Monday, October 12, 2009

Encounters at the end of the World (2007)

I'm amazed that the Discovery Channel forked out the funds for Werner Herzog's rather disturbing antarctic quest, which is clearly much more concerned with the true/magnetic end of the world than the geographic one.

"I told zem I vosn't goink to make anuzzer movie abowt penguinz," he confesses at the start, though one particularly contrarian penguin plays a significant symbolic role in the film.

Indeed most of the encounters Herzog has, with people, with animals, with things, are immediately co-opted into the soup of dark existential metaphors that he's concocting.

The overall message appears to be a reworking of Clarke's third law (that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic) in that any sufficiently edgy quest for empirical knowledge becomes a quest for something much more esoteric — for this is the point where all the lines of human endeavour converge, a geo-temporal omega point where physics morphs with metaphysics and the future is already taking shape.

Herzog and many of the characters he meets have half-empty glasses when it comes to the destiny of our own species; many already appear to be living the post-apocalypse. Some are even shuffling around with white plastic buckets on their heads...

Shake the world and all the detached people kind of end up down here, one of them suggests. Perhaps my favourite was the Hungarian 'refugee' who never goes anywhere without a backpack weighing exactly 20kg, containing all he needs to move on at a moment's notice, including an inflatable canoe. Herzog doesn't need to make the point explicitly - the joke on this nut is that he's reached the point where there's nowhere else to run to.

The only real optimist was the scientist from Hawaii who has gone down to the pole in order to send up a balloon bearing equipment capable of detecting neutrinos — particles, he suggests, from another, almost spiritual dimension. Though even this quest has a whiff of finality about it.

So, as a piece of documentary film-making Herzog has delivered something which is literally an 'awesome' curiosity. Viewers of all ages are going to come out fretting about that doomed penguin, but I suspect it's the older audience that will find more ways to lose sleep after watching it.

Grade: A-

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