In the past, the makers of IMAX big-screen films have often had trouble balancing the purely visual elements with a compelling narrative. Some early efforts were little more than thrill rides, not unlike a visit to an amusement park and hardly more memorable. On the other hand, when plots have been added, they’ve often been so threadbare as to be laughable. Happily, the elements come together very well in this latest effort from White Mountain Films (a New Hampshire production company headed by George Butler, who also directs the film) in conjunction with NOVA/WGBH Boston, the renowned source of many PBS programs. The subject is Sir Ernest Shackleford’s ill-fated 1914 expedition to traverse the Antarctic continent on foot; heavy ice eventually stranded the party and destroyed its ship, the aptly-named Endurance, forcing Shackleton and two other men to undertake a hazardous 800-mile boat journey and a grueling cross-island trek to reach a whaling camp where they could mount a rescue operation. Butler and White Mountain have also completed a full-length documentary on the subject (it was shown at Telluride in 2000 and last month at Sundance, to great acclaim), but though this version, at about forty minutes, is less than half as long, skillful editing, as well as the splendor afforded by the IMAX projection system, make it a must-see even for those who will seek out the more conventional feature. Through the use of still photographs and silent films taken by the expedition’s photographer Frank Hurley, as well as expert recreations in the actual locales, “Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure” offers up a stirring tale of courage and tenacity in the face of the most extreme adversity. The vistas are often breathtaking, and a final segment in which three contemporary mountain-climbers (Reinhold Messner, Stephen Venables and Conrad Anker) retrace the dangerous walk that Shacklerton and his comrades made across South Georgia Island helps to point up the earlier group’s amazing accomplishment. (As a whole the picture makes such Hollywood efforts to depict the difficulty of climbing on wintry slopes as the recent “Virtual Limit” seem positively puny.) The narration occasionally gets a bit too flowery–some of the climactic stuff about the triumph of the human spirit could have been toned down a trifle–but it’s well delivered by Kevin Spacey. And technically, of course, the picture is a marvel.
It’s appropriate that WGBH should have been involved in the making of the film, because in content it’s very much like a superior (and in this case, uplifting) PBS documentary. But there’s nothing wrong with that; at a time when television feeds us such phony outdoors stuff as the “Survivor” series, providing a dose of true “reality” is a worthwhile endeavor. “Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure” will be a great family outing–and there’s no danger of frostbite.