It’s not the least bit surprising that Werner Herzog would be drawn to the individualistic scientists and sprawling coldness of Antarctica. From Noseferatu to Fitzcarraldo, his work has been steeped in psychological disintegration and isolated locations; it’s what gets his directorial blood flowing. Herzog’s latest picture, Encounters at the End of the World, is a natural addition to his filmography, a sweeping portrait of Antarctica’s barren emptiness tinged with pockets of hidden, quirky beauty. Indeed, multiple sequences could only be found in a Herzog movie—the “deranged” penguin bolting from the group on a beeline for nowhere but certain death, or ‘Ivan the Terri-bus’ chugging through the cold. And the various researchers all could have comfortably mingled with Aguirre or Woyzeck; whether it’s a riveting monologue on neutrons or a passionate deconstruction of volcanic tendencies, the fascination with the obscure is on full display.
However, Encounters at the End of the World lacks the fluidity of Herzog’s best works; it feels disjointed throughout, as if random anecdotes were juxtaposed with luscious cinematography and thrust together without regard to cohesiveness. The film is oddly captivating at times anyway, but the structural sloppiness lends an unwelcome detached aura to the entire process. It’s also not exactly uncharted waters for Herzog; both Grizzly Man and The White Balloon tackle the man vs. nature theme in documentary format as well. As such, the entire experience is somewhat of a let down, despite Encounters at the End of the World‘s many admirable elements.