Antarctica: A Year on Ice (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★
Werner Herzog’s “Encounters at the End of the World” is one of my favorite documentaries because it is able to capture the sense of wonder, mystery, and majesty of Antarctica. Anthony Powell’s “Antarctica: A Year on Ice” is its less philosophical and poetic cousin, its focus more on the people living in two research bases: McMurdo Station (United States) and Scott Base (New Zealand).
Powell spends an entire year in a continent that contains about five thousand people during the summer and less than five hundred during the long winter. It must be a scary, lonely place—especially when there is only darkness outside for months—yet I still wish to go there and experience the lifestyle of the pioneers.
The documentary offers a handful of memorable images. There is a seal who gets lost. Instead of making its way to the ocean with its group, it happens to reach one of the research bases. It will die inevitably if it does not find a food source, and yet people who see the animal are forbidden from helping it. They must let nature take its course. Equally compelling, in a different way, are images of various categories of snowstorms. I thought Category 1 was already scary and amazing. And then there was Category 3.
Powell makes a point that the Discovery Channel does not entirely show the truth about the place. Here, we see corpses of penguins being picked on by other birds. Some of these mangled bodies quite dry but still recognizable, the others require a closer inspection. But perhaps most surprising to me is the image of a small river of excrement that come from five hundred thousand penguins. I wished the filmmaker had elaborated on the stench. After all, it is a documentary unafraid to get down and dirty.
We hear from different people about their personal experiences on the ice, from store clerks, warehouse managers, to firemen. Each one is expressive and provides at least one interesting perspective when asked a specific question. Though they come from different backgrounds with different expertise, as they speak we could not help but search a commonality: What is it that attracts them to this place? They provide answers—practical answers like type of personalities or what they hope to achieve—but I was more interested in spiritual answers. Cue in the small but memorable sequence where the camera simply sits on one spot, looks around, and there is complete silence.
The movie offers something special, at least in my eyes, because it manages to relate the largely untouched land to the regular people who live there—not just scientists or members of the military. There is a warmth to the documentary, despite the endless terrain of snow during the winter, which makes it highly watchable. I could easily watch another hour of the subjects talking about whatever it is that comes to their minds.
The Thing (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
In John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” the opening shot featured two men in a helicopter shooting at a dog in order to prevent it from reaching an American research facility. “The Thing,” written by Eric Heisserer and directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., consisted of the events that led up to aforementioned curious scene. When a group of Norwegian researchers, led by Edvard Wolver (Trond Espen Seim), stumbled upon an alien space craft in the Antarctic ice, Dr. Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) was immediately alerted. But before the scientist and his assistant, Adam (Eric Christian Olsen), could get there, Dr. Halvorson recruited an American paleontologist, Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), for her expertise. Upon their arrival, they learned that not only was there a craft, there was also an alien trapped in ice a couple of meters from the wreckage. What I enjoyed most about the film was it successfully emulated Carpenter’s paranoid tone. Although I knew what the alien was capable of, there was a sense of excitement in the way Kate and the Norwegian crew opened up the alien’s body and explored the grim and disgusting details inside. When the camera showed the guts and the organs, I felt like I was in that room and I wanted to participate in touching the viscera and the accompanying slime. If anything, the picture proved that even though most of the audience knew what was about to transpire, as long as the journey that led up to the characters’ discoveries was interesting, the project could still stand strong. The prequel shared the same main weakness as Carpenter’s movie. There more than ten characters but we only somewhat got to know Kate. There were at least two other characters worth knowing more about. For instance, how well did Adam and Kate know each other prior to their mission? It seemed like they had some history. If their relationship was more defined, the latter scenes in which Kate suspected that Adam was possibly infected by the alien virus would have had more impact. After all, if you think that someone you’ve known all your life is no longer that person you’ve grown to love and care about, that he or she is simply a replica of an extraterrestrial, and it is necessary to kill that certain someone, wouldn’t you feel rotten before and after deciding to eliminate that person/being? To some extent, I would. Even though, in truth, that friend is an alien, it has the face, the voice, the mannerisms of a human being. I also wanted to know more about Sam (Joel Edgerton), the helicopter pilot. There were a few scenes which suggested that there was an attraction between Sam and Kate. Again, another possible human connection that could have been milked more with the regards to the bizarre happenings. “The Thing,” based on the short story called “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell Jr., while suspenseful most of the time, it was ultimately let down by having too much CGI. I didn’t need to see the craft being activated when it didn’t even get to fly for even a few inches. What I wanted to see more was the creature, hiding inside a human, just biding its time till its prey inevitably lets his guard down.
The Thing (1982)
★★★ / ★★★★
In the icy landscape of Antarctica, a Siberian Husky attempted to outrun a helicopter because one of the people inside was shooting at it. When the dog arrived in an American research facility, the helicopter landed and came out a man speaking Norwegian. Nobody understood the dialect. He started shooting; Americans shot back. Everyone was baffled with how quickly everything happened and without an apparent reason. When the researchers took the dog to be with its own kind, in the dark, it revealed its true nature: inside it was an alien organism. Based on the story “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell Jr. and written by Bill Lancaster, “The Thing” deservingly gained a strong cult following over the years. It took its time in showing us the alien’s abilities and how it was able to survive for so long. It was dangerous because it seemed to have both intelligence and great survival instincts. It was capable of copying an animal in exact detail but in order to do so, it had to absorb its victims’ cells. Although the picture didn’t quite delve into specifics, it made sense because cells house DNA. Humans in a contained area were right for the picking. R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) was the helicopter pilot and the eventual leader of the group. Along with Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart), they had to figure out a way to find which of their colleagues were imitations. One of the best scenes involved MacReady and Dr. Cooper visiting the nearby Norwegian facility and finding the place in utter ruins. They saw deformed and charred human bodies as well as a hunk of ice which, from the looks of it, formerly preserved something. The grotesque and mysterious images allowed us to construct a narrative in our minds about what possibly happened. The film successfully captured a paranoid atmosphere. For instance, the camera’s attention shifted from one person to another. Characters were often in different rooms because they had jobs to do, some were on shifts depending on time of day, while others kept to themselves because certain personalities clashed. What happened to Person A when the camera was on Person B? Another element that added to the paranoia was its calculated use of score. It was able to generate so much tension by simply allowing us to hear heartbeat-like notes during key scenes. And it wasn’t only implemented when a person would walk into a dark room in an attempt to investigate something. It was used in broad daylight when danger was right around the corner. Unfortunately, I had serious issues with the film’s pacing, notably with its final thirty minutes. While it managed to maintain a certain level of creativity in terms of the build-up of who was possibly infected, once we knew, the point-and-shoot-the-flamethrower tactic became repetitive. There was nothing inspiring or surprising during the last fifteen minutes. Despite its shortcomings, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the screen. The special, visual effects, and make-up teams should be applauded for creating images found in nightmares. Directed by John Carpenter, “The Thing” is one of the few movies I feel I must watch every year. I’m hypnotized by it each time.
★ / ★★★★
Kate Beckinsale stars as U.S. Marshall Carrie Stetko whose job was to keep the people safe in a research facility in Antarctica. But she soon found herself in a case full of deceit after stumbling upon the first murder of the continent. With the aid of another man from the government (Gabriel Macht), they tried to get answers to questions such as the identity of the murderer and what were the contents of the box that the Russian plane carried. This picture was a prime example where the music did all the work in portraying tension instead of letting the images speak for themselves. I just really dislike it when I’m all too often aware of the music and nothing particularly interesting is happening on screen. For me, the music should be a suppplement of the visual experience and almost always not the driving force. In this movie, they used music to trick the audiences that something exciting was happening, when in reality, we were watching something really dull. In fact, we could barely see anything half of the time because of the quick cuts and the thick blizzard. During the so-called climax of the movie, I felt dizzy and frustrated because I could not tell who was who or if the protaginist was winning. For a murder mystery, this movie lacked tension and worse, a lack of urgency. I felt like the writers, Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber, had so many ideas but they couldn’t focus those ideas or eliminate the ones that just did not make sense. As for the so-called twists, I saw them coming from a mile away because the looks that certain characters gave were so obvious. I felt like it did not even try to mask (pun intended) the identity (or identities) of the antagonists. I thought the setting of the movie was great; I really felt like I was Antarctica. But that was the only thing I liked about it. The movie felt like it ran for more than two hours (it was actually around an hour and forty) and I was just exhausted after watching it. “Whiteout,” directed by Dominic Sena, was based on a graphic novel by Greg Rucka and Steve Lieber and maybe it should have stayed that way. Somewhere in the middle, I really hoped that it was going to be an alien movie–somewhere along the lines of “The Thing.” Unlike “Whiteout,” that movie knows how to keep the viewers engaged with big rewards every fifteen minutes or so. Instead, I advise someone to watch “The Thing” or the extremely well-made documentary by Werner Herzog called “Encounters at the End of the World.”
Encounters at the End of the World (2007)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Prior to watching the documentary, I expected to see strange creatures and jaw-dropping landscapes of Antarctica. What I didn’t expect was fascinating human stories of those who live, work, and research that unknown continent. This film really opened my eyes; this may sound stupid but when I think of Antarctica, I think of penguins and endless desert of ice. I don’t think about people actually living there for years–not just living there for the sake of work but actually living there because they feel like they belong there. Werner Herzog (“Grizzly Man,” “Rescue Dawn”), the director, features different kinds of people who have some kind of amazing stories tell. Their stories are so out there, so unbelievable to the point where I thought, “Wow. I hope when I’m old and wrinkled I’ll have my own interesting a story to tell younger generations.” The researchers also reminded me why I chose to pursue a Biology degree. They are so passionate with what they do, I feel like they’re having fun instead of working. They treat their big accomplishments (such as discovering new species of organisms) like little victories and they’re off to do more research the next day. One day, I want to be like them–doing what I love so it doesn’t feel like work. I liked how Herzog would sound sarcastic when he would ask the researchers stupid-sounding questions, but in truth, he really wants to know the answer. Comedic moments like that made this documentary less somber, which I thought was a good decision. As for the images that the film had to offer, I’ve never seen ice look so magical and poetic. There was this one scene involving a penguin that chose to walk toward a mountain thousands of kilometers away. It would mean certain death to that penguin because it’s walking away from its flock and food source. Suddenly, the way Herzog asks why the penguin walked in that direction made me tear up. It made me think about life and how mysterious and beautiful it is. The underwater scenes blew me away. There are so many weird-looking creatures–I’m really creeped out by them but at the same time I wanted to touch them. I highly recommend this film because it’s kind of like a tour of Antarctica. Not only do the audiences get to hear seals communicate with each other, go through survival training during intense ice storms, and see hypnotic landscapes, they also get a chance to think philosophically: how it’s a priviledge for humans to live on this Earth and how one day we will become extinct and nature will regain its place.