With Mozart’s “Requiem” a perfectly ironic choice of opening motif, “Expedition to the End of the World” takes viewers on a journey that only incipient human extinction might have made possible. Danish helmer Daniel Dencik’s docu is a scientific exploration of the previously ice-blocked fjords of northeastern Greenland, which have been defrosted by global warming, and whose discoveries about the origins of life and man are ripe (a little overripe) for examination. With a mood and setting worthy of a murder story by Jack London, this audience-friendly, atmospheric work could be remade as a thriller, although that’s really what it is already.
Boasting a crew that includes a geologist, a geographer, a geochemist, a marine biologist and a couple of artists (one of whom glibly suggests we all invade Switzerland when climate change eventually makes it uncomfortable elsewhere), the three-masted schooner Activ slides up an artery into the sunken heart of the world. This is a landscape that hasn’t been walked by humankind since prehistoric times; new species are discovered, polar bears are a constant threat, and glacial icebergs are collapsing in real time. The viewer has the eerie sense of trespassing on something unpolluted, unpopulated and somehow sacred. The crew — all men, except for biologist Katrine Worsaae – can’t help but turn philosophical.
Dencik might have turned the film into a tone poem, given the awe-inspiring cinematography by d.p. Martin Munck and Per Nystrom’s haunting soundwork. But there’s plenty of humor, too, generated by the exchanges among the various characters onboard and the occasional mishap. Artist Daniel Richter carries a rifle, apparently to protect against polar bears; at one point, he falls and the gun goes off, suggesting a joke about a not-quite-standing militia.
There are many moments of revelation here: the huge fish that are caught, and then unceremoniously slaughtered, by the crew; the strange, previously undiscovered worms that live down below in the thawing permafrost; the seals and gulls that inhabit marine locales everywhere, but seem to have less of an aversion to people in a place normally without them; and the polar bears, which leave no cabin unturned in their relentless, ursine search for food. The shipmates, meanwhile, have to determine when to leave, lest the winter ice close around the Activ and cut off their escape. Viewers will wish they’d stuck around longer.