The Ice Is Right: Herzog takes a chilly tone with Antarctic exploration.

In Encounters at the End of the World, Werner Herzog discovers in Antarctica that it’s rather likely human beings will soon go the way of the dinosaur. What’s distressing is that the director doesn’t seem to mind. Extinction, after all, would rid this overly technological, painfully nondeliberate world of “abominations” such as yoga classes and “fluffy penguin” movies—another of which Herzog assured his benefactors, the National Science Foundation, he would not be making. Despite a couple of wisecracks at penguins’ expense, Herzog, who also narrates, sounds almost wistful at the beginning of his ghostly and gorgeous (if meandering) film, wondering what kind of people he’d meet at the world’s southernmost point: “What were their dreams?” he asks. But Werner the Curious soon morphs into Werner the Crank, with impatient, sometimes laughably teen-goth narration that, depending on your mood, is either entertaining or insufferable. “I loathe the sun, both on my celluloid and my skin,” Herzog drones, pleased when the “postcard-pretty weather” during the region’s perpetual-daylight season turns foul. He’s eager to leave McMurdo Station, a research center with climate-controlled housing and a horrid exercise facility, as soon as he arrives, regarding it as an ugly, too-civilized Antarctica Lite. Herzog does interview several residents there, though, identifying them with career hyphenations such as “Philosopher-Forklift Driver,” and seems nonjudgmental as he learns what led them to choose life on frozen tundra. Later, however, he’s not so nice, allowing a couple of eccentrics to blather for just a bit before interrupting with overdubs that essentially say, “To make a long, dull story short…” Scientists, from seal studiers to subatomic-particle chasers to, yes, penguin experts, receive more deferential treatment, with Herzog not only inquiring about their projects but also lobbing hardballs about intelligence and creation. The film is most absorbing, though, when Herzog stays out of the way: Aside from otherworldly, astonishing views of the continent both aboveground and deep beneath the ice, there’s the eerie audio of seal calls that sound, according to one researcher, “like Pink Floyd or something,” another scientist’s description of sea creatures that are more horrific than anything dreamed up in a sci-fi novel, and randomly caught, fraught footage of a penguin who keeps still as his peers go off to the left or the right, then resolutely toddles straight ahead on his own. Herzog barely registers any emotion when he notes the little guy is headed for certain death, but the sadness and mystery of the image is unmistakable.