From a distance, the dark, slow-moving line appears first to be a mirage. A dream of creatures in a place too desolate for life. Then the camera frame comes into focus. The trek of the emperor penguins, with their bobbing, clumsy gait, becomes less dreamy, but surreal still against the vast white expanse of glaciers and floes and, endlessly, nothing else at all. In the context of their Antarctic home, in theatrical dimensions without the distillation of quick camera cutaways and Disneyfied effects, the scene seems otherworldly.
In narration, actor Morgan Freeman calls the movie "March of the Penguins," which opens in Washington tomorrow, a love story, and yes, yes, the birds do seem to sacrifice all for love. But the sweep of their story, in the scope of that place, seems to cover even more luminous ground. Mile upon mile, with every awkward step, it is the imperative. . . . step . . . to live . . . step . . . in a place that churns and howls and clamors for death.
If the Antarctic were home to indigenous people, the story of the emperor penguin would be legend and parable, and its most transcendent themes would show up as glory in their sacred texts. But it has no people. Nothing beyond these birds to make yarn and myth. For thousands of generations they have endured the hellish ritual that perpetuates their species with only the ice to bear witness.
This is a story that has never been told fully and dramatically for want of a storyteller, says Luc Jacquet, the Frenchman who wrote and directed the movie and arranged for a two-person crew to spend nearly 14 months on the ice filming the birds. He wanted to render the birds' story in narrative form "as simple and essential as Inuit tales and African tales can be." And that story, of little-considered birds in an unknowable place, feels like a gift.
Right now winter is raging in the Antarctic. Thousands of males penguins huddle head to head against one another. They rotate constantly so that the warmest birds in the center slowly make their way to the perimeter to take a turn sheltering the others with the wind at their backs. Each is the other's only defense against gusts that can reach more than 100 miles per hour and temperatures of nearly 100 degrees below zero. They have not eaten since March, when they left the sea and walked, night and day, bird by bird, 70 miles inland to mate -- pairing up through song -- where they were born. Where the ice wouldn't go soft and the sea wouldn't rear up to claim their eggs.
Now the males are sitting with their eggs on top of their feet behind an apron of skin and feathers, the winds at their backs, waiting. The first eggs will begin hatching in the next few weeks. The females returned to the sea at the end of May after they laid their eggs. They'd lost a third of their nearly 70 pounds and trekked the 70 miles back to water to eat krill and store up food. Soon now, if they are not eaten by leopard seals, they will return to feed their hatchlings by regurgitation. And it will be the fathers' turn to journey to eat. If the mothers do not return, the newborns will die. If they are exposed to the wind or cold for more than a few moments, the newborns will die. And if the fathers are too starved to walk the 70 miles back to the sea, they, too, will die.
The point of their story is to live. Which is why the parents will take turns starving and walking and returning to feed their chicks until late December.
Which is why the crew had to live with them more than a year, watching and waiting for breaks in the wind to film at every step. (Two others, Jacquet and an undersea cameraman, rotated in and out for months at a time at the French scientific center of Dumont d'Urville.)
"I learned to cook the days I couldn't work outside," Jacquet says. The man-made demands of time and schedule were without authority in the coldest, iciest place on the planet. Only the wind had ultimate power to grant or deny every shot. So the crew learned patience and how to let go of the need for control. They learned how to dress and don equipment for an hour, only to have a storm change their light or cause them to flee for shelter. "You become an opportunist," Jacquet says. "You get yourself and your equipment ready and you wait days and days for a climate window to open." You wait for the animals to cooperate because there's only a small window to capture specific behaviors on film.
"You'll spend time around the penguin colony, and after two hours, you are frozen stiff. Night is falling. Then it takes one hour to undress and warm up," he says. And to thaw out the equipment and clean snow from its grooves. You sleep a lot, and you learn creative ways to pass time. "My pastry chef broke his arm and I made bread for the whole base for a month."
The director visited Washington in early June before a screening of the movie at the National Geographic Society; he spoke through an interpreter. He studied biology and first visited the Antarctic on scientific assignment to film emperor penguins nearly 13 years ago, having never held a camera. There have been many trips and nature and wildlife documentaries since. But "March of the Penguins" is not a documentary filled with facts and figures and long contextual segments, but rather a story of a journey, a portrait of the birds.
It can seem strange that a film about such a comical-looking animal can be so affecting. Although magnificent divers in ocean waters, when on land the birds have only the grace of necessity and the beauty of instinct. But framed by the film's intimate, unhurried shots, in the desolation of their natural habitat, they take on a majesty and aching poignancy. Jacquet describes it as a will to survive, "a determination to hold on regardless." He says he's been surprised at how deeply the film speaks to people across cultures. How much of the human condition, singing and mourning and defying hardship so that your young ones would live and your kind would continue on, shows up in their trek. How, for some, the birds' story is almost spiritual.
In one scene, a storm, which can drop the wind chill index to nearly 150 degrees below, besets the four-foot birds and they huddle and sway and cry out against the wind that would take their lives. The winds do not abate. The camera does not turn away. But you do. And in that moment, you think about how the native creatures, and cultures, of the world have always had to endure past our ability to endure watching them.
The film is punctuated by scenes of levity and delight: Birds tobogganing on their bellies to give their feet a break from walking. Couples singing to find just the right bird to share their winter mating season. Fluffy penguin babies walking and falling and taking stock of their world. But even in funny times, death casts shadows on the ice. Jacquet doesn't show the birds dying, but their fate lingers at the edge of the frames and the audience's imagination.
The penguin who got a late start marched alone and died. The egg that rolled off the father's feet split open within seconds, killing the chick inside. "I've never been so close to death," Jacquet says. "Chicks die in front of you of hunger and cold."
Still, Jacquet and his crew never interfered. "Life and death is divine," he says. "Nature works better without man to intervene."
Watching the film, you understand that intervention and misplaced sentimentality would be the birds' undoing. And as the stark, stunning images play across the screen, you worry whether "desolation" locations could become the hottest thing in ecotourism -- the wonder of "nothing!" for people who have everything. And you think please, Lord, never let Disney this way come.
Jacquet is more optimistic. Antarctica has never been colonized. Military forces are forbidden to enter and more than a dozen nations are party to a treaty that permits the continent to be used solely for research and exploration. "The climate defends itself with austerity," he says.
"By endurance we conquer," wrote Alfred Lansing, quoting early-20th-century explorer Ernest Shackleton in his account of Shackleton's ill-fated 1914 Antarctic expedition.
It can be tempting to ask why some things must struggle so, and that has no answer. Better to simply appreciate that they do and they have, and that they are still here continuing to endure. "March of the Penguins" is a love story, a parable and a legend of courage and survival.