Terrible Truths and Beauty in 'Antarctic Mission' and 'The Last Continent'

Antarctic Mission: The Complete Series and The Last Continent are two inter-related Canadian documentary productions that explore Antarctica to study the impact global warming is having upon the continent and its inhabitants, and to track how climate change is accelerating.

Antarctic Mission

DVD: Antarctic Mission: The Complete Series
Distributor: Entertainment One
Release date: 2011-04-12

The Last Continent

Director: Jean Lemire
DVD: The Last Continent
Distributor: Entertainment One
Release date: 2011-04-12

Antarctic Mission: The Complete Series and The Last Continent are two inter-related Canadian documentary productions that explore Antarctica to both study the impact global warming is having upon the continent and its inhabitants, and to help track how climate change is accelerating in the region and altering life there and on other parts of the Earth.

Antarctic Mission: The Complete Series is a three part program narrated by environmental activist David Suzuki. Part one, Islands at the Edge, sees the team of scientists and filmmakers following in the footsteps of earlier, pioneering Antarctic explorers, to reach islands like South Georgia and the aptly named Bird Island. Once there they track the populations of fur seals, elephant seals and albatross. Some wildlife is declining because higher temperatures are causing shortages in food and changes in the suitability of mating grounds, while other animals not traditionally found in certain areas are actually thriving because the rapid increase in seasonal temperatures is making it possible for them to move further south, thereby pushing competing local species out.

Changes in mating habits and habitat aren't the only worrisome effects of climate change that can be easily seen in Antarctica. Part two of the series, A Window on a Changing World, focuses on the more subtle, but no less important, effect that climate change is having. It discusses the ancient ice shelves, what's causing them to break apart, and how this affects climates around the world. It shows just how dramatically the continent is changing.

This episode also details the declining numbers of Adelie penguins on the Antarctic Peninsula. A rapidly warming climate is causing an increase in snowfall, which in turn has caused an 80 percent decrease in that penguin population over the last few years. Eighty percent. That's unfathomable. But it's happening, and it's heart-breaking.

The final part of Antarctic Mission is The Great Ocean of Ice, which explores the underwater world of the seas surrounding Antarctica. The team studies and documents amazing creatures like giant ribbon worms, sponges and dragon fish. These species have thrived in the frigid, otherwise inhospitable, depths for millennia. However, they, and the stability of the ecosystem of which they are a part, are facing great threats as the waters continue to warm.

Though it is very educational and features truly breath-taking cinematography, Antarctic Mission: The Complete Series is very difficult to watch. It raises a lot of questions and will make for some serious and necessary discussions, but be aware if watching with young children or highly sensitive souls that none of the harsh reality is softened. March of the Penguins or Planet Earth it's not.

The Last Continent, a feature film originally released in 2007 and made by many members of the same team behind Antarctic Mission: The Complete Series is no less visually stunning or environmentally informative as it documents the 430 day voyage of the Sedna IV into the icy isolation of the Antarctic landscape. However, it is a bit less difficult to watch, for those who are sensitive. Part of that might be because the film is narrated, in soothing—but still serious—tones by Donald Sutherland.

The explorers aboard the Sedna are scientists, filmmakers and adventurers, and the expedition is led by director Jean Lemire. The mission is to allow the ship to be trapped, frozen in the ice for the long Antarctic winter, so that the group can study, record and analyze the effects that climate change is having on the region and on the world at large. It's quite an undertaking for so many people to live in such a confined space for such an extended period of time, let alone to do so in one of the planet's harshest environments.

So the beginning of the film is spent introducing us to the key participants and documenting their processes of deciding whether or not to commit to 14 months of isolation as the Sedna is sailing south to its destination. Once final decisions are made and the ship's captain and crew have left our intrepid explorers moored in the ice, it becomes clear that the mission may be more than they were prepared to handle. The climate change is more serious and the temperatures much warmer than anyone had anticipated, which means the ice pack is not stable or thick enough to hold the Sedna. It also means that food storage, much of which relied upon having a solid ice pack to preserve perishables, becomes a problem.

There are some very tense scenes in which the researchers must battle the forces of nature and the effects of unseasonable melt. However, there are also beautiful, panoramic vistas and touching scenes of wildlife, inter-cut with the studies and struggles of the research and documentary team. A lot of the film is taken up by the fight against the elements that is frustrating the work that the film initially intended to document.

It's rather poignant that the very thing they are there to study—global warming—is what is preventing them from being able to do so. Still, it's this footage that makes the plight of our planet more obvious and desperate. One hopes that viewers can grasp the underlying importance and immediacy that The Last Continent demonstrates.

The Last Continent has more than an hour of extras, including 11 short featurettes on several indigenous species and specific events of the expedition. It also includes the trailer. Both The Last Continent and Antarctic Mission: The Complete Series will be of great interest to animal lovers, environmentalists and adventurers alike, and likely should be required viewing for all of Earth's human inhabitants.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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