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BMZ Review: Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure
By Herb Lash


BMZ Review of Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure
Written by: Herb Lash
Source: Big Movie Zone
Date: Feb 2001


Category: Reviews

In 1914, Antarctica-bound Ernest Shackleton set sail aboard the Endurance with a 27-man crew, intent on becoming the first man to cross the frozen continent on foot, through the South Pole. Today the world is wired, space stations orbit the earth, satellites land on asteroids and edge-of-the-world explorers are never more than a phone call away. Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure seeks to transport us to an earlier time, when a brave wave farewell from the bow of a boat was the adventurer's last contact with the known world. 

Shackleton's extraordinary combination of good luck, bad luck, good judgment and bad judgment make any telling of his three-year odyssey nothing less than engrossing. The IMAX® filmmakers here struggle to find their storytelling voice, wavering between documentary, docu-drama and dramatic recreation, and the Big Movie’s swirl of styles distracts from the simple suspense and thrill of Shackleton's real-life adventure.  But never mind all that, the film is a success because of its two photographers: Frank Hurley and Reed Smoot. One traveled around the world and shot film for the Endurance in 1916 and the other travels around the world and shoots Big Movies today. Both men knew how to photograph Antarctica so that it stuns.

Before the Endurance expedition, Shackleton had made a name for himself in Antarctica.  He had hoped to become the first man to reach the geographic South Pole, but bad weather and good judgment forced him to turn back.  Others beat him to the Pole, but rather than being obsessed with achieving specific "firsts," Shackleton was driven by an apparent need to test human limitations.

A foot crossing of Antarctica posed just the sort of David versus Goliath challenge he thirsted for.  But the journey fast becomes more than a challenge when Antarctica's Weddell Sea freezes around the sturdy Endurance. The agonizing ice grip tightens month by month and finally crushes the wooden ship, but not the spirits of indefatigable Ernest Shackleton. He vows to survive and to return every last man to safety. A crewman at the time refers to him as "surely the greatest living optimist." It takes nearly two years of drifting on ice floes, braving open seas, near starvation, deadening frost bite and mountain climbing without supplies - but Shackleton makes good on his word and doesn't lose a single man.

A straightforward telling of the facts behind Shackleton's ordeal would seem enough to round out this boyishly exciting, Jack Londonesque tale.  But the storytellers here never quite get their adventure yarn rolling. Standard documentary voice over is applied, along with historically accurate recreations of 28 men paddling in a boat, and awkwardly placed comparisons between past and present expeditions - the movie has a cobbled-together feel and momentum is choppy. Not to worry though, the film is very much like Shackleton's expedition - just when things look grim there always appears on the horizon a saving grace.

Big Movies have long delivered massive, striking images of the far flung and exotic. But more than a few of the scenes in Shackleton seem filmed on a planet somewhere in the Salvador Dali solar system. Massive chunks of arching, wind sculpted ice strike as living ocean nomads. The roiling waters of the Weddell Sea are cold to look at. The white and translucent blue cliffs at the edge of the Antarctic pack ice convey a sense of terrible beauty.

The artful inclusion of Frank Hurley's  motion picture footage and his haunting, pre-Ansel Adams still photography charge the film with a lingering beauty and storytelling of their own. Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure provides the best place outside of a museum to admire Hurley's work (or the best place IN a museum, if that's where your local IMAX screen is).  One leaves the theater wondering what Hurley might have thought of Director of Photography Reed Smoot's (as well as Ron Goodman's)  IMAX camerawork.

Forgive the storytelling and ignore the overblown, melodramatic score that accompanies these images of Antarctica.  The simple pleasures provided by the past and present natural cinematography combined with an incredible, true adventure tale are more than satisfying.

IMAX® is a registered trademark of IMAX Corporation.

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