Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Review: "Encounters at the End of the World"

Antarctica. The last continent to be discovered by man is a strange and beautiful place, as "Encounters at the End of the World" (2007) shows so exceptionally. Directed by master documentarian Werner Herzog, this film continues his career long fascination with nature. The plot is simple: Herzog boards a giant military plane bound for Antarctica, and, upon arrival at it's largest settlement (which is not even a square mile in area), goes about capturing the day to day lives of some of the 1000 people who live there. These most southerly of travelers originate all over the place - America, Russia, Chile. One of them explains their presence this way: these people are not tied down, so they end up dropping to the bottom of the world - Antarctica.
Guided by Herzog's omnipresent, Bavarian-accented narration, the film quickly moves out of the camp and into the interior of the continent. We are first treated to a hilarious safety exercise involving white buckets as headgear, but then things start to soar. First we meet seal researchers, living and working in a tiny cabin upon a frozen lake. It is here the audience is treated to one of the most hauntingly beautiful sounds in all the natural world. Then it is off to visit some daring vulcanologists, and finally an introverted penguin researcher. 
The cinematography is the definition of gorgeous (especially the underwater footage), and the multicultural soundtrack is serene and perfectly complimentary to the images. 
"Encounters at the End of the World" is failed by mere words. It must be seen to be fully understood. In many of Werner Herzog's films, there is an underlying sense that the filmmaker is searching for something. I don't know if he found it with this film, but he comes closer than ever before. 

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