Here’s how generous Daniel Dencik’s doc Expedition to the End of the World gets with its harsh beauty. Deep in the film, its party of Danish scientists and artists surveys, from their three-masted schooner, a shimmering iceberg shaped, sized, and luminously scalloped like a Frank Gehry opera house. We see it bob there, in the blue, before the humped brown fjords of northeastern Greenland, cliffs rarely glimpsed by human eyes and only seen here, thanks to the summertime melting of ice that used to remain solid.
As soon as that thought registers, the opera house collapses in on itself, a vision of destruction more glorious and terrifying than in any of this summer’s blockbusters. And a moment after that, one of those Danes points out a rainbow straddling the bay, one leg on each shore, this vision an actual vision — a trick of light and water but welcome nonetheless. Even Danish scientists can’t resist talking about God’s promise not to flood us again — and who can imagine a more atheistic crowd than that?
If marveling at the world — and its collapse — sounds appealing to you, hustle up a ticket. Dencik’s film follows the adventure but never forces much of a narrative upon it. Instead, it is content to show us the wonders that climate change is laying bare. It also shows us those Danes wondering right along with us, often offering to one another or the camera the kinds of thoughts stirred by isolation in nature. “It’s never happened before that one species has caused mass extinctions,” one observes. Another takes the shit-happens approach to global warming, arguing that humans have always evolved around catastrophes — that one day Danes overrun by seawater in Copenhagen will adapt, evolve, and move to the Alps.
There are many moments of silent majesty — we glide along ivory expanse of a glacier, its fissures for some reason a 2000 Flushes–blue — and also edifying scenes of scientists at work. They trawl the depths for samples, eager to find new species of fish and microbe. They pick over beaches for rock formations suggestive of Stone Age architecture. They drill through hummocks of scrub grass to sound the depth to the permafrost. What they find is dispiriting, but the search is a thrill: The filmmakers put a camera on the drill, so that at first our perspective spins, and then, when a scientist seizes the bit, the world itself whips around.
That’s one of several hints that this film, with its steady beauty and free-floating philosophizing, might have been put together with the head shop in mind, but you don’t need to be high to sit rapt before it. (Another clue: the way a shot of tiny scientists loomed over by mountains cuts to one of red bugs skittering on stones, the proportions the same.) The photography is never fussy, never juiced by filters or magic-hour perfectionism — what you see is probably close to what you would if you somehow managed to go there.
Going there is dangerous, of course. The final reels introduce some drama. First, some trouble with a polar bear bashing into one of the few signs that people have ever come to these shores: a tiny shack stocked with snack foods. (The scientists know to avoid polar bears; the artists lark after them.)
Worse, the seaways that far north only unfreeze for a couple weeks each year, and getting out means much ice must be shoved through. While the ship’s crew worries about this, and the documentarians show us head-on iceberg-smashing from an underwater camera, the scientists and artists argue over a sketch one has made of the meaning of life. It involves a triangle. Another one, meanwhile, wails on a banjo. Dencik’s gorgeous, surprising, meditative film opens up one of the world’s last unknown places, and it will also make you want to befriend every Dane you can.