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Encounters at the End of the World

(2008) *** G
99 min. ThinkFilm. Director: Werner Herzog. Cast: Werner Herzog.

/content/films/3120/6.jpgIf you've never seen one of Werner Herzog's documentaries, or if you have and know what's good for you, do yourself a favor and check out Encounters at the End of the World, a Discovery Channel production about Antarctica that breaks the mold with Herzog's eccentric musings and auteur's eye.

The title refers to the continent known as the end of the world, but also the signs of probable human extinction. And yet it's not really depressing and not so much a nature film, as Herzog focuses on the "encounters" of the title, conversations with scientists (a glaciologist, a vulcanologist, a nutritional ecologist, a physicist) and service personnel at McMurdo Station, the erstwhile territory of Amundsen, Scott, and Shackleton.

The men of yore and today are "professional dreamers" all, as Herzog puts it, in stark contrast to the so-called achievers who go after the more absurd and pointless records found in Guinness. The dedicated scientists and blissful world travellers found at McMurdo invest thought into their pursuits, self-reflective thought and big thinking on behalf of the planet. A self-styled poet of ecstatic cinema, Herzog happily meanders around the end of the world and assembles a record of his own viewpoint on it—though he remains off camera, he's at one with his subjects. In spirit, he is one of them.

His is the dismay of curiosity, concerned but somehow serene. Of the scientists, he narates, "Nature, they predict, will regulate us." Attention must be paid to the future, but Herzog also knows well enough to live in the present and investigate the past. He's as interested in what brought people to McMurdo and what keeps them there (including the "Frosty Boy" fro-yo machine in the cafeteria) as he is in the single-celled organisms being studied in the icy deep. Herzog takes us through a number of bite-sized fascinations, including questions of how one measures the invisible, why some penguins become deranged, and why a chimp doesn't "straddle a goat and ride into the sunset." The answers are seldom forthcoming, but the fun is in the pondering.

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Aspect ratios: 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD 5.1 Master Lossless Audio

Street date: 11/18/2008

Distributor: Image Entertainment

Image Entertainment unleashes a magnificent Blu-ray special edition (mirrored on DVD) of Werner Herzog's weird and wonderful doc Encounters at the End of the World. The HD transfer is quite fine, with some light grain in the polar footage giving the transfer an appropriately film-like feel while the picture remains colorful and detailed. A DTS-HD Master Audio track ensures not a bit of the original soundtrack gets lost in translation to home theaters.

A commentary with director Werner Herzog, producer Henry Kaiser and cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger finds the avuncular trio keeping up a steady pace of recollection and emnlightenment as to the nature of their unique filmaking process and various excitements to be experienced at the South Pole. Herzog is particularly voluble, so fans won't be disappointed.

Kaiser's contemporaneous short films "Under the Ice" (35:41, HD), "Over the Ice" (10:30, HD) and "Seals & Men" (3:30, HD) are wordless musical montages of relevant bonus footage shot by Kaiser, Zeitlinger and others. Kaiser's 2001 short "Slide Guitar & Exorcism @ the South Pole" (11:49, HD), a "memento" of his first visit to the South Pole, is also included.

"Werner Herzog Talks With Rob Robbins & Henry Kaiser" (a.k.a. "Dive Locker Interview") (18:08, HD) is an extended chat that begins with the warning "The content and duration here may be of more interest to an audience of scuba divers than to a general audience." True though that may be, this is a welcome inclusion to a comprehensive special edition of Herzog's film.

Next up are the film's "Trailer" (1:53, HD) and "Interview with Werner Herzog and Jonathan Demme" (1:07:00, SD), conducted at NYC's Museum of the Moving Image on June 5, 2008. The latter is easily the most entertaining of the bonus features, at least for film buffs; it begins with Demme reading a letter to Herzog from Roger Ebert and quickly moves into an intriguing chat between two well established filmmakers.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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