Man’s impact on nature is viewed from a European arthouse perspective in “Expedition to the End of the World,” Danish filmmaker Daniel Dencik’s documentary account of a contemporary schooner crew’s voyage to Greenland’s farthest reaches. Make that perspectives, plural. The crew’s eclectic mix of scientists, artists, and philosophers offer existentially gloomy climate change predictions, but also some surprisingly sanguine and even witty musings on the cosmic circle of life and our capacity to adapt. It might not be quite the “adventure film” that the press materials promise, but it’s a diverting enough variation on familiar environmental-crisis studies.
Dropping us right in, Dencik furnishes only the barest details about the group and their mission. We don’t get their CVs, or any particulars on who’s funding them, or even their names. They’re simply identified as “A Marine Biologist,” “An Artist,” “The Geologist,” etc., and all we’re told is that melting ice in northeast Greenland has given them a small window for accessing unexplored fjords. (Production notes explain that the geologist, University of Copenhagen professor Minik Rosing, organized the expedition after receiving an offer to sail the 60-year-old schooner Activ somewhere free of charge.)
The lyrically photographed territory they’re investigating is a land and seascape that’s barren and beautifully harsh, all collapsing massifs, rocky shores, and craggy peaks. (Love the audio incursion metaphor that plays along on the soundtrack: choral music that jarringly transitions to Metallica riffs.) It’s also a land full of mystery — some of which feels like it’s really all about Dencik’s minimalist approach. How is it that this “unexplored” region shows traces of a Stone Age settlement? Or what about the polar bear-ravaged prefab hut they come across? Or the oil company drilling-exploration ship? This last scene sets up one of the unexpected debates the film presents: while art photographer Per Bak Jensen is appalled, Rosing considers the role fossil fuels have played in global food distribution and eradicating hunger.
If there’s a hint of hyperbole about the location, it’s nevertheless sufficiently removed from civilization that there’s ample time for all to hang around and voice deep thoughts. Archaeologist Jens Fog Jensen wonders whether it’s not simply man’s understandable path, “the human project,” to distance ourselves from nature. Resident cutup Daniel Richter, a cig-puffing artist with a Jeff Goldblum vibe, takes a learn-to-adapt view and quips, “We’re all clinging nostalgically to our state of life now: ‘Oh no, we need two cars!’ Well, maybe we need a raft.” Rosing smilingly contends that for all our environmental concerns, the planet will survive us and our fretting by eons, thanks very much. And photographer Jensen notes that once his chilly watch on deck is through he’s heading below decks to have a drink and write down the meaning of life. We chuckle — but this being the Danes’ spin on the “Inconvenient Truth” genre, he does just that.