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.Â “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.Â 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.Â Americans have the biggest base down there at the South Pole — McMurdo — but, apparently, that’s where the commitment stops:Â both of these films were done, originally, by Europeans.Â So, here we go:Â penguins versus humans, in a frozen world that’s so damn cold your spit can freeze before it even hits the ground.
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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.Â Okay, you’ve been warned.Â 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.Â People are still people, and they need to connect as much as ever.Â I probably know as much about life in the US Antarctica base at McMurdo as any living human can without actually having lived there.Â 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.Â Rather it chronicles his visit to McMurdo and the access he was granted once he got there.Â 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.Â For me, it vindicated almost every single choice I’d made in that DreamWorks pilot:Â the characters I wrote that seemed too weird or strange, seemed like they’d fit in perfectly.Â The danger felt real.Â And the stakes remain enormous for the people… and the planet.
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The Defending Champion
“TheÂ March of the Penguins” owes much of its success to a friend of mine whoÂ used to work at Warner Independent Pictures (now shuttered and closed)Â who first saw a French documentary about penguins withÂ bad techno-pop music, sub-titles and three different voices and stillÂ said, “Let’s buy this.”Â He saw that inside the mess was the story ofÂ theÂ phenomenally difficult path that penguins take to birth their young inÂ the frigid ice of the South Pole.Â It doesn’t stop there.Â If men thinkÂ they are getting more involved with childbirth among modern humans,Â consider this.Â The male penguins have to put the egg in the fold ofÂ their guts, and then stand for two months straight with no food orÂ water with the wind blowing like hell and the temperature below zero inÂ total darkness while the mothers go look for food.Â If that level ofÂ commitment were required of me, I have to say that I’d be childless. Morgan Freeman (who probably made more money perÂ second for work performed on this film than anything else he’s done inÂ his life) stepped in to re-voice “March of the Penguins” and, with aÂ new script, he knocks it out of the park.Â But he’s been givenÂ something great to work with.Â Here’s something else to consider.Â WhenÂ these mothers return with food after their two month walkabouts, theyÂ always find their mate right away and recognize the sounds made by theÂ chicks they have never seen. From the looks of it, director Luc Jacquet had itÂ pretty rough out there on the ice, trying to film these penguinsÂ showing off their Darwinian determination to live, reproduce and not goÂ extinct.Â Working with snow, ice and waddling penguins, he reached outÂ and touched a lot of people with his work.
Don’t misunderstand. IÂ love penguins.Â I had no clue whatsoever that they went through theÂ sheer hell they have to in order to raise kids.Â So, in that respect, IÂ feel like I have a lot in common with them.Â But 83 minutes of theirÂ challenge in “The March of the Penguins” felt like a NationalÂ Geographic Special that was padded.Â The photography is beautiful, theÂ baby penguins are cute, and it feels important, especially given thatÂ the polar ice caps are melting like a Slurpee on a hot August afternoon. But if penguins are all you’re looking for, you canÂ get that in “Encounters at the End of the World.” You can see oneÂ penguin who goes on a march that won’t make you smile, but will makeÂ you think and, at least for me, remember it for a long time after theÂ film’s over. There is a profound quality to “Encounters at the EndÂ of the World” that HerzogÂ lets emerge and it is this:Â People have come to McMurdo to study theÂ Earth at a time when it seems as if the Earth may have had quite enoughÂ of us.Â It’s chilling, only in the frightening way, not the shiveringÂ way.Â He states as fact that the vast majority of the scientistsÂ working down there believe that humans are going extinct.Â This blowsÂ me away. It moved me doubly because, as I write this review,Â I’m also the chief writer on an Animal Planet miniseries, “AnimalÂ Armageddon,” that is about the mass extinction events that have hit theÂ Earth in its life.Â Did you know that 99.99% of all species that everÂ lived on this planet are now extinct?Â What does that say for our ownÂ chances?Â That does make me shiver… Yet simply because a film is about somethingÂ important doesn’t make it a good film.Â And simply because a film isÂ amusing doesn’t it make it good either. “March of the Penguins” has a simpler, cleaner line.Â It is far more coherent and cohesive than “Encounters at the End of theÂ World.”Â And yet… The theater that my wife and I saw “The March of theÂ Penguins” in was packed, testament to how this is the indie film thatÂ could.Â In contrast, the theater that we saw “Encounters at the End ofÂ the World” was like a private screening.Â There was one other payingÂ 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’tÂ a bad date movie either.Â 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.Â It’s isn’t the number of people who see the film, but the connection the film makes to the people who see it.Â 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.Â If Mankind goes extinct, the penguins will probably survive and so will the Earth.Â 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.