One of the most troubling recent discoveries concerning climate change was that, much to the fear of climatologists, the Antarctic ice sheet is melting at a far more alarming rate than previously thought. Since the problem is by all means unstoppable, Dena Seidel’s Antarctic Edge: 70° South documents the scientists who scour the continent in harsh conditions to try to grasp the consequences the melting will have across our entire planet. Though mainly centered around oceanographer Oscar Schofield and his research, the film also includes personal histories from other scientists and their crew, including glimpses into their family life back home, how their unquenchable thirst for science began, and the assorted, sometimes humorous activities and traditions they embrace in order to make their Antarctic stay lively and bearable, such as one scientist wearing a tawdry-looking coconut bra while at the helm of a control room. Though Seidel’s willingness to dig further into her subjects beyond their occupation is ambitious, this also gives the film a meandering quality that pushes their cumulative research in the field so far to the sidelines as to become an afterthought.
To Seidel’s credit, she never frames climate change as a political issue, and includes no footage of politicians or laypeople arguing over the reality of the problem from an outsider’s perspective; rather, the film is told from the standpoint of the scientists working at and around Palmer Station in Antarctica, which becomes surprisingly refreshing once one realizes how free the film is from blustery rhetoric—aside from a darkly ominous prologue featuring news footage of recent catastrophic storms. As the prologue implies that the well-being of billions of people is partly in the hands of a few researchers, the film easily threatens to succumb to hero worship, though Seidel ultimately presents her subjects as modest eccentrics simply doing their job with workmanlike vigor. By way of their warts-and-all stories, these individuals closely connect with the audience, but what the work and findings in each of the scientists’ respective fields means in the context of handling climate change seems secondary to how this work affects them on a personal level. Seidel appears afraid of alienating viewers by overloading on scientific jargon, and in the process becomes too attracted to ultimately superfluous anecdotes from her subjects. This unintentionally gives her film the feeling that it’s not a first-person account of working to figure out the effects of climate change, but an ensemble character study filled with quirky individuals who happen to be stuck in a cataclysmic event.