Washed up upon the shores of northern Greenland, a ragtag collection of scientists and artists wander the wild and untamed landscape. A beautiful and incredibly quirky documentary, Expedition to the End of the World (2013), directed by Daniel Dencik, takes viewers to an area of the planet that has never before been captured by cameras. Equipped with tools of their trades and razor sharp wits, the expedition group whiles away their time undertaking research, exploration and pondering the meaning of life.
Thanks to climate change, for a few months out of the year, the ice around the northern Greenlandic coast begins to melt. This process creates a passageway for ships to make it through to the shore. Desperate to discover what lies behind these blocked, frozen corridors, a crew including a marine biologist, geologist, zoologist, and photographer sail in on the Activ, a three-mast schooner, and brave the wastes.
This unexpectedly funny film succeeds because it focuses in on the human element, rather than any new scientific discoveries. As such, we get to know the crew, and their various observations about life, nature and death. Their respective views make this film a compelling viewing experience. The musings of the artists in particular are comedic gold. When discussing the roles of professionals, they note that the artist is the only profession that can get away with not knowing. In a world where it is everyone’s job to know something, the artist must search the unknown… “The artist is an idiot!” they proudly proclaim.
Climate change is a big force in the film, and is often brought up by the scientists on board the ship. As the geologist takes samples of permafrost, he notes that in the next few decades, rising temperatures will continue to eat away at it, and forever change the frozen landscape. They also visit the plight of the polar bear. After finding footprints scattered around the ice, the crew eventually discovers a bear breaking into what appears to be a research cabin. The zoologist notes that the polar bear will most likely soon be extinct. As the ice breaks up, the bears will no longer be able to hunt seals, and will have to return to land, a venture that will most likely be their end.
The harsh landscapes of northern Greenland are intensely beautiful. The crewmembers are often framed as specks upon the vast horizon. All around them are towering mountains, desolate plains, and monstrous icebergs. This is a land of giants. The film’s soundtrack attends to the feeling of anxiety brought forth by the sheer enormity of Nature and space. We are pummeled by a soundscape of opera, electronica and heavy metal, all of which perfectly suits the majestic and often times frightening scenery. These confrontations, with the scope of Nature, fuel some of their more poignant thoughts on life and death.
Death, and the end of all things, is a common theme in the film. Over the course of the documentary we see musk ox corpses, the remains of ancient civilizations, and a whole lot of empty space. Being surrounded by such vast beauty inspires the crew to look into the meaning of life and death. Many open up about their thoughts of Nature and our species’ inability to comprehend the tiny blip of human existence. The sheer randomness and meaningless of our actions is often remarked upon. One scientist notes that we cannot live our life with this knowledge, and must hide it away, lest we dissolve into madness. The only comfort provided throughout this strange voyage is presented by the ever thoughtful zoologist: even after humans have gone and left their mark, the earth will still prevail, vast and mighty as ever.