Planet Earth: Antarctica this ain’t, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing. The key to enjoying Encounters at the End of the World is to resign yourself early on to the idea that what you’re watching is essentially the vacation slideshow of a privileged and eccentric world traveler. The traveler in question, director Werner Herzog, makes his way through Antarctica photographing everything from exposed magma in a volcano to seals and penguins to endless varieties of unexplained* sea life beneath the Ross ice shelf. Cool stuff, but it’s best just to enjoy them as isolated scenes, because for all of Herzog’s hard-boiled, existentialist voice overs, that’s basically what they are.
There’s no question that the dark prince of the documentary (you may remember him from 2005’s Grizzly Man, which I highly recommend if you haven’t seen it) has a singular voice, and he certainly spouts his share of classic one-liners here (I loaz za feelink of za sun on both my skin and my celluloid). The problem is not that he has an agenda – all good documentaries have some sort of axe to grind – it’s that as the film goes on, his agenda shifts so much from scene to scene that it begins to feel disorganized. The narrative arc gets lost and then there’s nothing pull you from scene to scene, so when he switches gears, you find yourself losing interest or wishing he’d elaborate on whatever crazy thing he just said.