366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.
DIRECTED BY: Werner Herzog
PLOT: A profile of the scientists and adventurers who spend months at a time in Antarctica exploring the mysteries found there.
COMMENTS: Somehow, Werner Herzog has emerged in the past several years to become the most unlikely of pop culture celebrities. His voice, chronically pessimistic but tempered by an exhausted Teutonic restraint, has become the stuff of legendary parody. This distinctive delivery has inspired an unexpected career as an actor in projects as diverse as a Tom Cruise thriller, a Star Wars TV series, a sitcom, and even an animated jokefest starring penguins. If you had predicted that the man behind Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre: The Wrath of God would become a participant in postmodern ironic comedy, then I hope you also invested heavily in lottery tickets.
It’s that last item I mentioned—the voice cameo in Penguins of Madagascar—that is surprisingly relevant here, because the minds behind that film must surely have screened this one, in which Herzog brings his cameras to Antarctica with no intention of filming, in his words, “fluffy penguins.” Herzog’s Earth is a harsh, cruel place governed by the unforgiving vicissitudes of nature, and a bunch of goofy flightless birds aren’t going to change that.
Herzog is very much on brand here. His general distaste for the bulk of humanity is triggered by the sight of McMurdo Station, the busy port-of-call that has dragged the most distasteful elements of civilization to this once-pristine wasteland; he calls out the presence of an ATM with particular scorn. But he seems captivated by the strange rituals that have sprung up as part of survival in such an inhospitable climate, such as a training exercise in which a platoon of newcomers simulate finding a lost colleague in the midst of a snowstorm by putting plastic buckets on their heads.
Herzog is a crank, of course. “I loathe the sun both on my celluloid and my skin,” he intones, as if trying to prove that he’s nothing like you. But the people he encounters challenge Herzog at his own game. They are willing to endure harsh climates to pursue their passions, and yet they bring along their own personal whims and amusements, such as talent shows, electric guitars, and monster movies. One such scientist—a penguin researcher, naturally—seems just as disgusted by other humans as Herzog professes to be, and the filmmaker seems so cowed by being judged pedestrian by this man that his questions end up justifying the assessment.
Part of what’s so strange about Encounters at the End of the World is that there’s a traditional nature documentary peeking out from under Herzog’s misanthropy. Footage from beneath the Antarctic ice reveals a stunningly unfamiliar world that James Cameron should be tripping over himself to capture. Underwater canyons are populated by string-legged crabs who gambol over frozen stalagmites. Seals make sounds straight out of science fiction. And a remarkable collection of scientists have assembled to catalog these wonders, often with the South Pole being just the latest stop in an unexpected series of mileposts around the globe, such as the lawyer who now drives McMurdo’s bus, or the pipefitter who claims ancient royalty as ancestors. Herzog may hold out little hope for the human race, but even he must admit that no one here is leading a life of quiet desperation.
Ultimately, even Werner Herzog can’t escape the gravitational pull of the penguins. But of course, he captures them in the most Herzogian manner imaginable: we watch as a lone member of the species becomes separated from his compatriots and—either by confusion or madness—sets off on a trek to nowhere. Humans are proscribed from interfering, so they can only watch the hopeless march from the sidelines. As the camera pulls back to reveal the vast nothingness that surrounds the lost bird, it appears that Herzog has finally found someone who reinforces his worldview: we are all doomed, but strangely determined to be ourselves to the bitter end.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“But I make the movie sound like a travelogue or an exhibit of eccentrics, and it is a poem of oddness and beauty. Herzog is like no other filmmaker, and to return to him is to be welcomed into a world vastly larger and more peculiar than the one around us.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous; Herzog dedicated the film to the critic)
(This movie was nominated for review by Marcella, who wondered, “is it really a documentary? or found footage used by a human actor claiming to be an alien…” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)