Sunday, March 25, 2012

Antarctic Journal: Getting Away From It All

Some movies keep you guessing. Is what's happening actually happening? Are the protagonists crazy? Is it ghosts? Is it isolation? I don't necessarily mean the "it's really happening but everyone else think's you're crazy" conceit - that can be done well, or done like it is in pretty much every slasher movie ever.

(One of the redeeming features of Halloween IV for me was that when Dr. Loomis came into town and was all "holy shit Michael Myers is free and headed this way," the local constabulary didn't laugh him off and call him a crazy old man, they set up roadblocks and a curfew and locked Haddonfield the fuck down. For all the good it did, sure, but it's nice seeing the protagonist taken seriously.)

The Blair Witch Project is a good example of this conceit - what we're watching could be three college kids being tormented by the spirit of a long-dead witch, or it could be the slow mental disintegration of three college kids who are thoroughly lost in the woods and completely unequipped for finding their way out.  It's usually better to hold off as long as possible before committing to one solution or the other. If you can hold off completely and leave people guessing after they've finished the movie? Even better. It can be rewarding during (or after) the movie to be sure of one explanation, only to recall or notice some clue or small detail that unravels that particular explanation.

Antarctic Journal makes it a tough call for most of the movie, and by the end it's almost irrelevant anyway. I just wish it didn't take its sweet time getting there.

Six men are pushing their way across an endless white plain - just them and sledges carrying all of their equipment. They're a South Korean expedition to the Southern Pole of Inaccessibility - the point in the Antarctic that is furthest from any coastline. The leader of the expedition is practically a national hero - sort of the Korean equivalent of Sir Edmund Hillary, and he wants to be the first since the Soviets to reach the pole. (In real life, it's been reached more than twice, but for the time in which the movie is set, that could very well not be the case.) Four of the guys are new and are pretty much in awe of the leader. One guy has gone out with the leader before and knows him a little better. They're getting along about as well as you can expect six guys living in close quarters in some of the most inhospitable conditions on Earth to get along. They've got a communications radio link to their base camp, and an emergency beacon in case they end up in serious danger. They've got scant weeks to get there and back before the sun sets in the Antarctic, plunging the whole area into dangerous cold and utter darkness for six months straight.

Now, if this were an uneventful expedition to the remotest parts of the Antarctic, I would not be writing about it, because it would be a documentary on National Geographic.  Instead, the expedition comes to an interruption in the endless white - a tattered black flag, planted into the ground. It's a marker for a diary from a British expedition who attempted the same journey about eighty years before. The diary is damaged, but still pretty readable, and though it starts off innocuously enough, things get weirder and weirder the further into the diary they read. The team is following in the near century-old footsteps of the last expedition, following them into a freezing white void, and the leader's starting to act a little…off.

Antarctic Journal is, in every sense of the word, glacial. The men are remote - distanced from each other and in some cases themselves. The team are little smears of color on a vast field of white. It's a movie about the derangement of emptiness, told mostly in space and silence. It is as slow and deliberate as they come, with a pace that takes minutes between beats. Nothing happens suddenly or violently out here. The further these men press on into the interior, the less anything makes sense. Time and space begin to break down. They are following the footsteps of those who went before, have always followed those footsteps, will always follow those footsteps. And still the leader wants to press on. These men aren't going to snap, they are going to erode. This feeling of emptiness and slow disintegration extends to an ending, of which there seem to be about three. Which is unfortunate, because by the time you get to the conclusion, you are as exhausted and tense and worried as you should be, and having it drag out even further takes you out of it. Details get lost, things that should have an impact don't. You want it to be over, but for all the wrong reasons. Until then, though, it's a death march into the abyss - a journey into the heart of darkness, under the midnight sun.

1 comment:

  1. Great review! I watched Antarctic Journal last night and I had pretty similar feelings. It was difficult to follow the plot because of the characters going insane but I also think it may have been partial due to poor Korean to English subtitles.