Toward the end of Expedition to the End of the World, the film’s ragtag group of Danish scientists and artists explore a shack that has been ransacked by a polar bear. Amid the debris, one scientist picks up a stray sheet of paper torn from a Reader’s Digest and reads aloud: “Jacob had been depressed all summer without knowing why.” He and his peers, dwarfed by the snow-capped mountains of northern Greenland, share a laugh. It’s funny, to an extent: Amid these barely-chartered, consistently awe-inspiring hinterlands, everyday ennui seems a little silly. Even in its humor, though, Expedition to the End of the World can’t help but betray a dim interest in humanity. As it insists on taking a long view on climatic and geological trends, it reduces its human subjects to an interchangeable set of amateur philosophers. Like the film, they’re all a lot more interesting when they’re not trying to be.
Director Daniel Dencik doesn’t seem hip to this irony, but he certainly has a sense of humor, playing with extremes and contrasting the sacred with the goofy. He lightly mocks the conventions of the environmental advocacy documentary by transitioning from dramatic footage of crumbling walls of ice, scored to Mozart’s Requiem, to a guy tapping his feet to the beat of a blaring, non-diegetic Metallica song. Truly spectacular, untainted hi-definition vistas give way to dirty GoPro footage of a ship trying to crush through ice sheets. (Somewhere in here, Dencik also more or less recreates the opening shot of The Shining.) The filmmaker underlines how alien human beings are—and should—seem in these environs. One explorer trips while scrambling up a rock, and his rifle goes off. Another sits on his drill, legs jiggling, as he tries to weigh down his machinery.
Much of this is wryly amusing, but Expedition to the End of the World never really figures out whether it wants to have a point or not. The trek the film documents has “no clear scientific goal”; it’s an “opportunity” taken advantage of. Melting Arctic sea ice has left a stretch of Greenland newly accessible for a few weeks every year, and the film’s assembled cast were allowed on board a gorgeous wooden schooner to pursue goals related to their own professional fields. In this context, global warming isn’t a primary concern (“It heats up, so what?” one guy says, seeing an emigration to Mongolia in the future), but a late cameo by a ship looking to drill for oil in the Arctic still leads to a lot of anti-capitalist shit-talking.
Most of the film transpires as a series of pseudo-aphoristic declarations by its assemblage of professors, researchers, and scenic artists—travel writing by academics who strive to seem detached from worldly concerns. A couple of its insights are pungent: One artist discusses his craft as the only one about “being good at not knowing something,” in contrast to his scientist friends trying to assimilate tiny pieces of data, but most are broad or bland. “We are but a parenthesis in the development of Earth,” one helpfully points out. Another remarks, “Who wouldn’t want to be a bird?” Expedition to the End of the World is a visual pleasure, refreshingly free of message or structure, but it leaves an aftertaste similar to that of an awkward party spent among intellectuals: You leave uncertain whether everyone in the room was smarter than you, or just better at pretending they’re smarter than you are. The film becomes either hilarious or self-parodic when one researcher says he’ll “go down to the saloon and write down the meaning of life,” and then proceeds to do just that. His peers look on, offering tips for revision.