I was told there would be more penguins... well, not actually. The modern-day explorers in this Danish doc are actually headed north, not to Antarctica, though it must be said that Werner Herzog’s far superior Encounters at the End of the World casts a long antipodal shadow here. Another problem? Not enough snow; nor are there any maps to show where our research schooner is headed, which turns out to be the northeast coast of Greenland, not the thawing Northwest Passage. Polar bears are tantalizingly promised, but elusive.
So, short of adventure, what is this voyage about? In English and Danish, the ship’s scientists and artists discuss their different methods. One side, in director Daniel Dencik’s dialectic scheme, is supposed to illuminate the other. Sorry to say, I don’t see it. The scientists are a pragmatic lot: drilling core samples of permafrost; dredging up new species of sea-dwelling worms; searching for remnants of Stone Age encampments during Greenland’s long-ago warm spell (which could well be returning, as several note). The artists take photos and make sketches, but they’re too self-conscious in their roles. You get the sense that all of them have seen Encounters and—when the camera turns to them—are anxiously worrying, “What would Werner say?”
Both parties speak often of evolution and adaptation, of the geologic change embedded in the fossils, ice, and seawater below. Given such silence, the absence of ringing cell phones (though not of the ship’s stereo system), and the grandeur of the fjords, the talk inevitably turns philosophical. Even if Dencik’s conceit is somewhat forced, it has the effect of concentrating the mind on cosmic matters—perhaps like the campfire musings of those ancient Stone Age settlers.
Finally we see a polar bear! Only instead of a majestic killer, he’s reduced to burglarizing fishing shacks, perhaps because the changing environment has already reduced his natural supply of seals and ice. The explorers pass by, heading home to snug Copenhagen, and you can almost imagine the sad bear thinking, “Take me with you!” Runs Fri., Aug. 29–Thurs., Sept. 4 at Northwest Film Forum. Not rated. 90 minutes.