Why in the hell would anyone ever want to go to Antarctica?
There probably isn’t a worse place to visit right? What do we know about Antarctica? All I really knew about the forgotten continent before I saw Werner Herzog’s wonderful new film, ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD was that it was cold. That holds true. Antarctica typically hovers around -80 degrees. I get chilly when it gets down to the 60s.
Herzog does a great thing here and it is one of the time honored virtues of film: it introduces us to a world we have never seen before. As it turns out, Antarctica isn’t as barren as I thought. There is a small town called McMurdoch where a collection of quirky scientists live and conduct their research. They have a gigantic bus, a fro-yo machine, they play electric guitar, watch sci-fi monster movies and even visit the local ATM (how does the bank collect the money?). Herzog shows us what a diverse group of people come to live in this seemingly unlivable part of the world. There’s a man who shows off his massive hands, his ring and middle fingers the same length. This, he tells us, is a sign of his royal Aztec heritage. There’s also the woman who once hitchhiked from Northern California down to South America in a drainage pipe in the back of a truck. She folds herself in a suitcase during McMurdoch’s regular Talent Show.
The people are fascinating but pale in comparison to the incredible nature and animal life of the region. Listen to the symphony of the sea lions beneath the ice that one scientist describes as sounding like Pink Floyd. See the active volcanoes erupting, the underwater sea spiders or the gorgeous jellyfish braving the icy temperatures. There is an entire world below that ice full of so many creatures that when two of the scientists discover two new species, they don’t seem to be phased or even excited.
Herzog has a great affection for this world as well as the people who choose to inhabit it and learn from it. Much like in his last film, GRIZZLY MAN, Herzog is fascinated with outcasts who choose to inhabit places most people wouldn’t go. The conditions in Antarctica aren’t easy. Herzog shows us a mandatory training school that everyone who lives there has to go through. Sometimes the winds can get so ferocious that you can’t see your hand in front of your face. To simulate the complete lack of visibility, the students wear garbage cans on their heads and try to work as a team to make it from one station to the next. We see a diver instert a stick of dynamite into the ice, blow a hole in it, and then dive in to look around. He doesn’t use a tether, which means if he can’t find his way back to the hole, well, that’s the end of him. Are these people crazy? Certainly one would think given how extreme these conditions are. However maybe they have simply found one of Earth’s great untapped resource. A place (despite the ATM) devoid of suburban sprawl, billboards and industrialization. One scientists remarks how tranquil it is to walk outside and hear nothing but quiet. The cinematography in ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD is stunning, capturing the majesty of this place. The dazzling images are punctuated by the haunting score by Henry Kaiser and David Lindley.
If you see HANCOCK they’ll show you Will Smith flying around. What’s the point? ENCOUNTERS shows us that the greatest and most sensational aesthetics do not require CGI.