Encounters at the End of the World is the latest missive from world cinema's Marco Polo / Jack London / Great White Image Hunter, Herr Werner Herzog, out for a deserved large-screen airing before entering its inevitable Discovery Channel rotation. The spoils of Herzog's latest expedition are an enjoyably idiosyncratic series of home movies. Lured by ethereal underwater scenes shot beneath Antarctica's ice, and funded by the National Science Foundation, Herzog disembarks to the tamed final frontier, on the trail of Ernest Shackleton, whose expedition haunts the film in gray archival footage, and whose preserved base of operations is visited before film's end.
Herzog sets up camp at McMurdo Station, a collection of bunker-like dormitories arranged in a microchip grid, a patch of tainted snow overlooking the blank vastness of the Ross Sea. The town houses a few hundred residents, "people who have the inclination to jump off the map"—Herzog's interviewees include a forklift operator who freely quotes from Alan Watts and a journeyman plumber who, in one of those uncomfortably formal framings that the director loves to hang on to, holds up his big, oddly shaped mitts for the camera, citing them as genealogical evidence of royal Mayan ancestry.
In the main, though, his subjects are the descendants of Shackleton, research scientists conquering their tiny kingdoms of expertise: volcanologists describing the best tactic to duck incoming magma, cell biologists descending through punctures in the ice to swim in the protozoan soup, responsible for the movie's keystone images of spectral, ectoplasmic organisms undulating beneath the ice.
Click here to read the rest of Nick Pinkerton's review of Encounters at the End of the World.