointing misfire on Herzog's part, a mixed-up combination of fact and fantasy, real-life mathematicians and fictional aliens. The undersea footage from Yonder, however, provides the jumping off point for the far superior Encounters.
The footage was photographed by Henry Kaiser and was shot in Antarctica. It is strange and hypnotic and other-worldly, which is why Herzog used it in his science fictional Yonder to represent another world, but it also intrigued Herzog and made him want to visit Antarctica. He secured a grant from the National Science Foundation (in charge of all things scientific on the continent), despite some very odd questions.
If you're familiar with Herzog's filmography, you know he wasn't going to return with a film about cute penguins -- though the little guys end up making a significant contribution after all. Herzog is interested in delving into significant issues: the meaning of life, how life began, why does Antarctica have an ATM?
He lands at McMurdo Station, the largest community on the continent and the starting point for all scientific expeditions, and is dismayed by what he finds ("the abomination of a yoga studio"). Yet he also records his first encounter with a worker, and soon finds many kindred souls, fellow travelers in search of something different, whether they are plumbers or geologists, all with stories to tell of how they ended up at the southernmost point on the globe.
Herzog also has encounters in his visits to various scientific expeditions, from the ocean divers plunging through a hole in the ice to discover myriads of bizarre creatures, to volcanologists studying an active volcano on the rim of its crater ("when it explodes, the worst thing you can do is run away with your back to it"), to folks studying weight loss among giant seals, to a quiet expert on penguins, pensively answering Herzog's questions ("Have you ever seen any gay penguins?").
Remaining studiously off-camera, Herzog's voice is our guide, questioning, exploring, occasionally mocking, giving way to grand chorale arrangements at times. Somehow the disparate stories come together in a marvelous, unified whole, neither angry nor overly optimistic about the future of man on this planet, not entirely resigned to fate.
Really, it's Herzog's world, and we're just happy to be living on it.