It is a notable fact of human existence in 2014 that, despite the amazing technological progress that has been the key fact of of the past two centuries, we mostly live in the same places we did two centuries ago, give or take the middle of North America. While it might feel to most of us modern humans, living the vast majority of our lives is bustling, vibrant, overwhelmingly human-made cities, that we have largely tamed this vast planet, the truth is otherwise. I encourage you to go find a globe (or, barring any willingness to interface with the analog world, go to Google Earth) and peer at the poles of our planet. To the north is a vast icy Mediterranean sea approaching the size of South America, a sea that has been a site of human activity and interchange for millennia, and one whose modern geopolitical and cultural future are a story all its own. Its opposite, though, is something starker, deceptively simpler, equal parts menacing and awe-inspiring. Named precisely for its counter position to that great sea and even more aptly so for its contrary nature, Antarctica is an enormous mass of land, all rock and mountain, for all intents and purposes lifeless in its interior, layered by an unbroken sheet of ice over a mile thick. Inherently hostile in every conceivable way, Antarctica stands as a challenge to humanity both in our role as conqueror of this planet as well as steward. “Can you manage to survive here? Can you resist your instinct to despoil it?”
The first question, at least, has been answered by a tentative “yes.” Each year, about five thousand brave and/or insane pioneers, scientists and those supporting them, live and work during the summer in a few dozen bases scattered around the continent, mostly on the coasts. Of them, fewer than a thousand remain behind during the Antarctic winter. One of them, hopelessly endearing New Zealander Anthony Powell, raised enough money on Kickstarter to turn his passion for inventive cinematography into Antarctica: A Year on Ice, a documentary of a year in Antarctica. And what a document it is.
Describing what Powell has recorded and shared in this film is a unique challenge. For one of the few times in my history as a film critic, and really my whole talkative life, I am at a loss for words. Failing any other option, I might as well fall back on cliche and superlative: the images in this film must be seen to be believed. The time-lapse photography is overwhelming. It ranges from the cosmically massive – such as one unforgettable shot documenting the entire months-long journey of a never-setting Antarctic summer sun across the horizon – to the gossamer details – ice growing and receding along stony outcroppings. Looming white mountains, psychedelic auroras, 200-mile-per-hour windstorms, and night skies untouched by light pollution that go a long way towards explaining the intense religiosity of preindustrial societies: these are all indelible, incomparable images I will never forget.
If all this movie accomplished was to expose us to the amazing and unique natural features of the southern continent in brilliantly visionary ways, it would have been more than enough. But Antarctica: A Year on Ice goes much further, juxtaposing it with the human experience of life lived somewhere so remote and alien. With a deft and judicious touch, we are exposed to people experiencing everything wonderful and terrible about this life, from the glee of adventure and finding compatriots (there’s even a wedding) to smothering loneliness and the agonizing inability to return to family at times of both joy and grief . Powell never lets us detach nature from the human experience, and never allows us to forget that every wonder has its costs; in one of the film’s most heartbreaking moments, a lost and doomed seal on base moans in despair as the humans go about their business around it, forbidden from interfering with nature.
Antarctica: A Year on Ice moves perfectly from joy to wonder to sadness and back, buoyed especially by a fantastic score from Plan 9. A moment or two of the film’s conclusion veers towards the preachy and tell-over-show, but these moments feel well-earned after so pitch-perfectly crafting its vision of the borders of the human experience, and more so for the simplicity of their challenge to us to keep from screwing up one of the last untouched wonders on Earth. And what an amazing wonder it is. There is no other movie like this, and likely never will be.