Thursday, July 24, 2008

Encounters at the End of the World

Tonight I saw the documentary Encounters at the End of the World.

All of the best elements that make up a Werner Herzog film are here—the humorous, yet seriously informative narrative; the long shots of nothing, which force you to believe they're something; and the eccentric pieces of a story that somehow come together without form.

This time the filmmaker takes us on his journey to Antarctica, where he studies the scientists that are studying the continent. Instead of focusing on the elements they're obsessed with (although we see them), his approach is to zero in on the freaks that the frigid temperatures attract. And let them tell their own stories.

What results is Errol Morris-like talking head masterpieces spliced in with breathtaking underwater shots of a world most of us will never dare to explore. And it's hard to take your eyes off of it.

One shot will demonstrate how dangerous the dives are (they go without tether, which means their instinct has to guide them back since compasses don't work that low), then another will feature a penguin who takes his own journey Into the Wild, a la Chris McCandless, which the humans realize will not turn out well.

It's all told with a clever, sarcastic-but-sincere delivery that leaves the audience wishing they were along for the ride—just so long as they don't have to go through any of that silly bucket-head training.

Note: the director dedicated this film to Roger Ebert, who was so touched by the gesture, he wrote him a letter of appreciation. To read it, click here.

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