|Director Werner Herzog (left) and cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger in "Encounters at the End of the World." (CINDY OGASAWARA)|
In "Encounters at the End of the World," Werner Herzog heads down to Antarctica to chat with the scientists, free spirits, and lost souls who make their living there. The movie's not a global warming lecture, though. For one thing, Herzog is far too pessimistic to wag his finger at us, Al Gore-style. He'd rather peer over the edge of a live volcano and ponder imminent human extinction. The double-meaning in the title implies we're on the way out, anyway, so why not talk to the more interesting specimens before we go?
Curiously, that nihilism lightens "Encounters," making it one of Herzog's more enjoyable and accessible works. The director renowned for going to quixotic extremes in fictional films like "Fitzcarraldo" has been drawn to similar subjects in such documentaries as "Grizzly Man" and "Little Dieter Needs to Fly" (the basis for last year's "Rescue Dawn"). He finds plenty of like company here.
"Encounters" was made with Discovery Channel money, ironically, but it's less a science doc than a journey into the more desolate corners of the planet and the human psyche. Herzog flies down to McMurdo Station - with its yoga classes and lone ATM the closest thing to a city in Antarctica - and uses it as his base of operations, choppering out to scientists in the field. They're studying icebergs and Weddell seal lactation, undersea fauna and penguin populations. The director, meanwhile, studies them.
Does Antarctica attract dreamers or create them? It's a thread that runs throughout the film, as Herzog interviews a banker-turned-truck driver, a plumber descended from the ancient Mayans, a forklift operator weaned on "The Odyssey." The biologists who dive into the -2 degree Celsius water beneath the ice watch sci-fi apocalypse movies during their down-time; they celebrate finding new species by playing a squalling impromptu rock jam atop their station.
They seem better attuned to the weirdness of life at the earth's bottom than early visitors. "Encounters" includes film footage from the doomed Shackleton expedition and visits the explorer's preserved camp, panning across the tinned food in silent awe at man's hubris. A visit to a "survival school," on the other hand, suggests we still have a lot to learn. Simulating white-out conditions, students put plastic buckets on their heads and tether together for a test rescue. They promptly get lost, groping around the sunny landscape in a visual metaphor that would have delighted Kafka.
"Encounters" even gives us a penguin, despite the director's stern Teutonic warning at the start of the film that there will be no such thing. Herzog being Herzog, this penguin is going the wrong way, heading toward the mountains like a misprogrammed wind-up toy. The image is instantly enduring, a summation of the filmmaker's bleak view of the cosmos in one packed tragicomic shot.
Elsewhere, Herzog joins with his subjects in touching the otherworldliness of the last place on earth where wonder overlaps with human perception. Seal calls, recorded underwater, sound like alien love-songs, and the diving footage (some of it seen in Herzog's 2005 tone-poem "The Wild Blue Yonder") is unsettlingly gorgeous. A foray into icy volcanic vents known as fumeroles reveals soaring cathedrals of ice and ash. "You just have to pick the ones without toxic fumes," the director drily notes.
"Encounters" takes its unofficial motto from an Alan Watts quote casually dropped by the forklift operator: "We are the witness through which the universe becomes conscious of its own glory." After we're gone, implies this strange and lovely movie, the universe will still roll gloriously, unconsciously on.