Clocking in at under an hour, An Arctic Space Odyssey traces the story of a group of men who worked for a year on a satellite station on an island that could be considered the Alaska of Norway. The most remarkable aspect of the work, directed by Lars Einar Skageberg, is that it’s mostly composed of Super 8 footage shot by the crew members in the late ‘60s. And due to the crew’s strange lifestyle on the island station, the images have a strange family photo quality. Sometimes they’re funny, sometimes they’re endearing, sometimes they’re just boring.
Insight into life on the station — with its polar bears and months of darkness — is given by Roald Søfteland, who was the leader of the bunch. His task was to oversee the downloading of information from the first satellite the Europeans launched into space. In order to make this happen, he had to manage the men under him as they all tried to keep their sanity while living in extreme isolation with large stores of alcohol.
He also had to keep the Soviets, who also had a presence on the island, from thinking their mission was really one of espionage. If he failed, Cold War tension would escalate, with the Russians would potentially start working military operations close to the satellite station. Yikes. On top of all that, there was bad news trickling in from back home: Søfteland’s wife was ill.
On paper, An Arctic Space Odyssey has the right stuff to be a wonderful 50-minute documentary. In execution, however, Skageberg fails to pull it all together. The biggest issue is that the story, as he tells it, has no drama. The history of the mission comes across like a series of bullet points, the politics don’t ever seem all that big a deal, and even the family storyline feels like it’s tacked on at the end. This is something I’d only recommend to Cold War history fanatics. And if you have a soft spot for polar bears, just stay away. The crew loved killing them, for some reason.
An Arctic Space Odyssey is playing tonight at 7:35 p.m. at the St. Anthony Main Theatre. It will be screening again tomorrow at 3 p.m.
(credit: The Film Society of Minneapolis-St. Paul)
Other Highlights: Friday, April 18
The Unknown Known (Errol Morris; United States) This film tops out my list of must-see documentaries in 2014. Here, the Academy-Award-winning director of The Fog of War has his eyes set on another Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, who served under George W. Bush and was a key figure in the Iraq war. Instead of making just a run-of-the-mill interview movie, Morris uses tens of thousands of tiny memos written by Rumsfeld throughout his life to shape a portrait of the man and his unique view of history. Sounds like required watching to me. (7:20 p.m.)
Half of a Yellow Sun (Biyi Bandele; Nigeria, United Kingdom) Chiwetel Ejiofor, the leading man in 12 Years A Slave, stars in this romantic drama about the lives of two privileged twin sisters and the start of the Nigerian Civil War. At first, the film plays like a soap opera, but as the political situation worsens, the sisters have to come to grips with poverty, violence and general despair. Ejiofor gives a powerful performance as a husband to one of the sisters, and the movie shows that no fancy education can prepare one for war. (4:45 p.m.)
Living Is Easy With Eyes Closed (David Trueca; Spain) Hey Beatles fans, as you probably guessed by the title, this one’s for you. It’s about a Spanish school teacher — who uses Beatles songs to teach English to his students — trekking across the Spain of the late ’60s to meet John Lennon, who was shooting How I Won the War on the country’s southern coast. In this land of strawberry fields, the film’s charming story plays out, following the teacher and two people who join his quest: a pregnant young woman and a runaway teenager. Like Lennon, the film exhibits a brilliant blend of lyricism and political focus. And, truly, there’s something magical, eternal about those strawberry fields. (5:15 p.m.)
Throughout the entirety of the 2014 Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival, we’ll be spotlighting one notable movie each day, along with other notable screenings. To see the WCCO Movie Blog’s complete coverage on the MSPIFF, click here.