The practice of digging ditches is one usually associated with criminals, slaves, indentured servants, exploited workers, heavy machines, dynamite -- hardly the work for two Ph.D geologists like Allan Ashworth and Adam Lewis. Yet in Antarctica, that's the their main job; the docs are digging through the rocks for clues about the continent's past. Specifically, its climate. As it turns out, millions of years ago, the icy region was green and warm -- globally warmed, even. That small, puzzling factoid is the basis of Ice People's quiet, objective meditation on isolation, nature, and the small group of people who willfully suffer both.
Filmmaker Anne Aghion and her crew spent four months near Antarctica's McMurdo Station camping with the geologists and their two undergrad students. Toward her subjects, Aghion takes an extreme hands-off approach. There's no narration, which is fine, and it's not unusual that Aghion stays off camera.
She takes non-involvement, however, to the absurd. When talking with interviewees, her half of the conversation disappears. Those bland, one-sided dialogues only vaguely inform the film's distant look at the Antarctic crew, and it's in those interviews when the film fails to connect. Stock shots of the regal snow-covered land are easy enough, but when it comes to dealing with humans, Ice People lacks serious chops. The responses she elicits are universally dull and inane; it's as if the interviewees were instructed to direct their answers toward a class of kindergartners. Dr. Lewis, for instance, describes his work as similar to digging through layers of dirty laundry and matching a date to each article. That explanation alone takes nearly a minute and a half. Elsewhere, Aghion asks the McMurdo Station staff what it's like working with scientists. One response: "sometimes it's easy to forget science is going on," which perfectly captures the film's level of self-examination.
Near Ice People's end, the scientists and students even dare to question the implications that geological research has on "science" and "religion." They skirt the issue of evolutionism vs. creationism with comments so vague it's tough to discern if that's actually what they're talking about, let alone any salient points.
A wider look could have heightened the natural wonder of Antarctica, bringing to mind its questionable future -- something to consider in light of the film's warm-continent revelation, while a closer look might have yielded a worthy story about the people who choose to call it home. Werner Herzog's 2007 film on the continent, Encounters at the End of the World, stiff competition to be sure, gets both the picturesque immensity of the Antarctic and the particular stories of its people with childlike curiosity and an eye toward fantasy. It's clear that isn't Aghion's intention; the films are different as can be, one richly effusive, the other reserved and minimalist. As a couple, they're not totally unlike Antarctica of the past and present.