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Encounters at the End of the World

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Werner Herzog has made a career documenting extreme landscapes and courting danger. Encounters at the End of the World chronicles his trip to Antarctica, and, perhaps because the director is approaching old-master status, skews toward the observational. Taking a military plane out of New Zealand, Herzog ponders his fellow travelers, wondering who they are and what they dream. He finds the U.S. settlement at McMurdo Sound populated by an assortment of geeks, vagabonds and loners and later bonds with a physicist searching for subatomic particles in a parallel universe. Although not specifically mentioned, his bête noire is March of the Penguins. When he does visit penguin land, Herzog asks a painfully diffident scientist: "Is there such a thing as insanity among penguins? Could they just go crazy because they've had enough of their colony?" Before the scientist can answer, the filmmaker cuts to a single bird waddling away from its group, toward the mountains and, as Herzog notes, certain death. Herzog may loathe the projection of human attributes onto the animal kingdom, but here he finds an antihero: There's no mistaking his point that the doomed, irrational creature is us.

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