The premise of Werner Herzog's Encounters At The End Of The World is, on the surface, a fairly simple one. The picture documents the director's journey to Antarctica where he essentially just shoots the landscape and interviews the people who live and work in the area. While this might not sound particularly exciting or engrossing, in the hands of a filmmaker as talented and unique as Herzog, it turns out to be incredibly compelling stuff and it makes for an excellent companion piece to the director's earlier (and much stranger) film, The Wild Blue Yonder (released on DVD a few years back by the late, lamented Subversive Cinema).
The film begins with Herzog exploring the main facility that serves as the base of operations for the people who live in the area before stretching out and interviewing specific scientists and delving into various regional phenomena. We learn why various people have given up their lives on other continents to live and study in the harsh land of Antarctica and we learn what it is that makes them want to live in such a place. The cameras catch many of the interviewees quirks and infuse the film with quite a bit of personality, alternating back and forth between fairly simple interview clips and absolutely stunning footage of the terrain. The highlights of the film are the segments shot underwater. The ice on top of the water bathes everything in very alien hues of blue and green and Herzog's choice to use choral background music, and in one instance the otherworldly sounds of Weddell seals, makes the film inexplicably emotional in spots.
The film doesn't really have a central theme other than simply wanting to document why people live and work in the area, and on that level it doesn't pack the emotional punch of something like his better known Grizzly Man but as a technical achievement it is quite remarkable. Herzog's narration adds a dry sense of humor to much of the movie, particularly when he interviews a scientist about homosexual penguins or in the opening scene where some strange animated sequences allow the director to wax poetic about some of his ideas surrounding the area. It borders on pretentious at times but that same pretentiousness is what makes so many of the man's films so interesting.
In the end, the film can't really make up its mind and decide whether it wants to be a series of small character studies or a travelogue and as such the narrative structure is a bit disjointed. That said, there are so many great moments in the picture that it's hard to complain. The movie is both entertaining and emotionally involving - try not to get a little upset when a lone penguin, for reasons known only to him, wanders on what must surely be a suicide mission into the inland mountains where there is no water - and the cinematography and incredibly beautiful footage makes the film worth a watch all on its own. It's an off film, to be sure, but anyone with an interest in what makes people tick or who holds an appreciation for beautiful cinematography ought to appreciate what has been created with this film. As odd and disjointed as it is in spots, there are moments where the film is absolutely riveting.
Encounters At The End Of The World arrives on Blu-ray in a nice 2.35.1 1080i ACC encoded anamorphic widescreen transfer. The movie was shot on high end digital video and so the conversion to HD is pretty seamless. The image is nice and strong with plenty of detail in the background of the picture but especially in the close ups and the foreground. Color reproduction looks nice and natural with strong black levels and nice, crisp whites. There aren't any obvious issues with mpeg compression artifacts or edge enhancement though you might notice a tiny bit of shimmer now and again if you really look for it. Aside from that, this image is very strong and the superb picture quality really helps to draw you into the movie - the underwater scenes in particular are almost hypnotic.
Image has supplied audio options in English in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, Dolby TrueHD 5.1, and PCM 2.0 with optional subtitles provided in English and Spanish. All three tracks sound nice but the DTS-HD option is the way to go if your receiver can decode it. There isn't a ton of surround sound activity here but you will notice some subtle directional effects during the scenes that take place out doors and there are a few nice moments where the rears are used to spread the score out a little bit. Dialogue stays clean and clear throughout the movie, with Herzog's intentionally dry narration sounding just as concise as you'd hope it would. Levels are properly balanced and there are no problems to report with hiss or distortion.
First up is a solid audio commentary with director Werner Herzog who is joined by producer Henry Kaiser and cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger. This is a pretty interesting discussion that details the production with a fair bit of wit and humor. If you appreciate Herzog's skills as a narrator you'll likely enjoy this talk as it uses the same sense of dry humor but it also does a good job of exploring why Herzog went to this place and made this movie in the first place and what it was like shooting the film under some rather extreme conditions.
From there, check out the first of a batch of featurettes, Under The Ice (HD, 35:40), which contains a wealth of stunning underwater footage not used in the feature version of the film. If you enjoyed the underwater footage used in the movie, this is more of the same - it's gorgeous. Up next is Over The Ice (HD, 10:03), which is a few minutes of unused footage shot above sea level while Slide Guitar And Exorcism At The North Pole (HD, 11:45) takes a look at an odd local custom and explores the importance of music in the area. Seal Men (HD, 28:45) delves a little deeper into the lives of the scientists who study the seals in the area and it does a good job of highlighting what they do. Also worth checking out is Werner Herzog Talks With Rob Robbins And Henry Kaiser (HD, 18:08) which is an interesting interview that Herzog conducts with the two divers in the locker room after they've come up from under the ice.
After that, dig into the lengthy Conversation: Jonathan Demme And Werner Herzog (SD, 67:01). The two talk on a stage in front of an audience about Herzog's unique brand of filmmaking and about his career. Demme does a good job of playing moderator here and asks Herzog all the right questions. The discussion gets pretty heavy at times and it isn't at all a fluff piece, rather, it's a pretty in-depth talk about what Herzog does and how he does it.
Rounding out the extra features are the film's theatrical trailer, some classy animated menus, and chapter selection.
Image has done an excellent job with Encounters At The End Of The World on Blu-ray. As for the film itself? It's easily one of the best of Herzog's recent documentary output. A rare film as compelling as it is beautiful, it's a fascinating look into a part of the world that many of us know very little about and the unusual people who live there. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.