Any filmgoer who's been fortunate enough to have seen director Werner Herzog's best works knows well the poetic power and remarkable mastery of his imagery, pacing, and overall tone. This not only applies to Herzog's narrative features, but -- somewhat uniquely -- to his documentary films as well. In his 2005 documentary Grizzly Man, Herzog painted a fascinating portrait of a true outsider whose unbound passion for nature ultimately brought upon his untimely death. With Encounters at the End of the World, Herzog continues this long trend of profiling people on the fringes of society, this time focusing on the small community of "professional dreamers" who live and work at the National Science Foundation's Antarctic headquarters. The result is a film that is at once mesmerizing and captivating, due both to the surroundings he explores and to the fascinating people he meets.
Opening to reveal the majestic beauty of the underwater kingdom that sits just beneath McMurdo Station in the South Pole, the first frames of the film make it easy to see why Herzog wanted to travel to this remote corner of the globe and interview its curious inhabitants. Herzog is a man with many questions about nature, though they aren't necessarily the kind of questions you would see posed on your average National Geographic special; he ultimately proves himself to be just as interested in exploring the dreams and motivations of the scientists themselves as he is in the environment they're researching. The people Herzog speaks with are just as colorful and interesting as the surroundings they reside in, and as a result, the film proves as stimulating intellectually as it is visually. With titles like "Forklift driver/Philosopher" the inhabitants of the various field camps visited by Herzog always have an interesting story to tell, and whether he's speaking with the community bus driver or the neutrino physicist, he's got a fascinating knack for drawing those stories out. An interview with a cell biologist preparing for his last professional dive turns unexpectedly profound as the director's brooding subject begins to ponder the microscopic horrors that await him on the ocean floor, and later, a casual conversation with a notoriously reticent penguin researcher leads to one of the film's most poignant moments, after Herzog attempts to liven the conversation by playfully inquiring about insanity among penguins. Likewise, his consistent practice of allowing the camera to linger on his subjects long after they've completed their thoughts draws out their true inner nature in a way that not even the best questions can.
Occasionally going back to the topic of Ernest Shackleton and his historic trek across the Antarctic, Herzog skillfully raises important questions about the changing ways we view the world we live in, the true nature of exploration, and, ultimately, the sustainability of human life on planet Earth. Indeed, repeated scenes of divers drifting under a seemingly infinite ceiling of ice ultimately take on the air of NASA footage of astronauts floating in space (albeit much more colorful), and Herzog himself admits that the McMurdo Station -- nestled completely self-contained in a vast stretch of nothingness -- could well stand as an earthly blueprint for future deep-space settlements. Later, as the researchers descend into the enormous vents along the slopes of a volcano and explore an underground tunnel housing a curious time capsule to be preserved for discovery by future generations, their philosophies combine with the otherworldly imagery and music to create something that is truly sublime. Perhaps these dreamers who somehow ended up at the true end of the Earth are on to something after all.