The world ends at Antarctica, at least geographically - there's nothing further south - and quite possibly in a greater sense. Werner Herzog has gone there to make a film, catching the opportunity to capture some of it's beauty in a way rarely seen on film, and also to share some of his thoughts about nature and humanity. In and around the large McMurdo Research Station he circulates the various people working there, joins them on their fieldwork and interviews them, all resulting in a blend of beautiful images, personal micro-stories, funny sidetracks, well paced informative moments and an often fascinating look at nature's inexplicable mystery, humanity's as well as Mother Earth's.
This is a large canvas, perhaps slightly difficult to put in proper words. Above all, all of the ideas and thoughts within the movie stems largely from the viewer's own imagination, Herzog is merely - with his warm and serious, yet inexplicable witty, narration - planting the mental seeds and asking the questions, some rhetorical and some forever impossible to answer. And it is remarkable how he does this, how this film is designed. All throughout, Herzog moves about like a genuine tourist and at the beginning I am surprised how spontaneous the whole idea feels, almost as if I am actually watching a private home video made for personal remembrance. The only difference being of course, that it would be the kind of home video Herzog would make. And be that as it may, this is still a great movie, because it continues from this elementary first stage of how he travels to the station, combined with stock footage of the explorers of the 1800s, into that of a true thinker's exploration in a romantic setting. The form of the film gradually evolves, first small steps with the reality of the small, modern society that has been developed, the paradox of a restaurant with a beloved ice-cream machine (needless to point out further, and despised by Herzog), and with a scene of people having an unusual way of training, in case they would get lost in a blizzard. From then on, at least I was hooked and from these minor steps of humanity looking itself, if but slightly, in the mirror, the movie blossoms into a greater and greater abyss of questions that human beings will always feel the hunger to answer, questions they never will be able to answer but questions that human beings will always need to have.
Human beings, now there's another thing. Herzog encounters a lot of inhabitants of the station and gets to know them, and while not to say that there aren't interesting people throughout the movie, but here we have the adventurous woman who has her own party trick where she amuses people by becoming luggage. She has many stories to tell, like how she hitch-hiked from USA to Africa in a sewer pipe. Another man claims he once survived getting killed by the mayans . There are others with less dramatic things to say. Like one of the biologist divers, slightly sad since he's decided that at that very day he will perform his last dive. He feels like his job is done. Another man is simply showing how he has two fingers of the same length, which would prove that he's got Aztec blood in his veins. Or so they say.
You might understand what I'm getting at. In these very sequences of utter realism, we do get to feel the fresh air of a normal day out at the Antarctica. And it helps settle the notion that this is a film about humanity. We are constantly in the real world, with real people, in contrast to Grizzly Man (2005), Herzog's previous nature documentary, where we were indeed surrounded by breathtaking nature, but we were also viewing the Timothy Treadwell show, put on by the star persona of himself, if there ever were another. Here we meet the actual answer to Treadwell's love to nature. Science, philosophy, mere being in the never ending light over the ices. Herzog seems very much in love with nature, be it ice skies underneath the surface, or active, thundering volcanoes or just the remarkable penguin scene that could break your heart (even Herzog could not resist one of those sentimental scenes directed by nature, despite even claiming early on that this is "not a penguin film"). It may be penguins, but it's hauntingly beautiful nonetheless.
Throughout the movie, Herzog keeps expanding his view on nature and humanity until we reach the end, and the topic we've all been waiting for. The climate change. As you'd expect though Encounters at the End of the World is by no means a propaganda film, it would obviously be beneath Herzog's dignity. No, it seems like Herzog quietly accepts that mankind might be headed for doom - it's as natural as the deranged penguins leaving it's flock to never return - and instead asks what alien lifeforms might think of our remains if they would land to explore in thousands of years. Yes, the explorations goes on. And I think it is importance to remember that the end of the world is not the end of the world. Mother Earth will be alright. She has all the time in the universe. Makind however, we may be getting near the end. I can't help but feel, when I see the colossal, wide, arctic images and the spreading cancerstain of urbanism, that after all mankind has done, Mother Earth deserves to be left alone for a while. There has to be some peace and quiet in the Universe. If the aliens do land, and they do study our hideouts, and they do feel confused over finding a fish deep down in a tunnel in the Antarctica; I'd suggest they'd watch Encounters at the End of the World.