In the last few years, the documentary world has given us a couple of projects about living in Antarctica that play out against a backdrop of global warming. “Encounters at the End of the World” and “March of the Penguins” want to be seen as important because they’re being offered to us at a time when the ice caps are shrinking into less-and-less of their former selves. At the same time, though, the filmmakers want to distract us from the education by making us feel entertained with either quirky characters or Morgan Freeman voice-over. Americans have the biggest base down there at the South Pole — McMurdo — but, apparently, that’s where the commitment stops: both of these films were done, originally, by Europeans. So, here we go: penguins versus humans, in a frozen world that’s so damn cold your spit can freeze before it even hits the ground.
Director and writer Warner Herzog also narrates his film about life in Antarctica and, I have to say, listening to his accented voice-over reminds me that it was the Germans who called Antarctica “Neuschwabenland” before World War II and were reputed (in UFO circles anyway) to have repaired there after the end to build flying saucers at secret bases tunneled under the ice. Okay, you’ve been warned. If Herzog has another agenda, you heard it here first… The film he’s made is great example of the idea that you can go to the literal ends of the Earth to get away from it all, and still be where you started. People are still people, and they need to connect as much as ever. I probably know as much about life in the US Antarctica base at McMurdo as any living human can without actually having lived there. A few years ago, I wrote a TV series pilot for DreamWorks TV called, yes, “McMurdo” and read books, websites and talked to all manner of iceheads. Herzog’s poetic film doesn’t really tell a story. Rather it chronicles his visit to McMurdo and the access he was granted once he got there. There’s a meandering quality to his “encounters,” giving it a very experiental feeling, but if you’re looking for dramatic arc or point-of-view going in, stick with Michael Moore or Al Gore. For me, it vindicated almost every single choice I’d made in that DreamWorks pilot: the characters I wrote that seemed too weird or strange, seemed like they’d fit in perfectly. The danger felt real. And the stakes remain enormous for the people… and the planet.
The Defending Champion
“The March of the Penguins” owes much of its success to a friend of mine who used to work at Warner Independent Pictures (now shuttered and closed) who first saw a French documentary about penguins with bad techno-pop music, sub-titles and three different voices and still said, “Let’s buy this.” He saw that inside the mess was the story of the phenomenally difficult path that penguins take to birth their young in the frigid ice of the South Pole. It doesn’t stop there. If men think they are getting more involved with childbirth among modern humans, consider this. The male penguins have to put the egg in the fold of their guts, and then stand for two months straight with no food or water with the wind blowing like hell and the temperature below zero in total darkness while the mothers go look for food. If that level of commitment were required of me, I have to say that I’d be childless. Morgan Freeman (who probably made more money per second for work performed on this film than anything else he’s done in his life) stepped in to re-voice “March of the Penguins” and, with a new script, he knocks it out of the park. But he’s been given something great to work with. Here’s something else to consider. When these mothers return with food after their two month walkabouts, they always find their mate right away and recognize the sounds made by the chicks they have never seen. From the looks of it, director Luc Jacquet had it pretty rough out there on the ice, trying to film these penguins showing off their Darwinian determination to live, reproduce and not go extinct. Working with snow, ice and waddling penguins, he reached out and touched a lot of people with his work.
Don’t misunderstand. I love penguins. I had no clue whatsoever that they went through the sheer hell they have to in order to raise kids. So, in that respect, I feel like I have a lot in common with them. But 83 minutes of their challenge in “The March of the Penguins” felt like a National Geographic Special that was padded. The photography is beautiful, the baby penguins are cute, and it feels important, especially given that the polar ice caps are melting like a Slurpee on a hot August afternoon. But if penguins are all you’re looking for, you can get that in “Encounters at the End of the World.” You can see one penguin who goes on a march that won’t make you smile, but will make you think and, at least for me, remember it for a long time after the film’s over. There is a profound quality to “Encounters at the End of the World” that Herzog lets emerge and it is this: People have come to McMurdo to study the Earth at a time when it seems as if the Earth may have had quite enough of us. It’s chilling, only in the frightening way, not the shivering way. He states as fact that the vast majority of the scientists working down there believe that humans are going extinct. This blows me away. It moved me doubly because, as I write this review, I’m also the chief writer on an Animal Planet miniseries, “Animal Armageddon,” that is about the mass extinction events that have hit the Earth in its life. Did you know that 99.99% of all species that ever lived on this planet are now extinct? What does that say for our own chances? That does make me shiver… Yet simply because a film is about something important doesn’t make it a good film. And simply because a film is amusing doesn’t it make it good either. “March of the Penguins” has a simpler, cleaner line. It is far more coherent and cohesive than “Encounters at the End of the World.” And yet… The theater that my wife and I saw “The March of the Penguins” in was packed, testament to how this is the indie film that could. In contrast, the theater that we saw “Encounters at the End of the World” was like a private screening. There was one other paying customer in the back of the theater.
I can certainly see why “The March of the Penguins” was a huge success — it was the perfect film for parents to take their kids to, and it wasn’t a bad date movie either. And I can certainly see why “Encounters at the End of the World” is tanking at the box office — it is the kind of film that gets made for Discovery Channel that viewers can see for free (it was made by Discovery Films). Box office, though, can be overrated. It’s isn’t the number of people who see the film, but the connection the film makes to the people who see it. For me, I’ve been moved by “Encounters at the End of the World” in a way that leaves me terribly sad but the feeling is strong and profound in a way that “March of the Penguins” is not. If Mankind goes extinct, the penguins will probably survive and so will the Earth. See “Encounters at the End of the World” and, even if your mind wanders, use the time to consider what is happening to us, and how we can still set things right.