by Lee Purvey
Antarctica: A Year on Ice is less a film about a place than it is about the people that inhabit it. Giving little context as to the scientific importance or political history of the continent encircling the South Pole, Antarctica is a loving documentation of a strange and demanding life by one of the thousands of non-scientists who have experienced it.
Director Anthony Powell is a communications worker at the McMurdo Station, the American research facility that supports the largest population (about 1,200 people during the more active summer season) of any community on the continent. Over the course of 10 years working on the continent, Powell tells us in the documentary’s opening voiceover, he has been collecting footage of the natural, domestic, and professional environment in and around McMurdo.
Director: Anthony Powell
Producer: Anthony Powell
Writers: Anthony Powell, Simon Price
Cinematographer: Anthony Powell
Editor: Simon Price
Music: David Donaldson, Plan 9, Steve Roche, Janet Roddick
Cast: Genevieve Bachman, Michael Christiansen, Tom Hamann, George Lampman, Peter Lund, Keri Nelson, Casey O'Brien, Christine Powell, David Prutsman, Josh Swanson, Andrew Velman
Country: New Zealand
Premiere: July 21, 2013 – New Zealand International Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: November 28, 2014
US Distributor: Music Box Films
As the title suggests, A Year on Ice takes the calendar year as its narrative parameters, passing through the busy summer season--when the majority of the scientific work done on the continent occurs—and the long, dark winter, noting the various landmarks commemorated by residents of the Station along the way. Some are important functionally, such as the departure of the last flight of the summer—residents’ last chance to get out before settling in for the long winter season. Others—like the musical celebration “Icestock” or the Antarctic Film Festival—speak more to the unique culture of those who choose to live there.
Owing to this simple structure, Antarctica doesn’t have much in terms of a conventional story arc, even for a documentary. Other than a brief but very surreal diversion into the story of Powell’s Antarctic marriage to wife Christine, we learn little about the personal life of the residents we meet (mostly in filmed interviews). What we are left with is something of an informal ethnography, with Powell’s story of the Antarctic experience building by accumulation rather than action.
But Antarctica’s lack of dramatic urgency and narrative progress shouldn’t really be a problem. Indeed, its quirky, understated mood should be perfectly suited to its topic: a wild and difficult place and the average folks who make the exceptional choice to live there. What the film lacks more than anything is personality.
Antarctica leans heavily on a fairly limited bag of visual tricks. First among these is time-lapse photography, which Powell says “brings to life the dynamic forces of nature that you can feel and sense around you, but you can’t actually see.” These images are, indeed, quite beautiful: a glowing orange sun racing sideways, just inches above the horizon; hulking floes of ice colliding, shattering, and scurrying away over vivid blue waters. Standing alone, or perhaps wed to a more considered scientific examination of Antarctica as a natural environment, these images could work, but the more Antarctica immerses itself in the peculiar and charming world of the locals—wherein lies the film’s real energy—the more irrelevant the landscape footage feels. And Powell's stubborn reliance on the exact same time-lapse shtick to document everything from a colony of penguins playing in the sun to a hulking freighter unloading its goods at McMurdo grows quickly tiresome (the YouTube-ish quality of many of the shots, which Powell clearly set up and “acted” in himself, is equally laughable).
Powell certainly deserves some credit for choosing to focus on the quotidian here, rather than the cosmic, the scientific, the political. At one point, Powell references a phrase apparently common among the women of Antarctica: “The odds are good, but the goods are odd.” The aphorism actually has a broader application than the romantic—the McMurdo residents we meet, of both genders, present a charming array of good-humored idiosyncrasy and dreamy philosophy. Whether describing the terrible loneliness of a winter at McMurdo or relishing a fresh apple off the first freighter of the summer season, Powell’s interviewees are a consistently sincere, articulate, and hilarious bunch, and through their eyes one really does start to get a sense of life on the continent, however fleeting.
As the curator, then, of a sometimes zany, frequently touching hodgepodge of personal perspectives and regular moments, Powell is successful; but, considering the general lack of cinematic creativity in the presentation of these items, you get the sense this is more a matter of luck than deliberate direction.
What Antarctica lacks is an inventive vision to tie these pieces together: some sense of coherence in tone or pacing, a surprising shot, transition, or theme. While many of these people seem like adequate subjects for a documentary of their own, here their stories lack momentum and depth. With just enough energy to maintain the viewer’s interest, they fail to assemble into any sort of compelling whole.
Clocking in at 91 minutes, the visually tired and topically haphazard Antarctica: A Year on Ice feels like its has about as much to say as a 40-minute television episode. Despite the frequent beauty of his shots, Powell’s semi-amateur status becomes quickly apparent, as a promising examination of an outwardly foreign but utterly human experience turns into a sluggish trek through the calendar. Could have used a time-lapse.