Werner Herzog, who has been making memorable documentaries ever since the 1970s, has dedicated himself more than perhaps any filmmaker alive to the proposition that truth is the new fiction a realm not merely of drama but of mystery and enchantment and imaginative power. When Herzog stares at reality, he sees the uncanny. In Encounters at the End of the World, he takes his cameras to the most extreme corner of the planet: Antarctica, a place that looks sculpted by some pretty unfriendly gods. It's a subzero dreamscape of spooky, desolate majesty.
There, he finds a community of flaked-out scientist-drifters, almost all of whom are still carrying the shaggy renegade spirit of the '70s. For a while, Herzog hangs around a settlement called McMurdo, which is like some industrial mining village. But then he enters the awesome terrain the glaciers as high as mountains and as vast (literally) as Texas; the ancient water world that lies beneath the ice. The divers refer to this ocean-with-a-ceiling as a ''cathedral,'' and when the movie takes us down there, we can see why. The configurations are like lunar basilicas made of frozen blasts of crystal. The stunning images aren't enough for Herzog, though. He wants us to see how these quirky researchers, in their lust to explore, are acting out a drive as primitive as nature: the need to break away from the world in order to find it. A