By Stephanie Zacharek
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Some say the world will end in fire, some — like Werner Herzog — say ice. Flying in the face of global warming, this profoundly idiosyncratic filmmaker leads an expedition, alternately comic and visionary, to the heart of coldness.
Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World chronicles his trip to Antarctica. The film is a personal travelogue, wintry in its humor and Nordic in its aggravated sense of impending doom, featuring the director as the intrepid, not entirely reliable tour guide.
Perhaps because Herzog is approaching old-master status, Encounters at the End of the World skews toward the observational. The filmmaker seems at least as fascinated by other people's obsessions as his own. Taking an Antarctica-bound military plane out of New Zealand, he ponders his fellow travelers, wondering who they are and what they dream. And Encounters incorporates other people's material — namely, producer Henry Kaiser's unearthly under-the-ice-cap photography and archival footage made nearly a century ago, during the Shackleton expedition.
As discovered (or scripted), the U.S. settlement at McMurdo Sound is populated by an assortment of geeks, vagabonds and loners — a plumber who displays elongated index fingers as evidence of his royal Aztec lineage, a guy looking to set a Guinness record in each continent, a middle-aged woman introduced with the words, "Back in the '80s, I took a garbage truck across Africa..."
Herzog amuses himself by documenting "white-out" training, with the would-be explorers running absurdly through the snow, buckets over their heads, as they drift completely off course. At last he escapes to a research camp where, the scientists tell him, the silence is so absolute that you can hear your heart beat — not to mention the Pink Floyd sounds with which the seals signal each other under the ice.
The world is upside down. Herzog is delighted to find a physicist engaged in a spiritual quest, searching for almost undetectable subatomic particles in a parallel universe. He films marine biologists sitting around watching the trailer for the 1954 mutant-giant-ant flick Them! and is pleased to learn that there's a "horrible, violent world" of hungry worms and carnivorous protoplasm thriving beneath the ice. Herzog means his movie's title to be taken literally — and not just because the polar ice is melting. The filmmaker enjoys imagining the end of the world — or rather, its afterlife, with the alien archaeologists of the future visiting our lifeless planet to ponder the meaning of a flower print framed in a garland of frozen popcorn.
As Encounters at the End of the World was produced by the Discovery Channel, Herzog takes care to inoculate himself against new-age sentimentality and avoids feel-good anthropomorphism. Although not specifically mentioned, his bête noire is March of the Penguins, the wildly popular animal doc that opened opposite Grizzly Man. When he does visit penguin land, Herzog immediately questions the birds' imagined family values, asking a painfully diffident scientist if there are gay penguins. The naturalist ponders the question and suggests that penguin threesomes and even prostitution are not unknown.
Herzog isn't satisfied: "Is there such a thing as insanity among penguins?" he demands. "Could they just go crazy because they've had enough of their colony?" (Could they just go to Antarctica?) Before the scientist can answer, the filmmaker cuts to a single bird, shown in long shot waddling away from its colleagues toward the interior mountains and, as Herzog notes, certain death. This penguin marches to its own tune.
Herzog may loathe the projection of human attributes onto the animal kingdom, but he's managed to find one of his anti-heroes: There's no mistaking his point that the doomed, irrational creature is us.
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