Frantic storytelling lessens the grandeur of ‘Antarctica’You almost can’t go wrong with a good nature documentary. Especially if the location is some wild, exotic place rarely captured on the big screen. A place that feels deeply foreign to our familiar everyday experience—like, say, Antarctica, the coldest and southernmost point on the planet, where the sun never quite sets for half the year, followed by four long months of night.
Werner Herzog journeyed there to film his 2009 doc, Encounters at the End of the World, which sprang mostly from Herzog’s outsider’s perspective and his own ambivalence to nature. It was also the setting for the excellent Japanese film, The Chef of South Polar (it opened the Pacific Rim Film Festival in 2010), a fiction film based on the true story of a young Japanese Coast Guard cook on a year-long assignment in Antarctica cooking for a research team.
But New Zealander Anthony Powell’s new doc, Antarctica: A Year On Ice, captures an insider’s perspective like no other. An electronics engineer who services essential communication devices all year long at the various research bases, Powell knows the area on and around Ross Island, its residents, and their lifestyle. Powell met his future wife, Christine, and married her on Ross Island (it was so cold that all the flowers had to be hand-made). It took him 10 years to make the film, including the time he spent building a camera that could withstand extreme cold for long periods so he could shoot time-lapse photography.
And the vistas he captures are extraordinary—gigantic ice formations in the vast, white nothing, frozen and/or melting oceans, skies ablaze with color, immense starfields that look like a million glittering diamonds. Along the way, interview snippets—with rangers, firefighters, cooks, researchers, technicians—provide insight into life on McMurdo Station (U.S.) and Scott Base (NZ), across a bay from each other, and other even more remote outposts. No pets or children are allowed on McMurdo Station, we’re told; life is too extreme. And tolerance is crucial. As a result, one woman tells us, “Nations get along better in Antarctica than anywhere else in the world.”
If Powell would only relax and let us bask in the strangeness and the beauty of it all, his film would be so effective. But his fondness for time-lapse photography literally runs away with the movie. Shadows and sunlight race across the ice, the sun skips to the edge of the horizon, and then pops back out. Over, and over, and over again, armies of penguins bounce across the snowfield in double-time, and residents swarm in and out of the mess hall with the amped-up jerkiness of characters in a silent movie comedy.
There are almost no scenes where viewers are allowed to simply sit and ponder the wonder of the place. And this is nearly fatal to Powell’s grand design, since he’s trying to show us what’s unique about the Antarctica experience—the stillness, for one thing. And the profound silence. Several of the residents cite the absence of familiar things—the sound of rainfall and animals (wildlife disappears as soon as the sea freezes over every year); the smell of flowers and even dirt. But for a movie that wants us to appreciate stillness and silence, Powell’s busy filmmaking is too frenetic.
Powell also assumes a certain level of viewer familiarity with aspects of his story that he neglects to explain. When an awed researcher describes “green waves of fairy dust across the sky,” duly captured by Powell’s camera, we suppose it’s the Aurora Borealis, although we’re never told. At the Midwinter Holiday, which breaks up the dark months, residents “celebrate the goals that brought us all here,” but nobody tells us what they are. Powell sets out in a lumbering land vehicle for a six-hour journey that normally takes 10 minutes by air (helicopters can’t fly in the intensely cold winter months), but the thread is completely abandoned as the film marches on.
It’s a marvelous-looking film with images you won’t see anywhere else. But Powell should have gotten a grip on his storytelling, provided context when necessary, and trusted the grandeur of his subject without the tricks.
ANTARCTICA: A YEAR ON ICE
**1/2 (out of four).
A documentary by Anthony Powell. A Music Box Films release. Rated PG. 92 minutes.