In a burst of cavalier nuttiness, the National Science Foundation and the Discovery Channel paid Herzog to travel to McMurdo Station, a community of 1,100 scientists, researchers and screwballs, to delve into the mysteries of Antarctica, the incomprehensible bottom of the world, and Herzog agreed -- with the stipulation that he would not have to "come up with another film about penguins."
Initially skeptical about McMurdo, Herzog at first criticizes McMurdo as an ugly mining town with clunky caterpillars and noisy construction and complains about "abominations such as an aerobics studio and a yoga class" in the settlement. But soon enough, the spell of the environment hypnotizes Herzog into submission, much in the way of his mystical Sahara from Fata Morgana.
Herzog interviews the resident scientists and long haulers and realizes that, like Herzog characters, they are dreamers and dabblers of the outré. There is the banker with his flashing blue sunglasses and gleaming white teeth who drives a giant truck called Ivan the Terra Bus; a plumber with tell-tale digits proving to himself that he is related to ancient Aztec royalty; a woman researcher/contortionist who describes a journey she had taken inside a length of sewer pipe in the back of a truck and who now performs as one of the showstoppers at McMurdo's night spot by scrunching up her body to fit into carry-on luggage; and a greenhouse linguist that works on a continent with no languages. Herzog himself couldn't make a casting call for better Herzog protagonists.
Encounters at the End of the World devotes much of its time to the crazy mirror touches of life at the bottom of the world. Herzog lingers on a cafeteria worker speaking with holy fervor about Frosty Boy ice cream. His snarky camera relishes the recent inductees building a Nanook-like igloo and stumbling over each other with doodle-faced buckets over their heads to familiarize themselves with whiteout conditions. There is also a brilliantly oddball shot of a group of scientists with their ears to the ice, frozen in place like George Segal bronze sculptures, listening for seal sounds (the cries of the seal described by one scientist as sounding "like Pink Floyd").
Herzog succumbs and falls in love with these "professional dreamers," and the film becomes a silent mediation on dreamers enveloped in this dreamscape of beatific intensity beyond religion and man -- slow tracking shots of yellow sky and white landscape; languid and trancelike journeys underneath the ocean with "divers like astronauts floating in space;" sea urchins and mysterious organisms floating past the lens; and single cell organisms coagulating through a microscope betraying borderline intelligence ("it's almost art" exclaims one researcher).
Herzog's conclusions are typically bleak; declaring that human presence on the planet is not sustainable and, after the insignificance of man is chillingly highlighted (in more ways than one) in a sequence on the face of an active volcano, he concludes "the end of human life is assured." His mysticism does not allow him to dwell too long on problems of global warming as his ultimate concerns are about a post-mankind universe that will purge itself of that pesky species.
He does however manage to get into a discussion about penguins in spite of himself and fixes his gaze onto a "disoriented" penguin who chooses not to follow the rest of a group of penguins heading to sustenance in the open water. The insane penguin decides instead to run on his own towards the highland mountains in the distance and to sure death -- as pure a depiction of a Herzog actor as Klaus Kinski or Bruno S. ever could have illustrated. This sad penguin running headlong to its doom is the most haunting (and haunted) shot in all of Herzog.
Here there be dragons.
Run time: 99 mins
In Theaters: Friday 17th October 2008
Box Office USA: $0.7M
Distributed by: ThinkFilm
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 94%
Fresh: 102 Rotten: 7
IMDB: 7.8 / 10
Director: Werner Herzog
Producer: Henry Kaiser
Screenwriter: Werner Herzog
Also starring: Werner Herzog