Dec 23, 2008

Film Review: Encounters at the End of the World

Director: Werner Hertzog

THINKFilm, 2008

There are documentaries that make bold statements about the humans and the planet, such as An Inconvenient Truth, which grab viewers by their shirts and demand that they pay attention, all the while trading cinematic subtlety for the rhetorical sledgehammer effect.

Encounters at the End of the World is not one of those sorts of films.

Werner Herzog's film creeps up on you at an almost glacial pace (sorry for the half-intended pun), profiling some of the people who call Antarctica their homes, at least for a few months of the year. As Herzog interviews geologists, vulcanologists, marine biologists, and even PhD students working as mess hall cooks, he coaxes brief bits of wisdom, philosophy, and raw knowledge from his subjects.

The imagery in Encounters at the End of the World is especially memorable, and Herzog and cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger bring us some Antarctican vistas we might not have considered, like the segments shot upward from under eight feet of Ross Sea ice, or the roiling magma at Mount Erebus, an active volcano located on Ross Island.

Herzog, who narrated the documentary, informed viewers that the film would not be about "fluffy penguins," and there are indeed few images of members of the family Spheniscidae. In fact, the only penguin profiled is a "deranged" bird that waddled dozens of kilometers away from its feeding and breeding grounds, stubbornly marching toward certain death as it plodded onward toward the Transantarctic Mountains.

No Morgan Freeman and no Al Gore here.

So rent this 99-minute film, and learn something about the continent to the far south. Rent this film and also understand a bit more about the ways in which human beings interact with the planet, the ways we interact with each other, and maybe - just maybe - gain some insight on why we might be on this planet in the first place.

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