While Encounters at the End of the World features some truly wonderful footage of Antarctic wildlife, the film contains so many other flaws it fails to succeed on most levels.
Much like the problems I noted with his last documentary Grizzly Man, the biggest problem with this film is the director/narrator himself. Herzog’s naivete schtick works only for so long before it becomes frankly annoying, and his failure to capitalise on the opportunity of travelling to Antarctica to meet and interview the crazy bunch of scientists who live there is very disappointing. This continent and its inhabitants provide enough visual and interview material to support several films, and yet Herzog presents us with only their reaction to banal questions like ‘I’ve heard there are gay penguins, could you comment?’.
Truly, every time Herzog opens his mouth (on camera as opposed to in narration) he detracts from his film. Two scientists are discussing the fact they discovered three new species in one under-ice dive, and Herzog interrupts by asking ‘is this a great moment for you?’. His assumption that his audience is incapable of recognising the value of the scientists work for themselves and need it spelled out for them is offensive.
The same assumptions seem to underlie the choice of music for the soundtrack, with ridiculously over-the-top choral pieces accompanying the underwater footage that detracts from the appreciation of the stunning visuals. Do we look like we need to be told this world has majestic beauty?
There are moments when Herzog’s interruptions add value, with one sequence in particular revealing a sharp sense of humour – Herzog narrates over the top of an interview subject, stating that her story is very long and he will summarise on her behalf. The audience in my screening at MIFF found this hilarious. Additionally, in his opening narration Herzog comments that on being invited to go to Antarctica he made it clear that he wouldn’t be making yet another movie about penguins.
There are some truly incredible underwater sequences featuring creatures that really are bizarre enough to be from another planet, a description one of the scientists suggests. The ice looks amazing from below and even the divers’ air bubbles are beautiful as they accumulate beneath the ice ceiling.
The quality of the footage suggests something greater than what has finally been achieved, and sadly much of the blame seems to lie with director Werner Herzog. Banal observation mixed with ridiculous questions and often trite narration leave the film far less successful than it should have been. A real disappointment.Rating: