Monday, February 2, 2009

Film Review - Encounters at the End of the World

The trailer for Encounters at the End of the World

People in the outdoor adventure world were enthralled by Werner Herzog's 2005 film Grizzly Man. Herzog has returned with another offering for people who have a deep interest in the environment, cold weather adventure, and the least populated continent on the planet.

Herzog's 2008 film, Encounters at the End of the World, documents the story of the people who live and work in Antarctica. This place is special to many of us at AAI. A number of our guides have spent time working down there as Search and Rescue Coordinators or as Cold Weather Training Specialists. Indeed, AAI Guides Dylan Taylor and Danny Uhlmann are working down there right now. You can read about Dylan's Antarctic adventures on his blog.

Unfortunately, Herzog doesn't spend much time with the mountain guides who work down there. Instead, the film jumps from intersting personality to intersting personality, from character to character. We meet a heavy machinery driver that has a degree in philosophy. We meet a former banker who dropped everything in order to become a bus driver in Antarctica. And we meet a variety of scientists, the most interesting of which either work at the rim of an active volcano or SCUBA dive beneath the sea ice.

Herzog travels from location to location in order to meet these different people and in the process we see some spectacular footage. The animals beneath the sea ice are incredible in their weirdness. The massive ice shelves are utterly stunning. And the exploration of frozen volcanic steam vents is an incredible adventure to witness.

Perhaps the one downside of this film is that it doesn't really have a narrative. Herzog has a history of exploring obsession through the use of narrative, even in his documentary work. And clearly many of those unusual characters that end up in Antarctica are obsessed with this cold and harsh environment. However, unlike Herzog's stunning documentary, Grizzly Man, or even his incredibly engaging 1982 cult classic Fitzcarraldo, Encounters doesn't delve very deeply into the psyches of those who work and live in the most unpopulated, cold and barren place on the planet.

It's likely that Herzog was completely aware that he was just barely scraping the surface in each of his interviews. It's likely he did this to provide us with a better overview of the many people who live and work in that environment. And perhaps this creative choice ultimately provided us with more scenic footage from the continent. Ultimately, these choices turned this into a very different film from his last documentary endeavor.

Encounters at the End of the World is now available on DVD and has been nominated for Best Documentary Feature for the 2009 Academy Awards. Grizzly Man was snubbed in the 2005 Oscars and critics across the spectrum cried foul over this glaring omission. Perhaps on February 22nd, Herzog will get his due from the Academy for this spectacular and engaging film.

--Jason D. Martin

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