REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER/For 21st Century Media
“Antarctica: A Year on Ice” provides an intimate portrait of life on that faraway continent. Gorgeous footage of the virtually pristine location is well-complemented by interviews of several intrepid residents.
Even in prehistoric times, our ancient ancestors had visual evidence of the moon and most of the planets in the solar system. However, the existence of any detached land masses in the far southern latitudes was a matter of sheer speculation.
Following his circumnavigation of Australia in 1803, the English explorer, Captain Matthew Flinders vigorously postulated that no detached land mass existed further south. This notion was adopted by cartographers, as evidenced by their design of contemporaneous world maps. It was not until 1820 that the continent of Antarctica was first espied by human beings and its existence thereby confirmed. The term, “Antarctica,” did not appear on maps until the 1890s. Even today, there are portions of the continent that have never been tread upon by a human being.
During the summer, scientists from twenty-eight different countries descend on Antarctica to conduct research. This specialized research cannot be done anywhere else on the planet. The continent’s population swells to approximately 5,000.
However, come winter time, the research is shut down and the scientific entourages depart from the continent. The population plummets down to a hearty crew of 700 non-scientists. They maintain the infrastructure of the bases and conduct a requisite inventory of supplies.
“Antarctica” is set at McMurdo Station, one of the U.S. bases there. It is located in the shadow of Mt. Erabus, an active volcano. The station is far larger than any other research facility on the continent. It can accommodate as many as 1,200 people.
The film’s co-screenwriter/director/producer, Anthony Powell, should be lauded in several regards. First and foremost, he deserves credit for his willingness to endure the inescapably harsh circumstances of living in Antarctica for a full year. This sacrifice was necessary to enable him to capture the stark seasonal variations. There feature four sunless months in the winter and four without night in the summer.
Over the course of 15 years, Powell has spent 100 months living in Antarctica, including nine winters. He did derive a mitigating benefit from his time there. He met a woman who became his wife. Footage of the ceremony, replete with faux flowers composed of paper, is part of the film.
Powell designed camera equipment that could withstand the brutal cold and winds of Antarctica. His use of time lapse photography captured its stunning natural beauty. Scenes of an Antarctic sky, when it is illuminated by a green light phenomenon, embody a poetic majesty. At another juncture, the wind reaches hurricane-strength speeds of 222 miles per hour. The walls of the compound shake scarily as if they are about to be ripped to shreds. Powell feels compelled to interject an apology for the fact that the footage from his tripod-mounted camera has become jumpy.
Powell did a good job of selecting interviewees. All of them are non-scientists, who are spending an entire, uninterrupted year in Antarctica. They consist of regular people, including a fireman, a chef, a dispatcher, a member of the administrative staff, and an employee of the retail store. Each of them is articulate, accessible, and engaging. They provide a nice human touch and prevent the film from devolving into a generic science film.
One interviewee describes her surprise, when she discovers that beneath the Antarctic sky, one can actually see the stars twinkle as they change color. Touchingly, the woman wishes that she could share this beautiful sight with her loved ones. Another recounts savoring the pleasure of hearing absolute silence when the wind dies down. He compares it with the ubiquitous noise pollution he had grown accustomed to. Several discuss the tension between year-round residents and what they regard as summertime interlopers.
“Antarctica” fails to address certain interesting issues. The United States maintains a military base there, but the film fails to acknowledge its existence or clarify the nature of the interactions of civilian contractors with armed forces personnel. The film depicts nary a single Afrocentric individual. Is this an accurate representation? If so, why is that the case? What about sexual tensions and frustrations that arise within this mixed gender population, who live in confined quarters? To what extent does an increased level of remuneration provide an impetus for individuals to work in Antarctica? How intensive is the psychological screening for applicants to work in these harrowing circumstances? These matters arouse curiosity. However, the filmmaker’s decision not to explore them does not detract from the finished product.
Do yourself a favor. Don’t depart without seeing the post-credits footage. The bulk of the film celebrates the splendor of Antarctica. In the epilogue, various year-long residents are asked what they will do first when they return to civilization. Interviewees speak wistfully about how they will devour avocados, visit a botanical garden to savor its smells, or go fly fishing for salmon. It is a poignant reminder of the simple pleasures that the residents of Antarctica must forego.
“Antarctica” is a visually stunning documentary, full of eye-popping footage. It does an excellent job of providing insights into the challenges and rewards of working on the remote continent.
“Antarctica” ***1/2 PG (for mild thematic elements and language) 91 minutes
Film critic Nathan Lerner sees more than 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.