May 19, 2013

Expedition to the End of the World

*This review was originally posted at The Film Experience during the Hot Docs International Film Festival.

I'll have the watch till 11 o'clock. Then I'll go down to the saloon and write the meaning of life.”

As a general rule, I try to avoid all films that deal with the ocean. I'm not averse to action adventures but I suffer from intense thalassophobia and cinema is an experience I'd like to enjoy, not endure. Exceptions have to be made every now and then, of course, and a few experiences have been rewarding enough to justify all the shaking and sneaking through fingers. I made one such exception for Expedition to the End of the World, based on strong word of mouth, and I’m happy to say I came away thoroughly satisfied.

This Danish film follows a group of explorers – crudely referred to only by their respective professions: the archaeologist, the geochemist, the artist, the other artist, etc. - who sail to the North East of Greenland to a previously untapped fjord in the ocean where access had been denied prior to the partial melting of the North Pole. It’s a small benefit of global warming, as one of the scientists puts it, that these men are able to explore this particular region, but here’s the catch: the inlet is only open for a short while as a result of this melting. In a few weeks, it will trap the group in between the mountains.

As one might expect from the premise, Expedition is shot beautifully, with picture-perfect photography that haunted me as much as it forced me to bow to Mother Nature’s grace. There are breathtaking shots composed of the misty mountains, the dormant ocean and the odd polar bear rummaging through the land, but what Expedition does is drawing the most curiously beautiful images of the sight of man against nature, where these intelligent scientists are reduced to specks of dust in relation to the magnitude of their surroundings. It’s a theory that one of the film’s protagonists poses: that humankind’s irrelevance in the grand scheme of things cannot be overstated. There is a fascinating scientific comparison between mankind and the microorganisms that possess similar functioning structures, but it’s the visual compositions that really blew my mind in illustrating this point, quite often framing the central characters against a backdrop of mountains that shows just how insignificant they can be.

Echoing that impression is the fact that the directors scale their project down, at times grounding it in conversations that appear inconsequential on the surface, but drop the audience into the heavy waters of studying human history and identity. By the film’s end the audience yearns to spends more time with this team of sailors. Like a group of hyper-intellectual college kids on their last trip together, their conversations vary from scientific arguments about dormant bacteria to making fun of each other’s fields of work. Expedition to the End of the World is effectively an incisive, anthropological discussion by way of a playful road comedy - characterized by bridges between Mozart and thrash metal music.

In every conversation I've had about the film – which has happened quite often since Expedition has become one of the festival’s favorites – Werner Herzog’s name has come up, for the type of dry humor that’s injected into the film’s chilly atmosphere is reminiscent of the German auteur’s Encounters at the End of the World and Cave of Forgotten Dreams; but I dare say this is an even richer experience than either of those two films. There are deep truths to be sought in the simple questions that these men nonchalantly throw at each other and the beauty of it is that the answers don’t come easily. As the geochemist puts it, “the joy is in not finding the answers,” in striving for a deeper understanding of ourselves and everything around us, and in savoring the splendor of our planet in the process.


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