Werner Herzog is one of my favorite directors, period. He can be erratic and overblown, yes, but he is inarguably a deep thinker, outrageously creative and attacks his art with a ferocious, focused, almost rabid passion. He is, likely, a bit insane.
Encounters at the End of the World, which may be his first G-rated film ever, piqued my interest immediately, and I was rather excited by the prospect of taking K to see a Herzog film (I’m sure I’ll force Fitzcarraldo on him before he’s ready for it; he wants to see Grizzly Man, but I’m holding off on that, as great as it was.). We missed a showing of End of the World at our (lone) little rep theater in the area, due to a dead car battery, and when it showed later in the Big City, it was showing at a theater that I find so physically uncomfortable (let’s say, repulsive) that I’m on a personal boycott of the place.
So, I resigned myself to renting it, and watching it on a small screen at home (so wrong!), and promptly put it on our Netflix list.
Imagine my surprise when I saw a listing for it at a wonderful new space in our area, one that shows films and occasionally hosts live events, while also serving pretty good food. There it was, a Saturday matinee. Off the three of us went.
So, here is the good news and bad news about Encounters at the End of the World.
First, the good news: it’s a wonderfully, fully-Herzogian adventure, replete with colorful characters (what kinds of people end up at the Antarctic, at the very edge of the earth?) who tell endlessly entertaining stories (what are they doing there? what brought them there?), and, of course, there is impossibly beautiful cinematography: Antarctic scenery resembling moonscapes, and underwater shots of sea life and topography that simply turn the world upside down.
Herzog somberly makes clear, early in his narration, that he was not intending, by any means, to make “another film about fuzzy penguins.” Funny, that’s not something we think Herzog is even capable of.
The bad news: it’s a bit long (even husband D – also an avid Herzog admirer – grumbled toward the end, “It should be over now”) and the interviews with the characters who live there probably appeal, in all honesty, more to adults than to kids. There are also hilariously Herzogian moments (that are a bit problematic for the kiddies) such as when Herzog asks a scientist questions such as, “Have you observed a segment of the penguin population that is gay?” and (imagine Herzog’s thick, intimidating accent here) “Do penguins ever just go insane?” (At which point D and I howled with appreciation for our favorite German filmmaker.) Insane penguins? Leave it to Herzog!
Of course, Herzog then proves we are laughing because we are heartless, shallow people. To prove the depths of possible penguin insanity, the segment ends with a classic Herzog moment, a heartbreaking shot of a confused, lone penguin, heading in the wrong direction while his buddies follow their instincts and waddle off to the ocean. “He faces 5000 long miles to the other coast, and will most certainly die,” Herzog intones mournfully.
One of the scientist’s answers about “gay” behavior involved an explanation about how some female penguins exhibit behavior called “prostitution," which is only distantly related to the human behavior as we know it . You can see how you would likely have some questions coming from your kids that you might not want to tackle at that very moment.
Do I recommend Encounters at the End of the World? Unequivocally, yes. Oh, for your kids? Well, it depends. Son K was sliding around in his chair and sighing audibly towards the end (ok, honestly, he even started shooting me looks that implied, “WHY AM I HERE?”), and while he is physically a very active (hyperactive we might admit) kid who has a hard time sitting still, he has managed to get through numerous films that aim a bit higher than the usual kid fare does. My guess is that kids over 12 may enjoy this the most, and get the most out of it, and if yours are a bit cerebral and don’t need explosions or cool special effects every fifteen minutes, you might give it a try at any age (again, if you’re willing to deal with some delicate issues along the way).
Personally, I was as happy as a skittering, Antarctic clam to sit through it, and am already looking forward to Herzog’s next adventure.