Antarctica: A Year on Ice (2013)
Editor’s Note: Antarctica: A Year is now out in limited theatrical release.
In Antarctica, August is the coldest time of the year. McMurdo Station, the largest of several bases on the continent, houses up to 1200 employees during the warmer months, while only a handful remain behind in the mid-year winter. Filmmaker Anthony Powell has worked as a radio engineer in Antarctica for over a decade, filming the amazing landscapes with homemade camera rigs and recording devices meant to operate even as temperatures approach -60 degrees celsius. The result of his years of work is Antarctica: A Year on Ice, a fascinating study of isolation, camaraderie and strength in one of the harshest and most beautiful places on earth.
The interviews are charming, but often are conducted with such a narrow focus that we end up with very little insight …
“Make sure never to confuse your pee bottle with your water bottle,” Powell informs us in his weary deadpan as he hikes out to a massive, untouched expanse of ice and rock. There’s a real sense that, even during the height of the summer season, there’s a lack of socialization amongst those on the continent. Interviews with Powell’s co-workers run the gamut from those who prefer to be isolated to those who seem to just barely tolerate it. Everyone, however, gets a little nutty, as reflected in the film’s slightly off-kilter narration, things said that in a social situation would probably raise an eyebrow or two.
Still, there’s a camaraderie there, a shared sense of preservation and the understanding that they are among a small handful of people who will ever breathe that pure, frozen air. The human connections in the film are strong, but the audience is always kept at arm’s length. Very little is said about their jobs beyond vague descriptions and plenty of footage of shipping containers, crates and boxes. The interviews are charming, but often are conducted with such a narrow focus that we end up with very little insight; instead, we get a list of their likes, their dislikes, and everything they miss about the world on the other continents.
Nearly everyone, including the narrator, is self-consciously speaking to an imaginary audience throughout, and some interviewees handle it better than others. Similarly, there’s a fine line between lighthearted moments and hamming for the camera, and Powell crosses that line more than once. It’s less a sign of inexperience than an unconscious distancing tactic, however. The same isolation and hibernation instincts that grip the workers in Antarctica during those long, cold months seeps into the film itself. Antarctica wants to connect both with its subjects and with the audience, but doesn’t seem to know how.
Powell’s fantastic photography has appeared in a handful of nature specials over the years, but early on Antarctica declares itself as a different breed than those television shows, and it is.
Powell’s fantastic photography has appeared in a handful of nature specials over the years, but early on Antarctica declares itself as a different breed than those television shows, and it is. The astonishing time-lapse cinematography is the biggest treat in Antarctica: A Year on Ice. Expertly edited and expansive in scope, the landscapes (and occasional penguin horde) are glorious. Frequently presented without context or indication of the time span, these long, flowing sequences capture the beauty of Antarctica while also sparking the imagination. It’s a discovered land, much of it mapped and measured and scientifically prodded, yet still mythical and intangible. There’s real enchantment in the snow and the sky, a magic so strong the camera does not merely capture it, but revels in it.
Antarctica: A Year on Ice is a fascinating study of isolation, camaraderie and strength in one of the harshest and most beautiful places on earth.