Tomorrow night and Saturday afternoon, MOMA will screen this year’s most haunting dystopian science fiction film. Encounters at the End of the World, which had a limited run this summer at Film Forum, is, technically speaking, a documentary. But director Werner Herzog treats his elegiac subject, the demise of life on Antarctica, as if it were taking place on another planet. If only that were true.
Funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, Herzog travels to Antarctica’s McMurdo Station, where a motley community of biologists, linguists, climatologists, and other assorted nerds are encountering the effects of global warming at the end of our world. The director splits his time there between the local natural wonders (such as an active volcano) and droll interviews with his philosophically-inclined researcher protagonists.
Herzog’s detractors have complained that the director, quite predictably, focuses too much on McMurdo’s eccentric personalities. But one of the recurring themes of Herzog’s work, after all, is that living at the edge of civilization can do strange things to a person. In any case, no one can reasonably deny the sublime beauty in the movie’s cinematography, including the amateur underwater footage shot by the scientists themselves. If the men and women who study this lonely continent seem pessimistic about Earth’s future it is precisely because they understand, better than most of us, what will be lost.—Benjamin Strong