Werner Herzog is irritated. With support from the National Science Foundation, he's traveled all the way to the South Pole, only to find that the banal forces of civilization have gotten there first. Herzog has landed in an American outpost called McMurdo Station, where the population expands to around 1,000 people during the permanent sun of austral summer (October to February), just large enough to include such amenities as a bowling alley, an aerobics studio, and an ATM. Herzog being Herzog, he can't wait to skip town, if only to plant his boots in unmarked icescape and meet the "professional dreamers" who have willfully isolated themselves from the rest of humanity. These are his kind of people.
A sort of distracted, freewheeling form of inquiry and observation drives Encounters At The End Of The World, a loosely constructed documentary that seems to have been made on a whim. After landing in McMurdo, Herzog doesn't hide his annoyance at the noisy clatter and creature comforts of the place, which he likens to a mining town, and he isn't much happier about the "picture-postcard" weather, which he claims isn't good for his celluloid or his skin. Before leaving the settlement, he and his crew have to take a one-day survival course that offers the first of many absurd images: a train of newcomers with buckets over their heads, trying to simulate what it would be like to get stuck in a blizzard. From there, Herzog meets a range of people, including scientists who study the shifting ice patterns, seal and penguin behavior, and the many new species of life to be found underwater. In the film's funniest moment, Herzog rebukes March Of The Penguins by focusing on an aberrant penguin that breaks from the pack and waddles off into certain death.
Sending Herzog off to meet the eccentric adventurers and castaways that populate Antarctica for half the year sounds like an ideal situation for cinema's foremost chronicler of man's confrontations with nature. But Encounters At The End Of The World is diffuse by nature, bouncing around aimlessly rather than focusing on the strong central subjects that drove superior films like Grizzly Man and Little Dieter Needs To Fly. The film plays a little like an episode of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations, except with scientists instead of cooks, though the low-stakes travelogue format allows for plenty of surprises and fun along the way. It's a minor detour taken by an endlessly curious mind.