Oscar-nominated documentary in which Werner Herzog, accompanied only by his cameraman, travels to Antarctica and talks with scientists about their work, seeking insight into their unique community and offering another meditation on the grandeur of nature.
Early in this documentary Werner Herzog admits he had to explain to his backers that he did not wish to make yet another film about penguins. As it happens, his traipse around Antarctica eventually takes in a chat with a taciturn ecologist who is studying penguins. Typically, Herzog has no interest in happy ranks of cute birds, and concentrates instead on a lone penguin who walks off at right angles to the rest and inexplicably heads inland to inevitable death.
This doesn’t have the focus of Grizzly Man or other Herzog documentaries about human beings as stubbornly self-destructive as the disorientated penguin, which makes it a less engaging film. Herzog himself becomes by default the central presence, and he’s never actually onscreen — just heard as a dry, wry, Germanic monotone. He sometimes toys with the notion of examining humanity from the point of view of an alien arriving after man’s extinction, but mostly the alien here is Herzog himself, turning up in a region where all humans are out-of-place strangers.
Several sequences are strikingly absurd, or incidentally beautiful — a roped-together line of pupils with buckets on their heads failing a survival course, trips under the ice-shell or into the active Mount Erebus, and chats with enthusiastic experts in glaciation, micro-organisms (note Herzog’s relish at being told the single-cell world is unimaginably violent), sub-atomic physics and marine mammals. Herzog shows the natural wonders of the icescape, but also the muddy, noisy site of the continent’s population centre, McMurdo Station. He tells you exactly what he finds ugly, which gives the film a slightly hectoring tone — though most will agree that the guy whose aim is to pogo-stick to the South Pole so he can hold world records set on every continent is a bigger idiot than the old-time explorers who perished trying to put a flag on an arbitrary white spot on the map.
Mid-list Herzog, but still a stimulating, strange experience. And that tragically perverse penguin is the most memorable movie animal of the year.