Thursday, July 3, 2008

"Encounters at the End of the World" review by Ben Kenber

As a movie buff, I have to admit that it is shameful on my part that I have not seen more of Werner Herzog’s films. The only other film of his I have seen to this date is “Grizzly Man,” a brilliant documentary about Timothy Treadwell and his obsession with the grizzly bears that later turned fatal. And like all brilliant documentaries made today, it did not get an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary. Hopefully, the Academy will not ignore his latest documentary, “Encounters at the End of the World,” which is an endlessly fascinating documentary on his travels to Antarctica. It is at times an incredibly look at the icy landscape, at other times a bleak look at the inevitable end of the human race, and also a rather humorous and interesting look at the people who risk their lives by living there to study the cutting edge world of science.

Herzog narrates the documentary and it allows us to go inside his head on how he views the icy wilderness he went to, and of how views the people and the wildlife there. He makes it clear from the onset that when he was asked by Discovery Films to do this, he agreed to it on the condition that he would not be forced to do a “fuzzy” movie with penguins in it (a little jab at “March of the Penguins”). The first 10 or so minutes deals with the McMurdo Research Station on Antarctica which is full of buildings and tractors constantly moving all over the place. Werner finds himself wanting to get away from McMurdo right away as if we are corrupting the Antarctic island with our own self interest, and he remarks of the horrors there like “yoga classes.”

Eventually, he ventures out of the encampment and into the far off research facilities removed from the town. We see him and others there being put thru safety drills and emergency preparations to deal with the worst of circumstances. The group leader speaks of how the wind can get so bad that you can’t see your hand in front of your face or even hear yourself talk. This lends a chilling effect to an already chilling environment, and while it is exciting to be there, you feel the danger of it all throughout the documentary.

The best part of this documentary, and the reason I wanted to see it based on the trailer, is the underwater footage where you follow divers underneath the glaciers of Antarctica. The visuals on display here are both beautiful and extraordinary to see here, and there is a unique beauty to the underwater landscape that you would be hard pressed to find anywhere else. This is all reminiscent of James Cameron’s documentary “Aliens from the Deep” in which he went with scientists in submersibles down to the bottom of the ocean to see what lives down. While that was a fascinating documentary, this one is not encumbered with 3D effects and of looks at where the future will take us. It deals with the world right now, and doesn’t hide from how all this will disappear in the far off future.

I also just wanted to find out how these scientists were able to dive down into waters where they would not be expected to stay alive in for more than 5 minutes. They wear special suits that are heavily insulated to protect them from the cold, and they wear gloves that threaten to make them look like aliens from another planet. Director Herzog points out that the water they are diving in is -2 degrees Celsius, and that the divers go in with no ropes attached to their bodies to give them more room to move around. Still, this is very dangerous work they are doing, and if they get lost underneath the glacier, they will become a permanent frozen resident. You feel the danger of what they are doing, but you end up getting overwhelmed by the spectacular visuals they find underneath it all.

Another fascinating moment in the movie is when some scientists on the island play recordings of the sounds the local seals make underwater. The seals themselves steal some scenes from the human actors as they lie back lazily in the sun and look too tired to get up and acknowledge anybody. The underwater sounds of the seals sound so unreal, and you cannot help but feel that they are all computer generated. But they are indeed the real thing, and you experience the sounds along with Werner and the scientists as they put their ears down to the ground and take it all in. It’s an amazing moment in the film.

The other thing I really loved about this movie was how it was just not another average science documentary with a lot of talking heads telling you all the things you need to know about the environments that they are studying. There is science talk throughout the movie which is fine, but Herzog also looks at the individual personalities that he comes in contact with throughout his journey. Along with Herzog, you also wonder what could make all these people come to one of the most isolated places on the face of the earth, and how they stay there for so long. This makes “Encounters at the End of the World” all the more interesting to watch.

Among the people that Herzog meets throughout the journey are a philosopher who has a great quote at the end of the movie of how the universe is looking at itself through our eyes, and how we give life to everything in the way we view it. We meet one of the scuba divers who has a pensive moment where he takes in the fact that this is the last dive he will be making. One of the most powerful moments is when Werner meets up with a Russian who had escaped the Soviet Union after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and he almost loses it emotionally when he tries to describe how bad it was when he left. We also see that he has an escape plan at the ready with a big pack of supplies in case he needs to flee once again.

There are a couple of other people that documentary that just talk and talk about themselves and the adventures they have been on. Herzog cuts them off in his narration and says:

“To make a long story short…”

The documentary does have a bleak view of the future of humanity, and the scientists are fully aware of this as temperatures continue to rise, and the ice will eventually melt way off into the future. This is also shown as we see a group of scientists sitting around watching “Them,” a 50’s B-movie about radioactive ants that have grown to an enormous size. It turns out to be one of many apocalyptic movies they show to each other each week. I wonder if they have ever gotten around to watching John Carpenter’s “The Thing.” That’s what I used to think of when someone mentions Antarctica.

At the center of this movie is not just Antarctica, but Herzog himself. His narration throughout could have been annoying in a grandstanding way, but it serves to illuminate what a funny and interesting person he is. Clearly, he is attracted to madness in various forms throughout the world as is shown here and previously in “Grizzly Man.” I imagine that this is a big theme in all of his movies. We discover all there is to see through his eyes, and of how he views the beauty of the ice and how it forms. It does make me want to see more of his movies.

“Encounters at the End of the World” is currently in limited release, but I doubt that it will go beyond that to a wider release. This movie will most likely find its audience on DVD, and I imagine it will be an incredible viewing experience on Blu-Ray. Just remember what one of the men out there said in the movie and remember it always:

“Global warming is real.”

**** out of ****

No comments: