Total Recall

Total Recall: Chill Out With These Antarctica Movies

With Whiteout hitting theaters, we run down the hottest flicks from the coldest continent.

by | September 9, 2009 | Comments

Unless you happen to be overly fond of snow, Antarctica probably isn’t a place you think about very often — and for the most part, filmmakers have always been the same way. For all the movies based in New York, Chicago, and L.A., we’ve had precious few take place in the wintry tundra at the bottom of the globe — but director Dominic Sena is doing his part to help bring some Antarctic love to a theater near you with Whiteout, the Kate Beckinsale-led thriller opening this weekend. Seeing it on the release schedule got us to thinking about other movies based in Earth’s southernmost continent — and naturally, we decided to turn it into a Total Recall, one in which we give you a taste of what you can expect on a trip to the South Pole (short answer: penguins and aliens).


Alien vs. Predator

At this point, human beings have figured out how to colonize pretty much any place on Earth — which means that the few places that remain uninhabited should probably stay that way. Places such as Bouvet Island, the glacier-coated Norwegian territory that lies a thousand miles north of Antarctica. Bouvetøya, as the Norwegians call it, is so inhospitable that it doesn’t contain much more than a research station, some moss, and a few penguins — oh, and a centuries-old subterranean pyramid that serves as a battleground for the endless war between the extraterrestrial races we refer to as Aliens and Predators. That conflict was unwittingly re-opened by a team of unfortunate research scientists in 2004’s Alien vs. Predator, a Paul W.S. Anderson project that adapted the long-running franchise mashup that had been entertaining comic readers and game fans for years. You would think common sense would keep people from poking around on the remotest island on the planet — or climbing down a shaft in an abandoned whaling station — but just in case you find yourself tempted, remember the words of the San Francisco Chronicle’s Mick LaSalle, who warned, “take a wretched premise. Imagine the worst picture that could be made from it. Then imagine something even worse.”


Eight Below

Poor Cuba Gooding Jr. Just a few years after he shivered his way through the critical turkey Snow Dogs, Paul Walker came along with another wintry canine adventure — also produced by Disney — and melted the hearts of critics and audiences alike. Very loosely based on the true story of a 1958 Japanese expedition to Antarctica, Eight Below taught us four things: One, that Martian meteors can sometimes land in very inconvenient places; two, that there’s nobility in repaying a debt, even if that debt is to the pack of sled dogs that saved you from certain death; three, that dogs can steal a film from Paul Walker; and four, that an inspirational, fact-based drama always trumps a broad comedy featuring a Michael Bolton cameo. It is, in the words of Premiere’s Ethan Alter, “An example of a formula picture executed with the right mixture of professionalism and heart.”


9 Songs

If you were a lonely researcher suffering through another brutally cold week in Antarctica, your mind would probably start to wander — and when it did, thoughts of past relationships might not be far behind. Such is the case with Matt (Kieran O’Brien), the British climatologist whose icy exile sparks the series of memories that form the core of Michael Winterbottom’s 2004 release 9 Songs. Again and again, Matt’s thoughts return to his doomed relationship with Lisa (Margo Stilley), the American exchange student whose shared love of indie rock helped cement the couple’s bond (and gives the movie its title), but ultimately wasn’t enough to keep the romance alive after her return to the United States. Unfortunately, Matt and Lisa’s love story wasn’t enough to keep most critics entertained — even with the unsimulated naughty bits that caused controversy in the film’s native England and led to an unrated release here. Still, 9 Songs‘ lack of, ahem, moving parts is oddly fitting, in a way, as it left some critics feeling a lot like Matt. In the words of the Oregonian’s Shawn Levy, “seventy minutes of pneumatic sex without the trappings of characterization, plot or even attempted meaning can be a profoundly long time.”


The Land that Time Forgot

World War I was pretty terrible, what with the trench warfare and the mustard gas and the screaming death — but for the unlucky survivors of a sunken British merchant ship who were taken captive by a German U-boat, the war ended up seeming like a vacation. For these poor folks, whose adventures were immortalized in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 1918 novel and adapted for the screen in Kevin Connor’s 1975 The Land That Time Forgot, becoming prisoners of war was just the beginning of a journey that ended up taking them all the way to Antarctica — where they discovered a menagerie of supposedly extinct creatures, including dinosaurs and Neanderthal humans. Of course, the dinosaurs looked a heck of a lot like puppets — and the boat, for that matter, looked an awful lot like a model — but unless you’ve been to Antarctica yourself, who are you to judge? Audiences were only too happy to make the journey to this Land, making it one of the year’s surprise hits, and though most critics rolled their eyes at its low-budget effects and hammy performances, others appreciated its throwback matinee vibe. Time’s Jay Cocks, for one, promised that “instant second childhood is guaranteed in less than 90 minutes.”


Encounters at the End of the World

Most of the movies on our list explore the strange creatures and often paranormal happenings of the coldest place on Earth — but Werner Herzog, ever the iconoclast, took a different approach for his 2007 documentary. Declaring himself disinterested in “fluffy penguins,” Herzog instead assembled an acerbic, thoughtful nature documentary focused less on the Antarctic landscape than the people who live there. In his inimitably unsentimental style, Herzog surveys the icy continent while probing the psychological makeup of residents like iceberg geologist Douglas MacAyeal, zoologist Jan Pawlowski, and Henry Kaiser, the guitarist/research diver whose underwater footage drew Herzog to the project in the first place. Anyone can read about Antarctica and deduce that it would take a special kind of person to want to spend an extended period of time there, but it took a filmmaker as brilliantly perverse as Herzog to use them to create what is, in the words of ViewLondon’s Matthew Turner, an “engaging, beautifully shot and genuinely fascinating documentary that will stay with you for weeks afterwards.”


X-Files: Fight the Future

For years, agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) warned us that the truth was out there — and in their 1998 feature film debut, they proved their willingness to find it by venturing all the way to Antarctica, where they discovered…well, it’s a little hard to say what they found, exactly. It’s clear that someone buried a giant lab out there, and used it to store what seemed to be alien bodies in a state of suspended animation — and there may have been an alien vessel under that. But as for what it all meant, and how swarms of bees and buckets of black slime fit into it all? We’re still not sure we have any idea, which is probably just fine with X-Files creator Chris Carter. And it didn’t bother most critics much, either: the Washington Post’s Michael O’Sullivan spoke for more than a few of his peers when he shrugged off Fight the Future‘s more inscrutable moments and pronounced it “stylish, scary, sardonically funny and at times just plain gross.”


Happy Feet

From the outside, penguins seem like fairly docile, agreeable creatures, which is part of why they’re so popular at zoos and movie theaters. But what we never knew before George Miller’s 2006 hit Happy Feet was that they can also be a cliquish, superstitious bunch, not above exiling an oddball member of the flock for doing something as innocent as cutting a rug on the ice. That’s what happens to Mumble, the star of the film, after he runs afoul of his tribe’s elders by ignoring the age-old tradition of finding a mate by singing a “heartsong,” opting instead to tap out the rhythm to “Boogie Wonderland.” (Having spent their lives exposed to the elements, most penguins are apparently not fans of Earth, Wind & Fire.) After a few mildly perilous diversions, including a few months spent locked up in a Sea World clone, Mumble eventually manages to work his way back into his flock’s good graces — and, with a climactic dance number, help bring about the end of Antarctic overfishing. Over the top? Perhaps. But it was also a huge hit (a sequel’s on the way) and a winner with critics like the Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern, who pronounced it “the kind of musical comedy that might have swept the world if MGM had been based in Antarctica instead of Culver City.”


March of the Penguins

With the possible exception of Werner Herzog, everyone thinks penguins are cute — but it took this 2005 documentary to teach us that they’re also some of the most faithful mates and devoted parents on the planet. Following the annual mating ritual of the Emperor penguin, director Luc Jacquet and his team showed viewers the incredibly arduous journey the birds endure every year, which includes going up to four months without food, hundreds of miles of lonely waddling, and — given that the males of the species huddle together for warmth during the long weeks when their mates are away — more bromance than an all-day Starsky & Hutch marathon. The French original was dubbed with dialogue that featured the penguins “talking” to each other; thankfully, the American version gave us the dulcet tones of Morgan Freeman, which certainly didn’t hurt March of the Penguins‘ chances during awards season, when it took home a trophy case full of honors (including a coveted Golden Tomato Award) to go along with rapturous praise from critics like the New Yorker’s David Denby, who pronounced it “a perfect family movie, a perfect date movie, and one of the most eye-ravishing documentaries ever made.”


The Thing

Cold and unforgiving, Antarctica can seem like a pretty foreboding place — especially when your camp has been infiltrated by a hostile, shape-shifting alien being who was foolishly dug up and thawed out by the Norwegian scientists at a neighboring research station. Such is the plight befallen the men of John Carpenter’s The Thing, a 1982 adaptation of John W. Campbell Jr.’s 1938 novella Who Goes There? (and loose remake of Howard Hawks’ 1951 The Thing from Another World). Billed as “the ultimate in alien terror,” The Thing lived up to the hype, thanks to some truly grotesque special effects and one of the bleakest final acts in mainstream sci-fi — and was quickly eclipsed at the box office by the far cuddlier E.T. Though it may not have sold as many tickets as its home-phoning cousin, The Thing has persisted as a cult classic on home video — and in any case, it’s probably the more instructive of the two, teaching us the folly of digging up spaceships in the ice, warming up their frozen occupants, and leaving Wilford Brimley alone for any extended period of time. It contains, in the words of eFilmCritic’s Rob Gonsalves, “everything you could want to know about horror filmmaking.”

Take a look through the reviews for Whiteout, as well as the rest of our Total Recall archives.

Finally, we leave you with — yes — more penguin footage: