Antarctica: A Year on Ice
Opens Fri., Nov. 28 at Varsity. Rated PG. 91 minutes.
First-time filmmaker Anthony Powell takes what might be called the anti-Werner Herzog approach to penguins in this fond documentary tribute to our southernmost continent. As viewers generally prefer, penguins are allowed to be cute and uncomplicated, unlike in Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World, where they were disdainfully treated as symbols of man’s tendency to romanticize nature. Herzog, it must be said, was a mere tourist in Antarctica—unlike Powell, who’s worked there on and off for 15 years (filming all the while; he’s a self-taught photographer and director). Powell has even spent nine long, sunless winters in Antarctica, where he also met and married his wife. So he brings a practical insider’s expertise to both the climate (cold, austere, and often beautiful) and human society (close, confined, and often claustrophobic) of the place.
While Powell is a New Zealander who lives and works on a much smaller base than the American McMurdo Station, the same seasonal cycles drive both man and penguin. Summer brings some 5,000 scientists and workers to the continent on massive cargo planes, while a maintenance population of only 700 remains in winter. Powell is a satellite and communications repair guy, and he focuses his interviews not on noble scientists but on the background staff, almost like Walmart workers on the ice. We hear from a store clerk, a fireman, a helicopter pilot, and so forth. As with Powell’s own narration, their remarks aren’t philosophical or Herzogian. One winter-over veteran says the arriving summer throngs appear “orange” to her—so pale are the year-rounders by comparison. Another speaks of craving fresh fruit, even just the smell of it. (“I’ve been thinking about avocadoes lately.”)
Powell embraces the Antarctic scenery, but also the quotidian life of his fellow workers. Their community vibe suggests small-town Alaska, particularly during the annual Christmas festival (this during summer, when the sun never sets). Whatever takes place later at night in the bars; stories of less-lasting relationships than his own; the cabin fever—these he declines to show in this pleasant, rather anodyne doc. And having made a specialty of time-lapse photography (some series last for days), Powell does not shy away from the beauty shots, which will please armchair adventurers. He shows us aerial vistas of the oddly snow-free Dry Valleys region (its climate close to that of Mars, we’re told), captures the eerie green aurora borealis (like a Hollywood special effect, but not), and documents the damage winter storms can do (considerable).
And again, there are penguins frolicking on the snowy shores, in case you missed that particular selling point.