In explaining his use of time-lapse photography to compress 365 days into an hour-and-a-half in “Antarctica: A Year on Ice,” New Zealander Anthony Powell insists that this is the best way to recreate the full experience of the frozen, desolate continent. Since he has worked there for years as a communications technician at his nation’s Scott Base and the United States’ McMurdo Station, he should know.
My own experience of Antarctica is limited to films such as “March of the Penguins” (2005), Werner Herzog’s “Encounters at the Edge of the World” (2007), and John Carpenter’s “The Thing” (1982). Nonetheless, I wonder if Powell’s film — an astounding technical and physical accomplishment shot in lunar conditions over the course of ten years — really captures the day-to-day grind of the grunts who service the international stations. Is it all a jovial jumble of speeded-up aurora borealises and pixilated skies and glaciers? That seems more like an IMAX version of the place than one actually endured by the brave souls who work there. Powell creates a vivid spectacle, but doesn’t give us much of a glimpse into the hearts and minds of those who live it.
These include two types of people, as Powell explains. The summer people who stay only through the six months of sun which peaks with weeks of 24-hour days, and the winter people, who stick around after the darkness sets in for the period of perpetual night. Why would someone do this, and what is it like? The personnel interviewed— a clerk, a fireman, and a human resources officer, among others — resort to clichés or head-shaking by way of explanation, and Powell’s voice-over does not add much in the way of insight.
Instead he keeps things light and superficial, even when dealing with T3 syndrome (named for thyroid hormone deficiency caused by the extreme living conditions), an alarmingly dementia-like malady passed off as a kind of goofy absent-mindedness. Only when Powell shows an errant baby seal gasping and allowed to die (everyone must abide by a version of the “Star Trek” Prime Directive — they can’t interfere with the wildlife in any way) does he arouse any emotion other than awe or mild amusement.
But there’s a lot to be said for awe and amusement. And “Antarctica” ultimately does evoke a sense of the place — its magnificent emptiness and inhuman, unspoiled purity. It is like a monastery featuring conditions similar to the surface of Mars and Category 5 storms that manage to fill sealed living spaces. Powell never achieves the absurdist, uncanny poetry of that scene in Herzog’s film where a “demented” penguin marches into oblivion, but he does arouse wonder at nature’s sublimity.
Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.