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Peter Zeitlinger, Thinkfilm
McMurdo Station is the main community at the South Pole.

ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD — *** 1/2 — Documentary feature about Antarctica research and wildlife; rated G (violence, mild vulgarity)

In "Encounters at the End of the World," eccentric German filmmaker Werner Herzog keeps his promise not to make "another penguin movie."

Of course, that doesn't mean that his latest, a documentary feature about Antarctic life and research, is completely penguin-free. But when the critters do show up, they're not as cute and fuzzy as, say, the ones in the Oscar-winning "March of the Penguins."

(As usual, Herzog's animal subjects here appear to be much, much more cranky and unfriendly. Sort of like the filmmaker himself.)

And as for the rest of the movie, it's very much in keeping with the tone and spirit of his previous nonfiction films, including the hotly debated 2005 documentary "Grizzly Man."

"Encounters" is peculiar but is also very fascinating, especially seeing how it broaches deep subjects — such as man's relationship with nature. The movie takes Herzog to various locations in the South Pole, including its main community, McMurdo Research Station.

There he finds several scientists and researchers to talk to, as well as a contortionist, a world traveler, a dead-language specialist and a surprisingly philosophical equipment operator.

But not all of his focus is on humans. Again, there's an odd penguin segment, and other sequences take Herzog and cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger to underwater caverns that almost look like extraterrestrial landscapes.

At times Herzog does get a little carried away with all the discussions of possible penguin insanity and similar, terrible animal behavior. And his disdain for modern-day amenities like aerobics studios and bowling alleys becomes painfully clear by the time he delivers his umpteenth diatribe about such things.

However, there's much more good here than there is bad. The underwater sequences are breathtaking and ethereal. (They're accompanied by a subdued but appropriate soundtrack that features Tibetan chanting alongside original compositions from avant-garde musicians Henry Kaiser and David Lindley.)

"Encounters at the End of the World" is rated G, but does feature some brief scenes of animal violence, as well as some mildly suggestive references. Running time: 95 minutes.

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