Judge Patrick Rogers thinks this expedition needs more Steve Zissou.
An unforgettable 430 day adventure
The Last Continent comes to us in a well-packaged Blu-ray, complete with a fancy new narration by God himself, Donald Sutherland (M*A*S*H), and just enough bonus features to bring it all together and heighten the film as a whole. But does The Last Continent stand toe-to-toe with the plethora of nature documentaries that have proliferated the HD era?
Facts of the Case
The Last Continent tells the story of a group of adventurists, scientists and filmmakers who set out on a mission to trap themselves and their boat in the harsh Antarctic ice to better record and understand the effects that climate change have on the region and the globe itself. However, the issues associated with climate change in the region are more serious and accelerated than predicted and this group of researches must fight against the forces of nature in the most remote part of the world in unforeseen ways. Passionately filmed and documented, The Last Continent stands as a culminating chronicle for a group of people with the innate desire to highlight the environmental linkage between our world and this remote, arctic paradise that is slowly sliding into the ocean. Though, because of The Last Continent's scatter-shot focus, the emotional weight of the material loses some of the impact that the filmmakers strive for.
It should be said right off the bat that Donald Sutherland's involvement in any film promises at least a slight bit of quality. The man could narrate an anti-depressant commercial and have it be interesting. The people behind The Last Continent must be keying in on the exact same wave length because there is his name, smack dab in elegant lettering on the cover. His narration is articulated, well-pointed and with a subdued yet poignant sense of emotion that perfectly fits with the subject material. He is neither too monotone and ambivalent sounding, nor is he gratingly over-invested in trying to sell you on his words with a condescending tone usually found in documentary fare like this. Donald Sutherland does for this film and issues of climate change what Morgan Freeman did for those penguins. He makes the material engaging and provoking, material which has admittedly been raked over pretty thoroughly and in better capacities than what is found within this film.
That is just it though, The Last Continent has a great hook to explore these issues of climate change and melting ice caps yet it doesn't quite deliver. Instead of the power point torture of An Inconvenient Truth or the soul crushing footage of polar bears drifting away to certain doom on ice floats, The Last Continent chooses to engage you on a unique level by following a group of men and women so passionate about the planet we live on that they volunteer to steer their ship straight into a region where, during the winter, everyone else is leaving. By purposefully getting themselves stuck in the Antarctic pack ice, they force themselves into having nothing to do except watch and catalogue the slow death of an integral part of our planet's ecological and climatological systems. As a reference point, they have a hard time even keeping a package of peas frozen. If you can't keep a pack of peas frozen in Antarctica, the world is surely going to hell.
Of course not everything in The Last Continent is so serious. We get to stand witness to some truly beautiful scenes of cute little animals swimming and playing to capture that March of the Penguins demographic, and it's enough to make anyone's heart melt. We watch as the crew tries desperately to get a World Cup soccer match on the television, while also having the occasional hockey or ping pong game. A thoroughly interesting yet disappointingly underdeveloped aspect of the film is in watching how these people are going to manage to cope with each other, let alone their surroundings, for 430 days. And there's also some genuinely tense moments of suspense and danger where we understand the reality of the situation that these people have put themselves in.
And this is where, sadly, the problem with The Last Continent lies. The message it has about the effects we as a population have on the entire globe is thoroughly compelling, especially when we see the evidence of climate change there in the melting ice and disrupted migratory patterns of the native animals. But The Last Continent is too much of a scatter-shot, never knowing what it wants to focus on in order to create the most compelling argument. Parts of the film want to focus on the crew and how they cope or adapt to their surrounding, part of it wants to focus on the animals and how their situation is changing because of the thaw, but ultimately not much of the film wants to actually go into any scientific discussion of why this is happening or the effects that climate change is having on this region and the globe as a whole. Maybe the filmmakers think that this aspect of concrete scientific analysis has been done to death and that they want to win you over with images instead of words. The problem is, there's not much substance in that realm either because so many of the film's images want to immerse themselves in the mundane. Warner Herzog did a much better job exploring and analyzing the unique psyche and determination of scientists choosing to work in regions like this in his highly superior Encounters at the Edge of the World. And there are thoroughly better nature documentaries on the region and these animals as a whole. This leads to The Last Continent being stuck between two worlds, and not excelling in any area. Taking this into account, much of the material has been done before and to a better degree, but this does not negate the whole experience because this documentary still has a great hook to it even if it lacks focus.
What The Last Continent lacks in focus, it surely makes up for in clarity. The film comes with a very strong 1.78:1 high definition transfer that almost rivals what we come to expect from high quality David Attenborough documentaries. On the whole the contrast and clarity are exceptionally strong, with colors blending and matching perfectly. The Antarctic setting gives itself over beautifully to Blu-ray, with white levels just astoundingly vivid. The crisp clarity of the pitch perfect ocean blues makes the viewer wish for a wet suit just to take a dip for themselves to see how cold it is. There are a few instances during night scenes where clarity and resolution drops to give us a blown out image of murky grays and inconsistent blacks and there are a few generally hazy shots, but these scenes are few and far between.
The audio comes in either an English DTS HD Master 5.1, or its original French and the track delivers what you come to expect from documentary audio that's dialogue heavy. However, there are a few instances where the DTS track is allowed to shine, such as the ominous crunching of the ship's hull to the crying sounds of an abandoned seal. The most refreshing aspect of the audio track is the clarity to which Simon Leclerc's score is recreated. To say that the score to The Last Continent is your standard documentary fare would be a disservice to how effective Leclerc's music is. At every turn the music is there to heighten what we see on screen, from the tense thrill of the Antarctic landscape to the raw emotionality of this thawing paradise. Leclerc's score helps to heighten and synthesis image and sound to create a uniquely varied and effective score. All in all, the audio track is serviceable with a few instances of true genius. As for the special features, The Last Continent comes equipped with the requisite theatrical trailer and 11 small featurettes that heighten the overall film experience to a small but agreeable manner. These featurettes range from deleted scenes to added material on certain Antarctic animals. The most interesting however is a profile on the film's composer, Simon Leclerc, that takes you behind the scenes to see the construction of the film's excellent score.
Ultimately, The Last Continent is an effective and engaging documentary, though the scatter-shot focus and existence of better film texts on this subject matter does take away from the overall impact of this documentary. It's is worth at least a rental to hear Donald Sutherland's narration, and because the film at least has a unique hook to it, though it is sadly not explored to its full depths.
Not guilty on the grounds of pluck and determination.
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