The Dark Cold and Empty Desolation
Bigger than either Europe or Australia, the coldest (-128.6º F), highest average-elevation continent, once free of ice as part of super Gondwanaland, and the windiest and nearly driest place on Earth, Antarctica was suspected to exist as Ptolemy’s Terra Australis Incognita but not sighted by man until 1820. Today claimed by seven different nations, it houses twelve countries’ half a hundred scientific stations for peaceful investigation only. On Ross Island, the U.S.’s McMurdo is the largest, home to twelve hundred summer people and less than half that number in winter, and offers perforce Aristotle’s unity of place setting for Antarctica: A Year on Ice.
Anthony “Antz” Powell introduces his documentary while sloshing among cows back in New Zealand. Ninety-two film minutes later, following twelve months working in and around that base where he meets and marries wife Christine, he boards a black Air Force transport return flight home. This is no $10,000 tourism trophy trip, since those flown in and moved around on “’Ivan’ the Terra Bus” come to work, some on science or maintenance, others on cooking, cafeteria and canteen services, and still others on never explained “Firehouse Antarctica.” Print-identified by first name-slash-job, they are individuals several of whom address the camera a number of times yet, emphasized often, no more than parts of the winterlong isolated collective -- no planes at all, and Ron/Helicopter pilot has no desire to be there then, either -- that mechanistically and socially is forced to function and get along as almost a single being.
Special cameras had to be designed that would function in conditions so adverse that they need to be seen and heard to be appreciated: bone-dry (mostly) cold beyond imagining, hurricane-force winds that bowl people over and move equipment, dangerous and at times impassable terrain, and zero-visibility whiteout caused not by falling new snow (of which there is little) but by storm-whipped flakes and crystals. Powell also ventures out to check on communication posts but, true to the spirit of his film, neither dominates nor appears all that often.
Taken together, the others, his enforced souls on ice companions, convey the idea of community, of the adventurousness one must possess to come down in the first place and of the personality traits one needs to stay and bear it out -- no mention is made of the suicides that do occur during the five-month winter blackout. Far from almost anywhere else’s light and sound pollution, some thrive on the silence and darkness. Like resort townies back home, some resent the intrusion on “their space” when the summer crowd arrive. Most do miss family and celebration like the birth of a niece, or smells as of dirt and flowers, and speak of walking barefoot in the park or of foods they would die for, which one male says replaces sex and prominently among which figures fruit, especially, unexpectedly but often, avocados.
Animals of course are in the picture, Adélie penguins more than others, though winter hardship drastically reduces their numbers as well. There are sequences devoted to these cuddly non-humans who are observed, allowed in cases to die in the natural cycle of things but not anthropomorphized or narrator-condescended to. Time-lapse is a tad too ubiquitous, but the technique is a plus in conveying the ferocious beauty of this land and its skies whose constant changes might pass unnoticed if imaged just separate moment to moment. Whirling curtains of auroras and more stars than can be imagined, a Milky Way that looks almost solid yet fabulous beyond dreams, sun-rises and –sets between dark scudding clouds above and horizon below, or moving clouds aflame against ghost wisps of chimney-smoke.
Antarctica: A Year on Ice is only for the very fortunate very few to experience in the flesh, but here on the screen for the lucky many, in warmth and comfort.
(Released by Music Box Films and rated "PG" for mild thematic elements and language.)