Appellate Judge James A. Stewart was expecting an apocalyptic romantic comedy.
Our review of Encounters At The End Of The World (Blu-Ray), published December 8th, 2008, is also available.
"Who were the people I was going to meet in Antarctica at the end of the world? What were their dreams?"
The idea for Encounters at the End of the World came when director Werner Herzog saw some underwater footage from Henry Kaiser, who first went to Antarctica on an artist's grant and stuck around. Herzog wangled an invitation from the National Science Foundation, "even though I left no doubt that I would not come up with another film about penguins," as he puts it.
Viewers will see a penguin and some very contented seals, but the main focus is on the people who study the seals and the penguins. It's a little bit about the research, but more about their personalities and lives way down under at McMurdo, which Herzog describes as an "ugly mining town." Herzog discovers that they love Frosty Boy frozen dessert ("it's not quite ice cream") and have a 24-hour sundial and a greenhouse. He meets a diver who compares the underwater world to the sci-fi movies he loves, an Eastern European refugee who always has a rucksack ready, and a woman who can fit herself into hand luggage, a skill she shows off on a talent night.
Because Herzog focuses on the people, the footage isn't spectacular. You'll see a lot of long shots of people talking, which have a certain monotony, even if the people are standing against some unusual backgrounds. There are some stunning images, though, of underwater dives or icy mountains. Interspersed with the Antarctic images, shot digitally, are some "very, very strange materials," as Herzog says in the commentary. These film clips include shots of The Lone Ranger to illustrate a point, and they also include a clip of a silent film that had explorer Ernest Shackleton recreating his South Pole adventure among papier mache icebergs.
Herzog's narration, a mix of idiosyncratic humor and thoughtful observation, grew on me as Encounters went along. When the camera pans the shelves of rusty canned goods in Shackleton's original hut, he says, "It all looks now like an extinct supermarket. On a cultural level, it meant the end of adventure." Later, he ponders what an alien archaeologist would think of the site after the fall of human civilization.
Since Herzog visited Antarctica during the continent's summer, he had 24-hour sun to work with, so the picture looks good. The sound, which includes seal noises underwater as well as an eclectic music selection, has a memorable haunting quality.
Lots of extras are included here. A commentary teams Herzog with Kaiser and Director of Photography Peter Zeitlinger. It's not bad, but Herzog put most of his thoughts into the narration on the actual documentary. Even so, you'll hear about a shot that's obviously in the wrong place, as anyone who's been to Antarctica can tell you, Herzog's own love of Frosty Boy, and more information on the filming.
Three segments of additional footage provide the tranquil and beautiful pictures that you'd expect from an Antarctica documentary. "Under the Ice," by Henry Kaiser, features 35 minutes of underwater footage set to music. Shorter pieces go "Over the Ice" to the McMurdo Dry Valleys and look at "Seals & Men." There's a dive locker interview that was interesting, especially after seeing "Under the Ice," but could have used some editing. "South Pole Exorcism" opens with Kaiser going "around the world" with his guitar at the actual South Pole and then shows McMurdo folks exorcising "negative mojo" from a tunneling machine; watch for a weird coda on this one. Rounding out Disc One's extras is a theatrical trailer which makes clear the emphasis on the unique characters of McMurdo.
Disc Two is devoted to Jonathan Demme's 67-minute interview of Herzog at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York. While a filmmakers' conversation has its esoteric moments, Herzog shows his good humor with anecdotes about his "anarchic Bavarian upbringing," making movies even though he hadn't seen a film before age 11, and making connections with interview subjects.
If you've ever wondered why anyone would go to Antarctica, Encounters at the End of the World will provide some interesting answers, while showing just enough of the natural beauty of the ice continent to entice viewers. As an added bonus, just watching people coping with the chills of Antarctica made me feel a little warmer by comparison.
Not guilty, but all this writing has made me hungry. Pardon me while I go
get some Frosty Boy frozen dessert.
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