'Antarctica' looks at a continent's harsh beauty

Tom Long
The Detroit News

The continent of Antarctica is about the size of the United States. During the winter, only about 700 people live there.

Anthony Powell is one of them, and he's spent more than a decade figuring out how to film the desolate, chilly beauty of the environment while becoming used to the mindset that endures after months of darkness and endless cold. He's captured the look and feel of his experience in "Antarctica: A Year On Ice."

Using time-lapse photography, slow sweeping cameras and interviews with his fellow year-rounders — a few thousand workers arrive with summer and head out before winter — Powell lets the months tick by, going from the bustle of the warmer months (which don't look all that warm) to the radical storms of winter, when snow creeps through even the smallest cracks.

He looks at the brutal reality of the wildlife there — penguins often starve to death, seals get lost in the snow — and finds peace in the absolute silence of remote locations (of course, in Antarctica, all locations are remote). He offers stunning displays of the lights in the sky and the stars set against a monthslong night.

He also interjects some wit and autobiography. The saying for women looking to marry in this environment is "The odds are good but the goods are odd." Powell met and married his own wife, Christine, in Antarctica. They're so used to life there that she'll ask him if it's cold outside and he'll reply it's not too bad when it's 40 below.

Powell goes back and forth between the visual and the social. Those who stay through winter gain both a sense of humor and a certain dopiness as the night lingers on. There's work to be done, sure, but there's also real isolation to be faced, and once you're there you're stuck — there's no way off the continent until summer comes.

By the time summer comes, the year-rounders have built such a bond that they resent the noise and bustle the seasonal workers bring. Going from empty to full can be rattling.

But full is relative — even at its busiest, Antarctica is a vast, untouched landscape. Powell's cameras catch the beauty, the barrenness, the grandeur and the stark power of what is likely the least populated place on earth. That he's also able to follow the hearts of those few who thrive there makes the film all the more interesting.



'Antarctica: A Year on Ice'


Rated PG for mild thematic elements and language

Running time: 91 minutes

At the Detroit Film Theatre

"Antarctica: A Year on Ice" (PG) This documentary looks at the harsh beauty of Antarctica while following some of the 700 people who live there year-round. (91 minutes) GRADE: B