Wednesday, December 10, 2008

CTJ: Encounters at the End of the World ****1/2

The fact that Werner Herzog can shoot a continent-sized block of ice for two hours and actually make it seem utterly compelling is proof of his genius. Of course, I have always loved Antarctica, so I admittedly came to this film with a bias. But bias aside, it is a wonderful film, something like watching a sci-fi documentary from another planet.

The film isn't just about the landscape though, or the watery world beneath it, although it is about those things too. It is also about the people who populate this frozen continent, whose dreams take flight in the blustery whiteouts of semi-permanent Antarctic daylight. They are an unusual cast of characters, not unlike Herzog himself, and he is clearly drawn to them as a person is drawn to his own reflection in a mirror.

At the end of the film I found myself wanting to see more of the strange Antarctic landscape, and I wanted to dive below the surface again and survey the amorphous creatures who called this underwater netherworld their home. I was spellbound by what I saw, and I didn't want to leave.

The film only falters where Antarctica falters. In the midst of this strange world, even Herzog is disappointed to find that the one civilized place he visits is something like a mining town, mundane in every way, including all of the trappings of civilization. There is an ATM. There is a bowling alley. Even at the end of the world we cannot escape our need to drag clunky claptrap along with us. We are a people who establish ourselves wherever we go, and in the most awkward of ways.

While Herzog has made films that I can hardly sit through, this is not one of those. This is every bit as good as "Grizzly Man" or "Little Dieter Needs to Fly" as far as his documentaries go. Dress up in neoprene and dive into Herzog's beautiful Antarctic wasteland. It is a wonderful, otherworldly experience.

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