Examining life at the bottom of the world.
Midway through Antarctica: A Year on Ice, a wrestling match breaks out. What's at stake? A banana. The tussle is friendly, but it conveys a lot about life on the southernmost continent. Supplies aren't replenished during the brutal winter, so when a ship finally arrives bearing fresh fruit, giddiness sets in.
It's one of many lively moments in this quirky documentary. The producer, director and photographer is the New Zealander Anthony Powell, a first-time feature filmmaker whose work as a communications engineer helps keep Antarctic bases in touch with each other and with the rest of the world.
Scientific research goes on at the bases, but that's not Powell's subject. He turns his camera on the everyday workers who support the scientists. We meet office staffers and emergency personnel. We meet the chef and a woman who sells chocolate and cigarettes at one of the world's most remote retail outlets. These people talk about the hardships they endure, and also their rewards. Among the latter: the satisfaction of contributing to work that benefits everyone, in the context of peaceful international cooperation. They also enjoy views of the stunning scenery, including the night sky. There are plenty of opportunities for that: For much of the year, the sun doesn't rise.
Many sequences are shot using time-lapse photography. Powell clearly is proud of his time-lapse techniques. He describes them at some length in a prologue, and in even greater detail in the press kit. He says the effect captures something ineffable about Antarctica, and I believe him. The scenery is arresting and unearthly, and the sight of clouds scudding swiftly over the frozen landscapes, of aurora undulating in the night sky is undeniably stirring.
But the time-lapse sequences become distracting. There are too many, including shots of less-glorious movements, like the loading of supplies into a warehouse. Some sequences remind me of the documentaries Koyaanisqatsi and Rivers and Tides, which likewise feature time-lapse nature photography. But in those films, the effect is in the service of striking artistic visions. I mentioned that Powell is an engineer. Antarctica: A Year on Ice seems like a movie made by an engineer. His technique is dazzling, but the film doesn't reflect a keen artistic sensibility. His approach to presenting the material is scattershot.
Werner Herzog filmed similarly bleak, wintry landscapes in his documentary Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, about Siberian fur trappers. He also conveyed searing truths about people, family, work, survival, history and death. All those elements appear at least fleetingly in Antarctica: A Year on Ice. They could have been shaped into something spectacular.