A confession: Several years ago I happened to spend an evening in the company of a gentleman who had just returned from the McMurdo Research Station in Antarctica. His descriptions of the place and the unusual people who were drawn to it fascinated me, and since that night I’ve harbored a desire to experience life among these misfits and wanderers at the bottom of the world.
So when I heard Werner Herzog, that poet of the extreme, had made a film about his own visit to the very same place, I couldn’t wait to see it. Encounters at the End of the World documents not only the time the director spent at McMurdo — the largest settlement on the continent — but also his excursions to smaller, more remote scientific outposts, along with the ruminations on the future of humankind that his observations occasioned.
This is Herzog at his crankiest. When the military aircraft he boards in New Zealand lands on a long stretch of frozen ocean, he marvels that the National Science Foundation would underwrite his project after he warned officials he had no intention of producing “a heartfelt tale of fluffy penguins.” He is aghast at the sight of McMurdo, with its construction-site structures and endlessly excavating Caterpillars, and likens it to a mining town. Herzog also rails against the “picture-postcard weather,” grousing that the sun is bad for both his celluloid and his skin. He shows us nearly century-old footage of the Shackleton expedition struggling against impossibly inhospitable conditions, then expresses contempt for the modern community’s creature comforts, which include a bowling alley, aerobics studio, restaurants, radio station, bars and even an ATM machine.
But soon the weather turns bad, and the filmmaker’s mood improves. He offers interviews with some of the place’s most colorful characters, each of whom turns out to have arrived at McMurdo by an improbable path. A former banker now drives the world’s largest bus. A philosopher operates one of those ubiquitous Caterpillars. A marine biologist hosts screenings of ’50s sci-fi doomsday films for newcomers, to underscore the threat humanity poses to the natural world.
And then Herzog gets out of Dodge. The movie’s most compelling moments emerge from his forays into the desolate mainland and more isolated research facilities. At one of these, he meets up with an old friend who is an undersea photographer, and they venture beneath the ice cap to explore a world almost surreal in its beauty. Those glimpses of the bottom of the ocean at the bottom of the Earth — and the bizarre life forms that inhabit it — are worth the price of admission, and could easily provide the basis of another fascinating documentary.
But that’s not the kind of thing Herzog’s after here. He has questions, and he has come to get answers from the most intelligent people in the world’s most untouched place. Some queries are more cosmic than others. “Is there homosexuality among penguins?” he asks one scientist. (He learns there isn’t, but the creatures have been known to engage in prostitution.) From a brooding marine researcher who makes the final dive of his life on the day the director visits, we hear in spellbinding detail about the “horrible, violent world” that exists in miniature beneath the surface. The scientist describes monsters that ensnare prey with long tendrils, and savage, wormlike creatures “with horrible mandibles.” In the end, he and the filmmaker speculate that the brutality of the ocean is what drove the earliest life-forms onto land.
But, as the picture’s title suggests, the beginning of human life is not Herzog’s primary subject. He and a specialist who monitors the breakup of giant glaciers contemplate the cataclysm that will be wreaked by country-sized fragments when they inevitably flow north. Which gets Herzog to pondering what alien archaeologists will make of a place like McMurdo some day in the future, when every other manmade object on the planet has been wiped away.
No, March of the Penguins this isn’t. It’s also not Herzog’s finest or most focused work. There’s a meandering, tossed-together quality to it in places, and the score by Henry Kaiser and David Lindley undermines the filmmaker’s deep pessimism by overdoing the whole churchy, hushed-wonder vibe. Personally, I wish Herzog had devoted more of the film to his encounters and less to the end of the world. I would like to have left with a fuller picture of day-to-day life at McMurdo. But, hey, that’s my problem, not the movie’s.
In its more cohesive moments, the picture follows one of filmmaking’s most fascinating, curious minds as it free-associates across the frozen tundra. The truth is, the real adventure here isn’t exploring translucent ice tunnels or venturing into live volcanoes. It’s getting inside Herzog’s head.