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Encounters at the End of the World
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Journey to the Bottom of the Earth (3-D Not Required)"
5 stars

There are many different reasons why I go to the movies--professional obligation and pretty girls rank pretty high on the list--but the most important one is also the most basic and elemental of the bunch. To put it simply, I go because I want to experience something new and different. I want to see things that I have never seen before, hear things that I have never heard before and meet people that I would never meet in the course of my daily existence. Barring any of those, I am willing to settle for the same old stuff if it has been presented in a new and interesting way with enough twists to the formula to make it seem fresh. The problem, of course, is that the fierce originality required to provide the very things that I have mentioned has become something to fear in the eyes of the people putting up the money for the films in question--things have gotten so expensive that they want some kind of guarantee on their investment and the best way to achieve that is to scrape out all of the new and unusual aspects of the film in question and to replace them with the kind of tried and true material that they--and most audiences, by extension--will feel more comfortable with backing.

One person who has steadfastly refused to take the easy way out in any manner over the years has been the great German filmmaker Werner Herzog. Throughout his career, he has made both conventional narrative films and documentaries and in both cases, he has gone to extraordinary lengths to present viewers with stories they have never heard before and sights that they have never seen and the results have been some of the most striking and astonishing films of the last few decades-- “Aguirre: The Wrath of God,” “Every Man for Himself and God Against All,” “Stroszek,” “Fitzcarraldo,” “Little Dieter Needs to Fly,” “Invincible,” “Grizzly Man” and “Rescue Dawn” to name but a few--and at the age of 65, a point in time when most filmmakers are content to either retire to the Lifetime Achievement Award circuit or simply pop out slight variations of their previous works, Herzog is still out there challenging himself to provide new sights and sounds and challenging viewers to step up and see what he has in store for them with each successive work. That is certainly the case with his latest work, “Encounters at the End of the World,” a mesmerizing new documentary that contains some of the most stunning, unlikely and unforgettable moments that Herzog has ever given us and by definition, that means that they are some of the most stunning, unlikely and unforgettable moments ever presented on a movie screen.

Like many of Herzog’s films, “Encounters at the End of the World” began life in an off-beat manner. While putting together the footage that would eventually become “Grizzly Man,” Herzog happened to see some amazing footage shot by a colleague of the undersea world beneath the glaciers of Antarctica, Fascinated with what he saw, Herzog was able to get a commission from the National Foundation of Science and the Discovery Channel to go down there with a crew of one to document things for himself. This was an extraordinary leap of faith on their parts because, as Herzog assures us in his hilariously mordant narration, “I held no doubt that I would not come up with another film about penguins.” Instead, he is more fascinated with the people who have come from all walks of life to one of the most remote and desolate places in the world to do their work and research. He is also fascinated, we gather, from the idea of venturing off to a place that, after all this time, has still managed to resist most notions of progress.

In regards to the latter, Herzog is bitterly disappointed when he arrives at McMurdo Base, an American-built research facility, and discovers that even the Antarctic no longer lives up to his dreams/illusions--what he imagined as being a pure and unsullied landscape looks like, in his words, “an ugly mining town” with a landscape dotted with huge pieces of equipment, aerobics classes and “ abominations like an ATM machine.” However, the people that he finds housed in McMurdo more than make up for this disappointment. The bus driver is a former banker, the forklift driver is a philosopher, a plumber is a descendant of Aztec royalty and one woman recounts the story of how she traveled from Ecuador to Peru in a sewer pipe. As for the scientific experts at McMurdo, they are just as fascinating as the laypeople. We meet a linguist who is working to preserve lost languages--a devotion that Herzog wholeheartedly supports (“Tree huggers and whale huggers are accepted in their weirdness while no one embraces the last speaker of a language”)--despite being in a land with no indigenous language of its own. There is a biologist who dives beneath the frozen surface to study undersea creatures who refuses to use a rope to help him find an exit on the theory that it would limit his observations. There are volcano experts checking out a live specimen in the area. Others study the behavior of the local seal population in the hopes of gleaning ideas in regards to weight loss. There is even a penguin expert on hand, whom Herzog peppers with questions about the possibility of prostitution and insanity within the species.

Although Herzog makes it clear early on that he has no interest in giving us pretty pictures of adorable animals frolicking and gamboling amidst the breathtaking scenery--he assures us that “I loathe the sun--both on my celluloid and on my skin” and openly celebrates when a storm hit’s the area--he and cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger nevertheless come up with some amazing footage of Antarctica in all its frigid glory. After undergoing a strange training session in which the conditions of a whiteout are simulated by placing buckets over the heads of the participants before having them try to make their way through the snow, Herzog journeys out to show us some amazing things both above and below the surface. We see a glacier that is so big, according to the scientist studying it, that it is not only bigger than the Titanic, it is bigger than the country that built the Titanic. Plunging beneath the depth, the cameras bear witness to a host of oddly beautiful creatures that suggest what might have roamed the planet at the beginning of time and what might continue to roam long after mankind is long gone. And despite his vow, Herzog does wind up giving us some footage of a penguin--without going into details about what makes this bird so unique or what eventually happens to it, I will merely point out that only Herzog could go out to Antarctica and stumble upon the one penguin bearing character traits that are strikingly similar to such previous Herzog characters as Don Lope de Aguirre, Bruno Stroszek, Count Dracula, Fitzcarraldo, Dieter Dengler and Timothy Treadwell.

If you are merely looking for a safe and non-threatening travelogue filled with pretty pictures of cute animals doing cute things while a narrator drones on and one with the kinds of platitudes ordinarily seen on the insides of greeting cards, “Encounters at the End of the World” is not the movie for you. However, if you are in the mood for a provocative work of pure cinema from a master filmmaker at the top of his game in which questions, thoughts and observations about life, death, obsession and the downward spiral of the planet Earth as a whole (it soon becomes evident that the “end of the world” mentioned in the title has more than one meaning here) mix and mingle with images so strange and inexplicable that they put even the most impressive special effects to shame, this is the movie for you. And if you have seen “March of the Penguins”--hell, if you have even contemplated seeing the utterly indefensible “March of the Penguins”--then you owe it to yourself to see this one in order to balance out the intellectual and artistic scales.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=16572&reviewer=389
originally posted: 07/11/08 00:11:41
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

8/30/11 brian The last frontier of the last frontier on earth. 5 stars
6/25/09 mark chambers Changed the way I think 5 stars
1/26/09 Shaun Wallner Awesome Story! 5 stars
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  11-Jun-2008 (G)
  DVD: 18-Nov-2008


  DVD: 18-Nov-2008

Directed by
  Werner Herzog

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