“Antarctica: A Year on Ice” opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas. PG, 1:32, three stars out of four.
If nothing else, watching the documentary “Antarctica: A Year on Ice” makes a Wisconsin February go down a little easier. It’s hard to complain about single-digit temperatures and shoveling two inches off your driveway when you watch people living in 40-below temperatures and almost total darkness for four months.
Filmmaker Anthony Powell has spent a lot of time down there, living at McMurdo Station year-round setting up communications equipment for the base. After trying to explain for years to those back home what life is like there, he decided to make a film, often designing his own cameras so they wouldn’t be damaged by the harsh conditions.
Powell’s long experience in Antarctica helps make the film very different from the typical Discovery Channel sort of travelogue film. It’s fascinating because it mixes the big and the small. There are stunning time-lapse shots of the Antarctic landscape, the night sky so clear it’s like cut glass, the unspoiled snowscapes around McCurdo Station extending seemingly forever. But Powell is also interested in showing the tiny details of daily life for the humans who live year-round down there, how they endure and why they come back.
For humans, Powell explains, Antarctica has basically two seasons, a busy summer where much of the work gets done, as scientists set up their equipment and workers do repairs. There are some 5,000 people at McMurdo during this time, and with the weather warm and sunny enough to be outside, the place has the excitement and industry of a summer camp — except, you know, much colder.
Then winter comes, and all but the 700 or so people needed to maintain the base — engineers, chefs, pilots — hop on cargo planes and leave. For those left behind, Antarctica becomes a very different place — dark, cold, isolating. There’s even a condition called “polar T3 syndrome” that some begin to suffer, as their thinking starts to get fuzzier the longer they stay. And then there’s all that these people are missing back home — the film gets poignant as people talk about major family events they’ve missed, births and deaths, or even the simple smells of summer that they’ve learned to do without.
But there’s an allure to this life as well as a challenge for these people, and Powell teases out the seeming contradictions. One of the reasons that these people seem to get along with each other so well in Antarctica is that they all don’t fit in so well in the civilized world.
After the film spends an entire year in Antarctica, it’s back on the cargo plane for many of these people. After all these frozen alien landscapes, the last shot of the film is a typical city street corner, bustling with noise and traffic. And, having gone through what these people have gone through, it seems totally alien to us now.