Antarctica: A Year on Ice mistakenly fashions itself a tranquil ode to the idyllic frozen continent, following scientist (and director) Anthony Powell as he and a small team of researchers explore the terrain and culture of Ross Island, which houses two research bases for the United States and New Zealand, over the course of a year. The mistakes come not in the images, which are finely attuned to the picturesque forms of the expansive landscapes, most notably in a series of time-lapse photography sequences that show the drastic changes that occur over months at a time. Rather, Powell is a most literal filmmaker, preferring a conventional voiceover track to vapidly explain every image seen, with little gesture toward a more abstract or poetic presentation.
That’s an especially unforgivable decision, in that Powell explicitly announces in the opening moments his intent to make a documentary that “captures the true feeling of this vast, important place,” which suggests a form absent of language, rather than emotional states being reduced to narrativizing boilerplate. Powell’s declaration promises there will be much more show than the film’s actual determination to tell, as talking heads abound with unremarkable anecdotes detailing quotidian goings-on between “winter people and non-winter people” on the land, as well as self-serving language from Powell regarding the icy tundra, such that Antarctica serves as an escape from the “noise pollution” of urban metropolises.
Powell may have an eye for scientific discovery, but his vision as a filmmaker is frustratingly limited to an information-style presentation that doubles as an enthusiastic advert for the transcendental qualities of the terrain. He lingers on penguins wading through harsh conditions and overlays every time-lapse montage with a majestic score that most banally imbues the seasonal shifts as supposed evidence of the inherently sublime elements. Antarctica avoids the anthropomorphizing of its penguins, unlike the dismal March of the Penguins or any number of other nature docs insistent on turning its animal subjects into live-action cartoon characters, but Powell remains adamant to use animals to tug at heartstrings.
These inclinations are most evident as his camera lingers on a dying seal, to which Powell explains that there’s nothing to be done, except to “let nature take its course.” A scene like this would have felt retrograde before the emergence of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, with films like Sweetgrass and Leviathan brazenly reconceptualizing the form and concept of a nature doc; after it, Antarctica feels positively naïve, steadfast that geographic knowledge derives from easily packaged one-liners that consistently seek to encapsulate experience, rather than allowing it to exist in a much rawer, unadorned format.
Brief respites from this sort of tripe are few and far between, most notable when Powell briefly explains his creation of the Antarctic Film Festival, with submissions from all of the various research bases across the continent. Clips from several short films speak more to a creative spirit than Powell knows how to generate for himself, particularly in the latter portion of the film, as the talking heads become rather numbing, explaining how pleasant it can be to see the sun after long periods of darkness or giving extended time to one resident’s dismay with having to wait in a cafeteria line after a new crop of workers arrive. The undergirding problem with the film’s entirety is Powell as director, who has no sense of detachedness from the material, refusing to offer any sequence that doesn’t speak (whether visually or verbally) to the land’s incomprehension to those who don’t experience it first-hand. Thus, Antarctica ultimately plays condescending in addition to tritely sincere, with its director’s self-obsessions overpowering the striking imagery.