Call it Planet Herzog. Though I'm certain that the men and the smattering of women in the documentary are far from ordinary. -their fantastic milieu and haunted eyes suggest as much- part of what makes them memorable is how Mr. Herzog weaves them into his story. And make no mistake: from his familiar droning voice-over to his ethereally lovely images and stubborn fatalism, this is very much Werner Herzog's story of the Antarctic and not, as he intimates right up front, a heartfelt tale of "fluffy" penguins, an easy swipe at the palatable pleasures of the documentary "March of the Penguins." Though there are, as it happens, some penguins here too, most memorably a Herzogean creature that may trouble your dreams.
Like many of Mr. Herzog's movies, fiction and nonfiction, "Encounters at the End of the World" itself has the quality of a dream: it's at once vivid and vague, easy to grasp and somehow beyond reach. Its inspiration can be found in his 2005 movie, "The Wild Blue Yonder," a self-described science fiction fantasy (about outer and inner spaces, for starters) that mixes fiction with nonfiction. Its most striking nonfiction moments come courtesy of the underwater video images shot in the Antarctic by his friend and sometime composer, the guitarist Henry Kaiser, of divers swimming in the eerie blue under a shelf of crystal ice. (Mr. Kaiser produced this new movie and, with David Lindley, did its plaintive, effective string-centric music.)
These same underwater explorers return in "Encounters at the End of the World," floating in cerulean amid otherworldly creatures, like fuzzy-looking clams that languidly snap open and close like fur castanets and an undulating jellyfish with silvery, near-transparent tentacles and what looks like a raw steak at its center. I could watch these surreal creatures for hours, and from the way he returns to these images, you get the sense that so could Mr. Herzog. But there are other sights and sounds to marvel at, including the Weddell seals that loll about indifferently on the surface, soaking up rays like fat, lazy tourists but, once underwater, create a symphony of electronic-like calls that one scientist accurately compares to Pink Floyd.
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