Antarctica: A Year on Ice review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
In one of the most heartbreaking scenes from Antarctica: A Year on Ice, a seal helplessly tries to find water even though it is miles away from the nearest lake or ocean. Flopping along the snow and ice, it cries out for help. The crews working there can do nothing as it would interfere with nature. Another scenes features a group of penguins walking around amid rivers of their own waste on the dirty ground. Documentarian Anthony Powell takes note that the movies can’t prepare you for the sights and smells of Antarctica.
But the continent is not merely seen as a wasteland of white. Living on Antarctica appears as far more of a blast than it would sound for being in an environment that experiences long stretches of cold, darkness and blizzards. All sorts of technicians, scientists and engineers form a collective of minds at the various bases around the region. Though bound to limitations of the outside weather, it doesn’t stop them from trying to have a little fun. During the warmer periods of summer, they have outdoor festivals, cold-water plunges and sometimes just lounge around the icy nothing with chairs. Everyone there seems to get along just fine and who could blame with those amazing views of untouched land. Anthony Powell gets to experience firsthand what living in this unique microcosm is like. He takes pleasure when he ventures alone into the rocky areas to set up video equipment and take in the complete silence. It appears as the perfect balance of solitude and companionship on this big stretch of snow, rock and ice.
Despite all the fun these people seem to have in such a place, it’s not all partying. In fact, most of the work is more tedious than a desk job. Employees will spend long hours tinkering away on computers and machinery in massive stretches. This is clearly not work for the stir-crazy which makes some of their off-hours antics so understandable. If you had to work seemingly endless hours, any chance to blow off steam or connect with another human being would be the greatest joy in the world. There are even some genuinely thrilling moments for them as when they get to witness the decimation of ice to clear paths for cargo boats. I can’t even imagine the excitement being aboard a ship that gets to smash through layers of ice. There’s even an Antarctica film festival in which all the different bases submit their different movies. It’s a rather unique way to see all the various cultures gathered together from around the globe, expressing themselves in the most creative ways.
Everything seems serene and balanced until summer ends and winter begins. This is the dark aspect of working in Antarctica - taken quite literally for months of 24-hour night skies. During this period, the staff dwindles from thousands to hundreds. When the last plane of summer leaves, it doesn’t come back until the summer season. Those who stay for winter are stuck there. Work reaches a standstill due to harsh storms. In fact, the majority of the work focuses on repairing all the equipment for the next season. During this time is when the loneliness really sets in when others start to miss their families and simple pleasures in life (like fresh fruit).
This would seem like a point when cabin fever would set in and it does bring about some strange behavior. Many develop T3 Syndrome - a loss of hormones that affects the brain greatly. Workers will begin to lose track of what they’re doing, forgetting their routine and repeating things they’ve already done. One man who stops by the shop for snacks every night is surprised one night to discover the store is open at 11:30, despite having been there everyday at the exact same time. Thankfully, the collective finds various ways to beat the isolation including an indoor carnival of games ranging from dunking booths to video games. And how could you not be enticed to see what happens when boiling water is thrown out the window into the coldest weather imaginable. They bond so well during this time that when the new recruits arrive at the beginning of summer, it’s rather off-putting to see such fresh faces with color.
Anthony Powell put an exceptional amount of work into this documentary. Maintaining thousands of dollars worth of equipment (many of which broke during filming), the footage he captures from the region is spellbinding. Sure, he captures a handful of penguins and seals, but they pale in comparison to the time-lapsed videos of the shifting ice, windy skies and setting suns. He relies a little too much on these time-lapse video, but could you blame him? These are some amazing shots of unspeakable beauty and Powell allows us to sit and watch all of it with him. It also helps keep the pace brisk and engaging the way he cuts between thrilling moments of nature and compelling scenes of human interaction.
Though Antarctica is entirely an environment of work, it’s certainly sold more as a unique location of serenity for the humans who occupy this tundra. The isolation of the area, the wonders of its white landscapes and the comradery of its selective inhabitants really sell the continent’s peaceful beauty. It’s enough to make anyone want to work in such a community. Do they need a movie reviewer in Antarctica? At any rate, it’s a dazzling destination that I’m pleased Powell let us tag along with on his one year journey.