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When the National Science Foundation invited Werner Herzog to come to Antarctica, the German director said, "I left no doubt I would not make another movie about penguins."
Surely, there's nothing cute or cuddly about Herzog's documentary, "Encounters at the End of the World," an engaging look at Antarctica's natural wonders and the slightly dotty people who live and do research there.
Antarctica, it turns out, is the perfect setting for Herzog to find the themes that have fascinated him in feature films such as "Fitzcarraldo," and documentaries such as "Grizzly Man": The mercilessness of nature, and the foolhardiness of humans who would challenge nature.
Herzog first lands on the most populous spot on Antarctica, McMurdo Station, and is put off by the industrial drabness of the place. "It looks like an ugly mining town," Herzog says in his narration, rolling his jaded Teutonic cadences over a depressing list of the base's amenities, which include a bowling alley, yoga classes and an ATM. Herzog also finds some droll comedy in a blizzard-survival course, where white-out conditions are simulated by putting plastic buckets over the students' heads.
Whether at McMurdo or out in the field, Herzog finds a wide array of offbeat personalities in Antarctica. They include a taciturn penguin expert, a tweed-wearing volcanologist, a philosophizing forklift driver and a journeyman plumber who counts Aztec and Incan royalty among his ancestors. If they seem a little nuts, they also seem perfectly suited for this harsh environment.
And as much as Herzog tries to keep this Discovery Channel-produced film from looking like something, well, on the Discovery Channel, it would seem impossible not to point a camera in Antarctica and find beautifully stark landscapes. There are some gorgeous views here, notably the undersea photography of Henry Kaiser, capturing the otherworldly space between the sea floor and the Ross Ice Shelf. In these moments, Herzog finds what he went to Antarctica to see: Nature at its most merciless, and humans at their most daring trying to understand it.
Encounters at the End of the World
Where Broadway Centre Cinemas.
When Opens today.
Running time 99 minutes.
Bottom line Filmmaker Werner Herzog goes to Antarctica, but this is no ordinary travelogue.