July 24, 2008

‘Encounters at the End of the World’

Werner Herzog, the mainstream cinema's greatest mystic, ponders life, humanity, ice and penguins in "Encounters at the End of the World," a mesmerizing South Pole documentary that promises more than it delivers.

Quirky Antarcticans and stunning photography, placid sea lions and rumbling volcanoes take the stage as Herzog _ who has veered between personal documentaries ("My Best Friend,""The Wild Blue Yonder,""Grizzly Man") and personalized fiction films ("Rescue Dawn") _ struggles to find something coherent to say about wanderlust, the nature of freedom and the doomed human race.

It's an old man's meditation _ fascinating and deep if a bit distracted.

"Who will I meet?" the German Herzog wonders as he flies on the cargo plane into McMurdo Station on the southernmost continent. "People with stories" is his answer, one obtained the moment he gets off the bus that drives him onto the base. The bus driver is an ex-banker turned Peace Corps volunteer turned adventure traveler.

These aren't tourists: the Mexican-American plumber, the linguist "in a land with no languages" who now runs the greenhouse, the "taciturn" penguin expert more at home with birds than people. These are traveling philosophers who have "fallen," more than one says, to this last frontier, "slid down the globe" to the South Pole on a journey of self-discovery.

Herzog touches on history as he uses documentary footage from the original Ernest Shackleton expedition in 1916 and visits Shackleton's perfectly preserved hut. Then he takes us on an Antarctic survival class (trainees wear buckets to simulate "white out" blizzard conditions), visits volcanologists studying a crater and puzzles over the idea that "madness" might exist among penguins.

And he takes us beneath the ice, showcasing the stunning underwater "cathedrals" whose images drew him down there.

He frets over the "abominations" that our absurd junk culture has brought down there and frets, again and again, over the end of the human race. What he never quite does is explain his reasons for fearing humanity's doom. This isn't a global warming film, despite its suggestion that humans are bulldozing and junking up the South Pole the way they have the rest of the planet. From Herzog's dismissive descriptions of nature lovers and "tree huggers," you wonder where he stands on that or anything else.

What he gets at here is how much he and these various folk, scientists to pipe-fitters, have in common, their search for solitude, for lonely places, emptiness, a place where one can be eccentric, a cracked visionary. He has touched on this time and again in his films.

He boasts that he was given a National Science Foundation grant and writ of passage to come there, "even though I told them I had no intention of making another movie about penguins." We're still waiting for him to brag about not doing another movie about emptiness and oddball loners.



3 of 5 stars

Cast: The scientists, travelers and drifters of Antarctica

Director: Werner Herzog

Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes

Industry rating: G


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