A few weeks ago Jay over at The Documentary Blog had a post about the difficulty in reviewing documentaries - in particular how you handle a review of a movie that you simply end up disliking even though it deals with an important subject. Is it fair to be negative about the way a film looks or was put together when the topic was so relevant and noteworthy? I couldn't help thinking about his comments during and after "The Last Continent" - a film documenting a team's 430 day trip to Antarctica and their research regarding global warming effects.
Beyond the subject matter and the highly significant effects to our climate that are discussed, I really wanted to like this film. The idea of going to Antarctica, letting your ship get frozen in the waters and forcing yourself to stay there throughout the entire winter is brillant, if not perhaps also a little daffy. The crew are at times very engaging and fun. And the scenery...There's some staggeringly beautiful shots in this film taken underwater, from the top of the ship's mast, in the middle of storms and from just about any vantage point that could best show the natural beauty around them.
But it fails in several key areas...
1) I never felt they gave any quality data of their own to support their global warming statements. It's not that I don't believe them (they came in armed with quite a bit of evidence to show the continent has had an increase in average temperature), but I didn't feel they contributed much to the research themselves. Any of the statements they made about the time they were there were just generalizations regarding the anecdotal information they picked up. Just because the water took much longer to freeze in your one particular area this one particular winter doesn't necessarily make your case. It's only one single instance to add to the volume of data.
2) It's overly self-important. Director and leader Jean Lemire often has the camera film him writing his diary of the trip and during these sections we get to hear him recite his own words in serious dramatic tones ("How fragile our little planet seems..."). This continues with his narration during other sections of the film and it's just too much - let the story speak for itself. And stop comparing you and your team to Shackleford.
3) The music is overbearing and there's rarely a moment without it. Again, it's just too much. I can tell that the crew is struggling to save the ship and therefore their own lives. I don't need swelling strings and booming tympani to tell me that. When they let the sound of the natural surroundings take over and drop the music (or at least let it fall to the background) is when the film works best - hearing the wicked wind or the various animals is so much more effective at giving an impression of what the continent is like.
4) The camera never seems to blend into the background - short of the frantic battle against the storm, there's rarely a time when you feel the camera is just listening in on the natural conversations or events of the crew. It felt like they reshot and properly staged certain team events that had previously occurred.
5) The big storm is a terrific sequence, but it's drained of most of the tension it could have created because from the opening shot of the film you already know how it's going to turn out.
I suppose I'm being overly critical of the film. It has to be said that there were some great moments:
- The seals and the whales under the ice
- The massive jellyfish
- Catching the World Cup on the satellite dish
- The first time the crew brings out the hockey sticks on the Antarctic ice
- Several emotional scenes involving the crew and discussion of their families (especially the sole parent on the crew talking over the phone with his young son)
But I just can't get past the heavy-handed preachiness that comes through...I suppose it's totally unfair, but once or twice the name Steve Zissou flashed across my mind. And I don't think that's what they were intending.