The Last Continent

A documentary by Jean Lemire. Narrated by Donald Sutherland. Rated G. Opens Friday, August 1, at the Ridge Theatre

Going to the ends of the earth used to have a more metaphorical meaning. Now, when scientists travel to Antarctica, it is because they are worried that the world really is coming to a close.

The one-year mission of a 13-person crew seemingly led by French-Canadian filmmaker Jean Lemire—who also directed The Last Continent and wrote the English-language version with producer Caroline Underwood—is to witness rapid changes to the southern ice shelf. Witness is an important word here, because few observers stay an entire Antarctic winter. Also, the narration, read sonorously by Donald Sutherland, gives no clue as to what scientific methods, if any, were used during this sojourn.

This isn’t fatal, though, since the images of eerie seascapes and fantastically adapted animals speak for themselves. The minimal presence of pack ice in a region normally locked in for much of the year is self-evident, and scenes of crew members adjusting to subtle changes as winter falls are often exhilarating. These are Canadians so where there’s frozen water, you can bet you’ll see hockey sticks.

The two-hour film’s biggest problem, oddly, is a curious lack of confidence in its material. Mildly dramatic events are pumped up with awful, Hollywood-style music, and there are attempts to create IMAX–sized conflict where it doesn’t really exist.

Early on we are told repeatedly that some voyageurs are seriously considering leaving the mission, rather than face isolation over a nine-month winter. But once winter arrives, the subject isn’t addressed again. There are half-hearted attempts to engage emotionally with a few people missing their families (quelle surprise!), but the participants remain curiously unindividuated. Still, the film’s stunning sights make the case that there is still much to discover. As the narrator asks, more in sorrow than in anger, “How could we have been so careless?”