In the summer of 2011, a motley crew of Danish artists and scientists boarded a three-masted schooner and set sail for the unexplored wilds of northeastern Greenland without any explicit agenda. Hilarity ensued. Filmmaker Daniel Dencik went along for the ride, capturing the voyage and shaping it into an exceedingly droll documentary snapshot that’s every bit as beautiful and aimless as the journey itself. The Expedition To The End Of The World courses with the zeal of Robert Flaherty, the fearlessness of Werner Herzog, and the fatalistic humor of Lars Von Trier. While individual moments echo with a familiarly mordant sense of alpha-male adventure, together they cohere into something wild and new.
Not a comprehensive account of the trip so much as a scattershot portrait of its most humble and hilarious moments, Dencik’s film often feels like an assemblage of deleted scenes from a more compelling movie, but the herky-jerky editing accurately reflects the fundamental opportunism of this project. The Expedition To The End Of The World only exists because climate change has melted certain stretches of ice near the North Pole, opening up previously inaccessible areas for a few weeks each year. Dencik is simply there to see what he can see, his camera frantically zooming in on a collapsing ice shelf in the hopes that it might capture the majesty now and make sense of it later. And on that former count, there can be no doubt of his success. The sights encountered in the film are so mind-boggling that they invite talk of Stendhal Syndrome, and Dencik’s crisp HD photography captures them with a classical severity, like the Earth is posing for him.
The rest of the gang—some two dozen wonkily brilliant personalities who are identified only by their professions, their fleeting individual renown ridiculed by the geological timeline confronting them—shares the film’s lack of purpose, bumbling around the inhospitable Greenland moonscape and sharing whatever observations come to mind. In between long chats about polar bear attacks, The Geologist, The Artist, The Marine Biologist, and all of the other somewhat interchangeable voyagers stare at the majesty around them and say things like: “All organisms on Earth are connected… we’re just put together in a way that looks smarter.” One guy plays a banjo. Another finds the ancient fossil of a dead animal and likens it to a crime scene. The Zoologist even flies around in an ultra-light aircraft. They’re jokers of doom, dispassionately observing the environmental horrors that have made their trip possible. The Expedition To The End Of The World doesn’t just accept the reality of climate change, it fully embraces both meanings of its title.
The cosmic perspective of the passengers helps make this the rare ecological doc that would rather impart its lessons through humility than didacticism, in no small part because all of the film’s subjects seem to agree when one of them refers to humans as, “But a parenthesis in the development of Earth—and most likely a very short parenthesis.” If The Expedition To The End Of The World is a bit of a mess, and less immediately enjoyable for that, perhaps it’s because Dencik is looking for answers with his audience. What ultimately resonates about the movie are the solutions it does find. There’s only one woman aboard the ship, and her T-shirt reads: “Fuck everything and become a pirate.”