A feeble follow-up punch to Japan after The Cove, At the Edge of the World follows the 3rd Antarctic Campaign of “eco-terrorist” and “pirate” outfit the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society to halt Japan’s whaling in the South Pole. Led by Paul Watson, Sea Shepherd’s two-boat, 46-person team searches 370,000 miles of the Ross Sea to find Japan’s whaling fleet, whose practice of hunting the engendered mammals under the guise of “scientific research” (killing them for meat was internationally outlawed in 1986) is recapped in a hasty intro montage of news clips and talking-head soundbites. Director Dan Stone provides so little background on Japan’s cultural whaling traditions or Sea Shepherd’s 30-year history that his drama becomes not only simplistically black and white but also woefully thin. The specific motivations and life paths that led Sea Shepherd’s volunteers to the treacherous Antarctic waters aboard ships prone to ramming whaling vessels is never made clear. Instead, the film maintains focus on its subjects’ high seas search for Japan’s bad guys, a narrative crux that provides moderate suspense but, once man-overboard complications and maritime confrontations ensue, little substantive payoff.
Aside from director Stone cutting to a shot of a boat’s hull arduously plowing through ice while Watson discusses the numerous advantages Japan’s well-funded, high-tech fleet has over his own, the doc sidesteps canny directorial gestures in favor of straightforward verité footage of the life aquatic (seasickness, camaraderie, occasional encounters with nature’s wonders). It’s an approach that’s generally functional save for a perplexing portrait of Sea Shepherd’s actual anti-whaling tactics, which are hardly explained ahead of time and, once depicted, prove somewhat obscure. Incapable of matching The Cove‘s espionage thrills or ability to engender outrage over mammal slaughter, Stone’s film ultimately wends its way to an anticlimactic conclusion that, reliant on seemingly unsubstantiated statistics—how was it determined that this operation saved 500 whales?—fails to properly propagandize and, in the process, illustrates the potential pitfalls of making a documentary about an event without much of a noteworthy outcome.