“Creepy.” That’s how one of the crew members of the Activ, a three-masted Danish schooner, describes the appearance of an enormous ice shelf in northeastern Greenland. Because of global warming, the region’s previously ice-blocked fjords are now open, however briefly, for scientists and others eager to explore areas untouched by man for millennia. And for the passengers on the Activ, reaching this towering mass of ice, extending to the heavens like a gateway to oblivion, feels like the closest anyone could come to falling off the end of a round planet. It’s vaguely disquieting—and certainly unnatural—for them to be there, and it forces them to face, in a very real way, questions about the state of the planet then and now, and how humans may or may not be a factor. This particular mass of ice has sprung a leak, spewing water like a hole in the dike, and they see others collapse with a mighty rumble. For humanity, the writing is unmistakably on the wall.
Daniel Dencik’s unusual documentary Expedition To The End Of The World sounds like a grand seafaring adventure, as expeditions to untraversed Arctic territory tend to be, but its tone is much more philosophical. There’s no question to any of them that something dramatic is happening to the planet—just gaining access to this region affirms that. So for the geologists, marine biologist, and artists on board, thoughts shift to where we are on the earth’s timeline, how we got to this point, and what the future might look like, whether humans will adapt and move inland, or get swept up in the kind of mass extinction that has swallowed other lifeforms in the past. The tone isn’t alarmist, but full of curiosity and perspective, no doubt rooted in the rare privilege of being in this spectacularly beautiful place.
Dencik doesn’t get a great sense of his subjects’ individual personalities, which may be by design. Crew members are introduced as “The Captain,” “The Marine Biologist,” “The Art Photographer,” etc., and personal histories or dramas on the vessel are largely elided. Expedition To The End Of The World follows a chronology, but not an arc: Dencik and his team pick up on conversations, monologues, and various scientific projects, from collecting geological and biological samples to tracking down an endangered polar bear. There’s a lot of excitement among the scientists over what they find, including evidence of where a Stone Age family might have camped, and a particularly lively Petri dish full of microorganisms.
The absence of drama is felt in the pacing; a group of rational, compatible people who face few setbacks does not a white-knuckler make. But Dencik picks up the slack in other areas, particularly the photography, which not only captures nature at its most pristine and awe-inspiring, but also delves into some expressive aquatic sequences that recall 2013’s great experimental doc Leviathan. He also floods the soundtrack with the biggest sounds on the classical and rock spectrum, with Mozart’s “Requiem” on one end and Metallica’s “Blackened” and “Through The Never”on the other. Standing on the possible precipice of human existence, the subjects of Expedition To The End Of The World aren’t panicked, but sanguine, as if they’ve already passed through the stages of grief. “We’re but a parentheses in the development of the earth,” says The Captain, cheerfully picking at his banjo. “And a very small parentheses at that.”