Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Encounters at the End of the World-a visual orgasm

Encounters at the End of the World is a splendid little documentary about the wild sights, sounds, and people that occupy Antartica. Made in association with the National Science Foundation, legendary German filmmaker Werner Herzog guides us through this land and its people, while narrating in that familiar and comforting accent of his. We find that the people who inhabit this place are mostly intellectuals there doing scientific research, but also we find that the general sense of everyone is that of an outsider, a misfit, an adventurer. After all, if you want to get away, or even just explore a new land, where's a better place than the "end of the world"?

If there's been one thing that is a constant throughout Herzog's career, it's the existence of incredible images in his movies. His masterpiece Aguirre, the Wrath of God has what may be the greatest opening shot in the history of cinema. He has been quoted as saying that the world is starved for great images. I can tell you that it's not because of Herzog, he gives us image after image of incredible brilliance in all of his movies, and Encounters at the End of the World just might contain his best yet. Whether it's in the breathtakingly shot underwater scenes (filmed by a diver friend of Herzog's), the gorgeous innards of a volcanic vent, or just the barren landscape of ice (some of which is 9,000 feet thick) Herzog feeds us the unbelievable images. Some of the underwater stuff wouldn't look out of place in the "Beyond the Infinite" sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Herzog even likens the divers to astronauts exploring outer space.

This movie would work if taken just as a silent film, letting the screen wash over us, but Herzog finds some truly fascinating people as well. There's a physics professor talking about spiritual experiences studying the particles in the air, volcano experts giving us advice on how to survive an exploding open lava pit (one of only 3 such pits in the world), or apocalyptic scientists who're looking to study the undiscovered organisms below the surface (a seemingly routine expedition turns up 3 new species).

Encounters at the End of the World is a fascinating, educational, occasionally humorous, and definitely adventurous journey to the otherwordly continent of Antartica, and I highly recommend taking the trip.

Herzog dedicated the movie to friend and long-time champion of his work, Roger Ebert.

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