To better appreciate "Encounters at the End of the World," it's best to view it not as a scientific documentary, but as a home movie from screendom's crankiest old bastard. That's right, Werner Herzog is back with his latest non-fiction endeavor, proving again that it's not actually naturalistic poetry until it's been touched by his camera.
Asked by the National Science Foundation to travel to Antarctica and document his adventures, Herzog halfheartedly agreed, on the condition that penguins wouldn't be the focus of his efforts. Heading to the developed community of McMurdo Station armed only with some cameras, a distaste for the sun, and his boundless curiosity, Herzog wandered around the landscape looking for oddities that piqued his interest and offered his lens a glimpse of beauty in the most unfamiliar of locations.
An accomplished and prolific documentarian, Herzog's films are specialized product emanating from his cockeyed perspective. He seems to make these pictures only for his own pleasure, leading each endeavor with the unmistakable coo of his German-accented voice and following with a camera that holds uncomfortably long on its subjects. With that aesthetic in mind, "Encounters" is a straightforward addition to the Herzog library. However, if you come to "Encounters" looking for some semblance of scientific discussion or even basic interview respect, you'd be better off with a more traditional production. Herzog is an acquired taste, and that elusive quality is what keeps "Encounters" from sinking into a self-involved abyss.
Antarctica is a forbidding landscape of permanent winter, provoking romantic notions of cracking glacier ballets, adorable wildlife, and isolation presented on a grand scale. To Herzog, the region is a puzzle with pieces made of both man and nature, coexisting uncomfortably, remaining a beautiful, jarring combination of perseverance and destruction. "Encounters" isn't bound by a single thematic turn (though global warming and the destruction of humanity is the Grand Marshal of this parade), leaving Herzog ample room to mosey all over the brittle, brutal land searching for stunning symbolic images and locals who tickle his inquisitiveness without fear of disturbing the documentary's focal point.
The wanderlust takes him to snow survival safety classes, remote science stations, and various ice portals to vulnerable regions, either in the sea or at volcano sites. Scored with lush choral arrangements, Herzog approaches the surreal, luscious footage as a literal holy experience, revealing untouched, graceful life beneath the depleting glaciers, but also reinforcing the mechanics of an intricate ecosystem just out of human grasp. While deep sea life is a documentary topic already exhaustively covered, there's still plenty of marvel to be scooped up from the depths of the planet. Herzog is immensely respectful of the unknown.
It's the humans that the director is less courteous with. "Encounters" investigates the nature (or is it desire?) of such unreal isolation, meeting strange, working-class and science-minded employees who feed off the Antarctica experience in their own distinctive ways. Of course, Herzog has limited patience for their tales, often cutting off the interviewees and insulting their breathless encapsulation of personal history. It's both hilarious and incredibly insulting, but that's the Herzog way: why make people comfortable when agitation is much more interesting?
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