Director Werner Herzog has a way of film making that takes what looks to be a documentary about the natural world, but ultimately ends up being about the nature of the human spirit. In Grizzly Man, we see a ultimately disturbing portrait of a man rather than a movie about living with bears. Although it's stunningly visual and shows off the wilderness as a place of raw and savage power, it also shows the emotions of it's protagonist and the derangement that takes him out to that place. In Herzog's new documentary, Encounters at the End of the World, we get a similar view of the human spirit but in a little less dark way. This time, Herzog and his crew brave the Forgotten Continent of Antartica to find what drives the human spirit to adventure.
The opening of the film is a gorgeous underwater shot of a diver illuminating a frozen piece of sea ice that points to the depths of the Ross Sea like a stalactite glow stick. It was these images a friend of Herzog sent him that drew him to visit Antarctica. Herzog at the beginning promises his audience that this won't be another documentary about "fluffy penguins" and although one digression where we see the goofy birds (more on that later), we intead get a really strange mission statment that mixes the question "Why do men wear masks and chase the bad guy?" to "Why do other smart animals, like chimps, not utilize other lesser species?" These questions are less about being answered by Herzog but are more the basis of his ultimate question: "Why is human nature so inherently drawn to exploration and further knowledge when all things in life are for the most part futile?" He never states this as his mission, but he sure does accomplish this stark vision of humanity into the desolate wastelands of Antarctica.
Herzog travels with his team to a remote settlement of sorts on a small island off the main coast of Antarctica with the large Ross Sea in between them. The Ross Sea, during the aural summer, is frozen solid with 8 feet of ice. Herzog has a way of capturing the spirit of the strange crew of misfits that include a descendant of the royal Aztec family, a lady who traveled from Chicago to Peru in a sewer pipe and a PHD in a language that has died. As one fo the people put it, they were all the people who didn't belong and sank to the bottom of the globe. Somehow, these folks have a passion and drive for science enough to bear the extreme weather, the 24 hour daylight and all matter of terrible living situations. The film then finally ventures into the vast wasteland, but underneath the ice is a living and thriving environment filled with strange creatures and wonderous otherworldy sounds. These images are some of the most breathtaking in the film.
The one thing, though, that holds back the film is its wandering sense of direction. Maybe this was done on purpose to show the wanderers who live in Antarctica, but the lack of a direct focus to the documentary makes it more of a visual feast than an intellectual one. The greatest moment in the film is when a lone penguin heads out into the mainland, unlike most penguins who either stay at their breeding grounds or go out to sea. This one penguin seeks adventure, much like the people observing him, even if this seals his fate. Herzog uses the only penguin scene to show that humans aren't the only ones with such an adventursome spirit. Encounters at the End of the World is a gorgeous film that may not answer all it's philisophical questions, but that is part of the mystery of life. It's all one adventure that leads to another and without any end in sight, just like the miles of snow covered mountains in Antarctica.