Film Review: Antarctica: A Year on Ice (★★½)

imageDirector, producer and cinematographer Anthony Powell shows us a year’s worth of human existence in the cold, uncompromising and majestic continent we’re least familiar with: Earth’s southernmost land mass, Antarctica. I say “existence” because voluntarily planting oneself amidst this harsh terrain – particularly during the cruel winter season – can hardly be described as comfortably living. Warmth and stability doesn’t come from any kind of technological sustenance, but instead from the tight-knit community formed from thousands of workers who come overseas during the summer and the 700 or so that remain in winter. Powell’s film revolves around several of McMurdo Station’s (most populated research center and settlement in Antarctica) biggest personalities as they both explicate and physically demonstrate their daily work rituals to impressive degree.

Powell, who is also an onsite telecommunications engineer, uses the medium of film to peel back the thick layer of mystery surrounding Antarctica. He shocks us with the natural beauty of the continent while simultaneously reminding us of the severe conditions that constantly arise. Powell’s work as a cinematographer is perhaps even more grandiose than his filmmaking talents — striking images of the shifting sky patterns and unique geographic layout emphasize the continent’s singularity. The arctic wildlife is captured with realistic integrity: we’re privileged with shots of penguins merrily going about their day yet brought back to the sobering truth that such easygoing existence is temporary. Once winter arrives, thousands of animals are stripped of life as the icy terrain proves impossible to cope with. One shot in particular of a sea lion nudging its body along the ice, desperately searching for water to swim in once more, will puncture your emotional shield. Devastating displays of the gritty livelihood the wildlife must endure are few and far between, but when they appear they make an impact like no other.

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My main gripe with Antarctica: A Year on Ice is that it tries to cram in so much that it winds up losing focus and cohesion about halfway through. The footage comes off more like an extended television recap than a deeply alive nature documentary; though the various interview subjects at the heart of this doc keep viewers alert enough to want to see the film in its entirety. The factoids in text that appear sporadically are effectively informative although I couldn’t help but feel like I was watching an educational program in a dark room at a museum. There’s a bit of a disconnect between viewer and filmmaker in this sense, and by the end of the documentary I felt as though I had witnessed something powerful and profound but still completely out of reach. Selfish as it is to admit, I almost wish the director had been more of the star of his own film, as his on-camera interviews and voiceover anecdotes helped personalize the experience of surviving Antarctica’s brutality.

Antarctica: A Year on Ice is breathtaking cinema and surely a vision to behold on Blu-Ray when it hits home video on April 14th. The film debuts on VOD today, March 24th, on select platforms including Google Play, Amazon Video, iTunes and Vudu. Be sure to check out Anthony Powell’s ten-year project when you get a chance. Even despite my reservations, it’s certainly worth more than a quick glance.

Check out the trailer below: