‘Expedition to the End of the World’ Review: Beautiful, Contemplative and Tumultuous

Expedition to the End of the World

The creative types aboard the Activ hope to be attacked by a polar bear. Artist Daniel Richter is visibly thrilled by the possibility, his outward sense of “bourgeois anarchist” irony barely masking the bizarre joy he gets from holding a gigantic rifle. Yet the much-anticipated bear does not show. This is the newly melted coast of Greenland, after all, and the mighty beast may very well be on its last legs.

This scene is just one of the many unique, weirdly beautiful elements of Expedition to the End of the World. Director Daniel Dencik accompanied the Activ on its tour of Greenland, specifically the fjords that have recently become navigable due to rising temperatures. The team of experts on the ship, a three-mast schooner evocative of the Age of Exploration, is a motley crew of Danish adventurers that includes a geologist, a geochemist, a marine biologist, painters, photographers and an archaeologist who has actually been attacked by a polar bear.

This is, first and foremost, an exploration. The scientists are out to discover new species, learn from the ice-preserved geology of the island and maybe even find evidence of prehistoric human settlement. The artists, meanwhile, are there for inspiration. The two groups engage in a lot of high-minded conversation about their work, idly and often drolly poking at the nature of knowledge. Some varied conclusions are drawn, but the important thing is the juxtaposition of these fields, crammed together on the same boat. Art and science are in many ways the same mission, Expedition at the End of the World joining the conversation that was started earlier this year by Tim’s Vermeer and continued by What Now? Remind Me.

Yet alongside all of this collaboration, Dencik also explores the way this particular expedition is caught in something of a theoretical gulf. On the one hand there is the excitement over the trip north, the possibility of seeing the polar bear and the new opportunities offered by a landscape being uncovered by rising temperatures. On the other, however, the polar bears themselves are becoming more scarce. Richter’s excitement for the future, his assertion that everything will be fine if we just take advantage of the warmer weather and invade Switzerland, is entertaining but not entirely convincing. A catastrophe that humanity manages to survive is still a catastrophe.

Dencik has structured the film around these conflicting ideas, balancing the spirit of adventure with the accompanying sense of loss. Expedition to the End of the World is an erratic collection of conversations, discoveries and moments of pure natural beauty. The transitions can be very abrupt, preventing our sense of wonder from falling into complacency. Marine biologist Katrine Worsaae’s joy at her examination of a new microscopic marine species is given as much attention as the towering, violent footage of icebergs breaking apart. Even the soundtrack bounces between brash, adventurous optimism and quiet mourning. Dencik uses both the Lacrymosa from Mozart’s Requiem and Metallica, perhaps the polar opposites of Western music.

As the film spurts in different directions, like the spray of the ocean off the sides of the Activ, all manner of thoughts and ideas arise. Photographer Per Bak Jensen even tries to diagram the meaning of life onto a piece of paper. Concerns are raised about what humanity’s role on earth is in the first place. At times the scope of Expedition to the End of the World seems as broad as all of time and space, refracted through the minds of these Danish prospectors.

At the same time, however, there is always the danger of becoming stuck. The Activ has a limited window before the winter arrives and the ice closes things up. Captain Jonas Bergsøe, the ship’s principal realist, fears the worst. The climax of the film is not brought about by scientific discovery or artistic inspiration, but by a very terrestrial threat to the mobility of the Activ herself. This grand metaphor, bolstered by the impending doom of this pristine but immensely violent atmosphere of tumbling ice, beckons us toward a future without any discernible resolution.

Expedition to the End of the World is now playing at the Film Forum in New York City.

Daniel is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, The Brooklyn Rail, Indiewire, and Dok.Revue.