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Heroic 'Encounters' of an Antarctic kind

If you're not the kind of person who gets giddy at the sound of Werner Herzog's voice, then you may not get the same kick I got while watching his latest documentary "Encounters of the End of the World." For fans of the German filmmaker, especially when he's in documentary mode, that Teutonic drawl of his is like sweet, sweet music. Not only because it sounds kinda funny, but because of the whacked-out things that often come out of his mouth.

"Encounters" is another wondrous, intense journey into the ice-cold heart of nature (both human and Mother) from Herzog, who treats this with equal parts awe-inspiring wonder and crackpot inquisitiveness. He got the National Science Foundation to let him tag along to Antarctica, where he filmed the whole deal. Initially letting them know that he wasn't doing "another film about penguins," Herzog says he had questions on his mind, like, why don't chimps use inferior creatures for their own gain. ("He could straddle a goat and ride off into the sunset.")

When he touches down to McMurdo Station, the largest community in Antarctica, he notices that McMurdo looks like a snowy mining town complete with such "abominations" as an aerobics studio and yoga classes. As a man who can't help showing disdain about our postindustrial civilization's treatment of nature and history, he's more than willing to head out to the field and hang with the various scientists and experts as they do research on and around the continent.

And this is where Herzog pulls off his slyest trick, making "Encounters" something of an educational experience. (After all, the film is co-distributed by the Discovery Channel's film wing.) He gets with cell biologists as they dive underneath the surface (ethereally shot by producer/co-composer Henry Kaiser) and study single-celled creatures. He meets up with physiologists as they do lab work on seals, who can be often heard making calls under the ice that resemble sound effects from a Pink Floyd album. He even talks to a marine biologist, who mostly works with the last animal Herzog wanted to deal with -- penguins. But he uses his time wisely, asking the biologist such compelling questions as "Are penguins gay?" (Seriously, why doesn't Herzog have his own talk show? He's a better interviewer than Borat!)

Still, he keeps coming back to the station and talking to the assortment of people who make up McMurdo's population. He finds filmmakers who are now cooks, philosophers who are now forklift drivers, bankers who are now shuttle drivers. He meets people who've encountered enough danger and adventure for a dozen lifetimes -- and old boy can't get enough of them.

Just like when he cast a nonjudgmental eye on the late, possibly self-deluded environmentalist Timothy Treadwell in his 2005 documentary "Grizzly Man," Herzog treats these people with the utmost respect. He even seems quite grateful to be in the company of these outsiders. For Herzog, people who leave society behind to truly become one with the planet are more brave and noble than the comic-book superheroes who have been plastering the big screen all this season. Herzog sees that these folk have the same perspective on life on Earth that he's adopted, that civilization didn't begin -- and certainly won't end -- with us pesky humans. We're just one small component in the machine that keeps Mother Earth moving. And we can easily be replaced.

So, if you're looking for this week's summer superhero movie, you're gonna have to venture outside the multiplex. Because that wacky Herzog has found a doozy group of avengers worth watching at the art house.

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