I’m a reasonably big fan of Werner Herzog, the film performer, documentarian, and wryly humorous, neurotically heroic philosopher-poet. When it comes to his hugely acclaimed fiction films, however, I can become impatient with their emphasis on pure thought over pure storytelling. Though it is a reasonably straightforward documentary, “Encounters at the End of the World” has elements of both sides of Herzog’s output. Instead of being driven by a sharply dramatic real-life narrative like the one in Herzog’s brilliant 2005 nonfiction, “Grizzly Man”, 2007’s “Encounters” is basically a quasi-philosophical and psychological exploration of just what it is that drives a certain species of extremely intelligent people to frozen (still, for the time being) Antarctica — a place that, as Ernest Shackleton learned the hard way, might as well have had a giant “no human beings allowed without space-age technology or a death wish” sign pasted on it.
Herzog obviously loves the hyper-intelligent rebels and happy misfits the place attracts as much as its sometimes mind-blowing beauty. There’s also plenty of cinematic and verbal rumination, including a soliloquy by Herzog in which he muses about what he sees as the impending end of all human life in a more or less fatalistic matter — not so much an “if” as a “when.” On the other hand, in a brief, intriguing interview with a former linguist, the director also appears to be deeply concerned with preserving dead languages for future generations…so, maybe he’s not expecting the end tomorrow. Still, for all its bone-deep beauty and for the sweetness of its intentions, its Herzogian concern with reality-based eschatology makes “Encounters at the Edge of the World” easily the most disturbing G-rated inquiry into science and possible end times since Robert Wises’ “The Andromeda Strain.”