Monkey status: There is one ape in this film
You know, we dish out a lot of criticism on this website for the alleged ‘human-washing’ of major films (see our article on Gravity for further explanation), but Werner Herzog’s Encounters At The End Of The World is a spectacular exception.
We follow Herzog to Antarctica where he provides us with a stunning exposition of the great southern continent. Though as he so often does, Herzog introduces a distinctly existentialist bent to the film.
He arrives at the American McMurdo base and is instantly uninspired. The base is industrial-looking, crawling with Caterpillars, and reminds Herzog of a quarry. He wonders, “who are the people that drive the heavy machinery and what brought them to Antarctica?” It turns out one of them is a Russian philosopher with a love for Greek epics. He answers Herzog’s second question – natural selection.
It’s the people who want to fall off the margins of the map. They all end up at the same place, where all the lines converge. It’s then that Herzog realises he’s in his element.
In the perpetual summer daylight he spends days and nights with various outposts of scientists, studying various seemingly esoteric phenomena. Herzog was drawn to Antarctica in the first place by footage taken under the thick sea ice by his scientist friend. Herzog juxtaposes these fascinating other-worldly environments with the mundane reality of those who study them. We quickly learn that there isn’t a whole lot to do down there.
Much of the scientists’ down-time is spent watching old sci-fi movies on an antiquated computer monitor. A penguin researcher Herzog attempts to interview has in fact all but forgotten how to communicate with fellow humans due to his isolation. Even the penguins he studies are nihilistic.
Encounters at the End of the World is visually perfect and thought-provoking from start to finish, but it’s crowning moment has to be one of cinema’s great ape cameos. The brilliance of the sequence itself is beyond humanly description, though what makes it truly remarkable is its context – you show me someone who expected a brushwork illustration of a chimpanzee riding a goat in a serious documentary about Antarctica and I’ll show you a bald-faced liar.
Hats off, Herzog.