Early in Encounters at the End of the World, director Werner Herzog muses in his voice-over narration about the hierarchy of power in the animal kingdom... which leads him to wonder why a chimpanzee would never decide to control a goat in order to ride into the sunset on its back. I'm not making this up. There is even a shot of a nice artist-rendered image of the monkey on a goat's back with a blazing Monument Valley sunset in the distance to illustrate his thought. Perhaps in this sidebar, Herzog is setting up the viewer for the film ahead. This is not an Antarctica of fuzzy penguins. This is the Antarctica of quirky, philosophizing humans and the randoms beasts (many of them microscopic) that survive in, around, and on this frozen continent.
Encounters at the End of the World is almost like Herzog's own travelogue of visiting the continent, but with the perk of his trip being sponsored by the National Science Foundation. But Herzog is just as interested in the people who work and live there, as in the continent and its natural wonders. That said, Herzog fully admits that his impression of McMurdo Station, the continent's largest outpost, was disappointment. With a summer population of about 1,000, it looks like an industrial mining camp, but with the distinction of having yoga classes, an ATM, and a hugely popular "Frosty Boy" ice cream machine.
The folks working in Antarctica all have the wild-eyes of eternal travelers, and I don't just mean just folks (like one woman) who travelled across Africa on a garbage truck. These folks take journeys of the mind, and are unabashedly mystical and philosophical. Herzog learns that one scientist who studies tiny one-celled underwater organisms is a huge sci-fi fan. With slight prodding from the filmmaker, soon the scientist is talking about these one-celled creatures as terrifying monsters that will "rend" your flesh right from you in horrible, violent ways... that is, if you were the same size as them. Which luckily we're not.
The images in the film are fantastic as well. There is amazing underwater photography, taken by bold divers who swim through -2° C water under six feet of ice. Since it is too dangerous to swim with a tether, they just hope that they can re-find their entry hole that had been blasted into the ice, or else they will literally be trapped down there. We also meet scientists perched on the edge of Mount Erebus, one of only three live volcanoes in the world with exposed magma roiling in its crater. And luckily, one scientist explains that when a belch of magma is launched into the air, rather than running away or crouching to cover your head, it is important to keep your eye on the molten blob in the air in order to step out of the way when it drops from the sky. Good to know.
One of the more haunting, and strangely moving images from Encounters is of, yes, a penguin. One lone penguin has wandered off from the rest of his group. As his penguin pals head towards the far away water to get food, he steadfastly waddles alone across the ice... inland. With thousands of miles of continent ahead of him and no food, he is destined to die. But if humans were to intervene and turn him around, he would just stubbornly revert to his original course and go running off toward the mountains again—to his own doom. The image of the little fat figure, his "arms" straight out from his sides as he toddled off to the white horizon, seemed a metaphor for all the folks that end up at the end of the world. Though the land where they go is completely inhospitable to their kind, their curiosity (and maybe a little bit of insanity) compels them to go there regardless.