The heavens dance. From the bottom of the world, where your eyes might freeze in your face, we see stars pulse against seams of luminous dust, all in slow and dizzying rotation. Then come the lights: Ribbons of green unspool and shimmer and whip across the sky, suggesting angels and ectoplasm, strips of silk somehow imbued with bioluminescence.
If beauty and revelation is your bottom line, Anthony Powell's rhapsodic Antarctica: A Year on Ice will prove a grand time at the movies, a tour of the ends of the Earth and the marvels above it — a glimpse at the one spot on our planet that has, until recent years, carried on as if we had never been here at all. Powell's film pokes along, one miracle at a time, offering the chance to dream at the skies that Earthlings today never see. The screening I attended was interrupted again and again by gasps, moans, and awestruck “Beautiful”s. One woman onscreen, pushing through her first Antarctic winter, gushes that she had never before known that some stars actually blink, changing color as she watches. How times have changed since the composition of that most famous of lullabies: Now that we know what they are, the little stars most of us can see don't even twinkle.
That we don't actually get to witness that twinkling is my one complaint about Antarctica. Powell mostly catches us in the drift of Antarctic life rather than in singular moments. He has rigged up hardy, ingenious cameras to record full days and nights of skies and winds and goofball penguins. Looking up at his starscapes is like looking down at a jeweled LP played very slowly: It's a black and glittering cycle, a cosmic revolution, true music-of-the-spheres stuff — often with those dancing auroras.
The vantage is godlike, unconcerned with cold or mere time, which in Antarctica is flattened and abstracted anyway, four sunless months in the winter matched by four without night in the summer. It's little surprise that Powell, the guy who filmed all this — and has spent nine winters in Antarctica — often views his fellow humans from something like the same remove.
That remove is often the subject of Antarctica, which only becomes one of the most beautiful films ever made in its second half. Powell can't resist time-lapsing footage of the workers at his home base of McMurdo Station, either. Men and women move in hive-mind in Antarctica: Filing off a plane at the dawn of summer, when the population of McMurdo — the continent's most densely inhabited spot — swells to a thousand or so. Most of those we see schlepping along beneath Mount Erebus are support staff, there to run kitchens and shops and keep equipment running. (One beast of a machine: Ivan the Terra Bus, the lurching six-wheeled snow coach that runs the circuit from McMurdo to the Williams Field airport.) In skim-ahead shots, the workers unload supplies and pile food on cafeteria trays, none of which is as interesting as watching the same technique applied to skies, mountains, or penguins. Powell interviews some of his station-mates, the administrators and firemen rather than the scientists you might expect, and at first these scenes feel perfunctory: Pleasant people saying pleasant things. But then the winter comes, McMurdo's population drops to under 200, and, after the bookending fast-forward footage, everyone Powell talks to gets livelier, stranger, more surprising. These winter people commit themselves to months of darkness. In their isolation they grow pale and a touch dotty, and they have no time for talk that doesn't mean anything — which means their talk becomes vital. They're in awe, too, but also beat, regular folks toiling beneath the relentless night.
Powell even roped inhabitants of the other stations into participating in an annual film festival, with each base contributing a short whipped up in just 48 hours. A rapid montage of these is icy Dada: zombies hauling themselves from snowbanks; Brits advancing Braveheart-style against an army of cube snowmen; lots of dudes half dressed on the ice.
Powell filmed Antarctica over a decade. Some of his footage has turned up elsewhere, in nature docs, but it's never been better presented than here. In attempting to replicate a year's stay in the most inhospitable above-water place on Earth, Powell eschews the bombast of Frozen Planet or Cosmos: He gives us time to look and to lose ourselves. He also lances the wonders with humor: You'll never look at penguins the same way after hearing his complaints about the horizon-wide stink of their colonies, where the feces and corpses are awfully slow to decay. The only time he touches on climate change is when he demonstrates how it directly affects his day job: Powell treks each winter from McMurdo to outlying communications posts. The drive takes longer, now, as the surface of the frozen sea he traverses freezes and re-freezes, creating great pits and valleys his snowcat must navigate, sometimes in whiteout conditions.
One small base he visits in the film is consistently hit by hurricane-strength winds. A crack in the wall has let in snow, which drifts and humps across a small living quarters. Powell, stuffed into his cold-weather gear, enters, shakes his head, and then has a seat on a bunk, throwing his feet up, playacting that he's home. He is — thanks for inviting us along.