A flawed meditation on freedom, solitude

Werner Herzog, the mainstream cinema's greatest mystic, ponders life, humanity, ice and penguins in “Encounters at the End of the World,” a South Pole documentary that promises more than it delivers.

Quirky Antarcticans and stunning photography, placid sea lions and rumbling volcanoes take the stage as Herzog – who has veered between personal documentaries (“Grizzly Man”) and personalized fiction films (“Rescue Dawn”) – struggles to find something coherent to say about wanderlust, the nature of freedom and the doomed human race.

He frets over the “abominations” that our absurd junk culture has brought down there and frets over the end of the human race. What he never quite does is explain his reasons for fearing humanity's doom. This isn't a global warming film, despite its suggestion that humans are bulldozing and junking up the South Pole. From Herzog's dismissive descriptions of nature lovers and “tree huggers,” you wonder where he stands on that or anything else.

What he gets at is how much he and the various folk he meets, scientists to pipe-fitters, have in common – the search for solitude, lonely places, emptiness, a place where one can be eccentric, a cracked visionary. He has touched on this time and again in his films.

He boasts that he was given a National Science Foundation grant and writ of passage to come there, “even though I told them I had no intention of making another movie about penguins.”

We're still waiting for him to brag about not doing another movie about emptiness and oddball loners.