‘Expedition to the End of the World’ Review: Finding Beauty and Adventure in the Apocalypse

By  · Published on August 20th, 2014

expedition ship

When a movie as magnificent as Expedition to the End of the World comes along, it’s hard to find the right words to describe it. Awesome comes to mind, but that sounds so broad. It’s a word that has had its meaning diluted through generations of it being used to merely mean “cool.” For most people, it’s not even a good enough word by itself anymore. First it was unnecessarily given more oomph with phrases like “totally awesome,” and now it’s part of the utterly ridiculous slang expression “awesome sauce.” But the true, original definition of the word is the most fit for a documentary that delivers us to the wonder of our planet’s destruction with such amazing and daunting splendor. And in a way, it’s probably appropriate to use a word that’s lost something in its evolution.

The title of the film refers to both the edge of the earth as well as its demise, and yet the journey in question is hardly one of alarm. Just as the physical end of the world is an illusion, given that it’s not flat, the temporal terminus is just a point somewhere amidst the infinity. Expedition to the End of the World follows a group of explorers sailing toward the North Pole along the Northeast coast of Greenland, a trip made possible only recently thanks to global warming, in order to study the newly exposed environment on every level. Scientists aboard the schooner Activ include a geologist, a geochemist, a marine biologist, a zoologist, an archaeologist and a geographer. There are also artists along for the adventure, aside from the filmmakers, which provides for some of the doc’s deepest discussions, on art versus science and ultimately how each is important for our understanding the universe.

Other conversations encountered along the way are even more philosophical and tend to dismiss the idea that climate change is some kind of tragedy. Either man must adapt and move as he has always done following disasters (“we’ll invade Switzerland!”), or we’ll have had our time and now it’s another species’ chance – perhaps the alien-looking species discovered for the first time during this voyage. The former is obviously better for us, and the consensus seems to be that it’s plausible if we’re more open to the idea. “’Oh no. We need two cars,’” one of the explorers says, speaking for the average person “clinging nostalgically to our state of life now.” “No,” he answers back, “maybe we need a raft.” Humor is abound in the film, as is clever wisdom. There’s a reminder that life came from natural disaster, recognizing creation within catastrophe, and then there’s the sad suggestion that the next dominant creature of Earth won’t have its own poetry.

And will they contemplate existence the way we do? Will they have a notion of “beauty” like that which we see on screen? Would they appreciate a movie that is about as cerebral as they come while also being spectacularly cinematic and also relatively action-packed for a documentary (in addition to the ship, there’s also an incredible flying machine on this expedition, plus guns and wild animals and at one brief point villains)? Could they enjoy a film score that is split up evenly between majestic classical choir music (the really epic and heavenly sort for scenes with waterfalls and such – specifically Mozart’s “Requiem”) and thrashing instrumental parts to Metallica tunes (to represent the darker side of the films’ death themes)? Might this successor understand why this is a film that needs to be seen on a huge movie screen, that it’s the sort of production that the movies exist for?

This is also a rare modern example of the sort of daring project steeped in discovery that documentary exists and was named for. Obviously we watch and consider the venturous films of Robert Flaherty and silent-era Cooper/Schoedsack and others, but even more are the experiential exhibits of exploration we often think of as record and museum piece more than film, like South, the 1920 documentation of Ernest Shackleton and the Endurance trip to Antarctica. Today’s closest equivalents tend to be IMAX space films, yet even those aren’t so enterprising in terms of uncovering the unknown. With docs like Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World (a titular as well as spiritual brother to this film), it’s all the more apparent that there are few such crusades left (though as we’ve also seen with Cave of Forgotten Dreams, if there are any, Herzog shall undertake them).

A few contemporary documentaries, meanwhile, have sort of ushered in the need and expectation for something like Expedition to the End of the World. First there was Sebastian Copeland’s gorgeous and barely seen 2010 feature, Into the Cold: A Journey of the Soul, in which he trekked to the North Pole for the 100th anniversary of man’s initial trip there as well as to photograph landscapes that will disappear thanks to climate change (Into the Cold just hit DVD finally this month). Then last year two of the top-grossing docs (Chasing Ice and To the Arctic) took us up there to illustrate how the glaciers and the polar bears are going away. Now this new film completes, or at least continues, the tale with a look at what’s left behind after the melting and the extinction, like its the post-apocalyptic chapter in the book of that part of the planet.

Expedition to End of the World is directed by Daniel Dencik, who was an editor on the similarly apocalypse-focused Into Eternity (one of the most original docs in years) and co-conceived and produced by Armadillo helmer Janus Metz. It’s further proof that the Danes, not to mention Scandinavians in general, are making some of the most astonishing nonfiction films today. It’s not coincidental that this doc easily reminds us of the 1950 Norwegian documentary classic Kon-Tiki. Interestingly enough, while this film has been selling out huge theaters in Toronto during Hot Docs, a remake of Kon-Tiki is playing well in limited release in the States during its opening week. I’ve been complaining about the existence of that new version for months and wondering why nobody’s just making actual new adventure docs. I thought maybe there wasn’t anywhere else for such films to explore. Fortunately, as this film reveals, I was wrong and my prayers for exciting, action-packed nonfiction were answered.

The Upside: Awesome scenery, awesome adventure and awesome wit and reasoning… I can’t wait to see it again.

The Downside: With little exposition for the actual voyage, there is a missing sense of chronology and time in general, and it ends a bit too abruptly (or maybe I just wished it went on and on and on – also, the filmmakers consider this work to be merely a snapshot not document of the voyage).

On the Side: Dencik also worked as an editor on The Five Obstructions, which reminds us that Lars von Trier should be making more documentaries.

This review was originally published during Hot Docs last year on April 29, 2013. It is being re-posted now that the film is opening in theaters.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.