After Hurricane Sandy’s unfortunate dance of destruction on the east coast recently, there’s been plenty of renewed discussion on the topic of global warming given that it’s…you know, an undeniable reality. Released with some sadly good timing, Chasing Ice provides a visceral exploration of the issue. Thankfully, it’s not another overly didactic lecture on the science behind climate change, but a more personal story with no less shocking results. Jeff Orlowski’s first feature chronicles legendary James Balog’s recent photo-study of rapidly melting icebergs and glaciers with images that are frighteningly undeniable as well as a story that’s actually compelling beyond the political significance. It’s probably one of the best documentaries of the year and given the subject matter, it’s certainly a timely one as well.
James Barlog specialized in photographing endangered animals for National Geographic for years to great acclaim, but only recently found what he considers to be his life’s true calling. He was asked to take photographs of melting icebergs for the magazine and was so taken by the subject that he considered the assignment to be a scouting mission for a bigger project. Barlog decided to use time-lapse photography to capture the rapidly depleting glaciers and icebergs of Greenland, Iceland, Alaska and Montana. Dozens of cameras were set up through immense challenges and the results when shown in the film speak for themselves. Throughout it all, Orlowki films Barlog in close proximity and clearly inspired by the work of the beloved photographer, he creates a film that is no less beautiful, treacherous, and meaningful than Barlog’s life’s work.
Following a speedy and succinct introduction to global warming, the bulk of the first half of the film chronicles the challenges of Barlog’s project. Special cameras had to be invented to capture the time-lapse images over an extended period of time in frigid conditions. Even setting up the cameras required dangling off of dangerous rock faces and for the first few months nothing worked. But Barlog is endlessly passionate and perseveres through it all. There are some truly affecting sequences throughout this section, like when the engine fails on a helicopter taking the team out to an isolated location and the crew’s life is in danger. Or when Barlog’s knees start to fail him, but he still hobbles on crutches through the snow to capture his images. The film would be worth watching simply as a man vs. nature odyssey, but once the photos start coming back from the expeditions, things get a little more interesting.
Not only does Barlog’s experiment work, but the situation is far worse than he feared. Ice is melting so quickly that cameras need to be repositioned in the middle of the projects. The time lapse images show citywide glaciers disappear like ice cubes dropped into boiling water. Yet, the most remarkable event captured is when Orlowski and another crew member set out to try and film a glacier calving (a term for a chunk of a glacier breaking off and falling into the sea). They pick a location where they know something might happen and end up capturing the largest calving ever documented. A glacier the size of Manhattan collapses suddenly and it’s made clear this is not an isolated incident. It’s a show-stopping moment, the full effect of which can’t really be described. It has to be seen.
While there are plenty of documentaries out there about global warming, few show the immediate effects of the issue as well as Chasing Ice. It’s one thing to hear terrifying statistics, it’s another thing to actually see glaciers melting at record speeds that shock even the experts who specialize in that field. Barlog is an ideal subject for this sort of documentary, intelligent, passionate, articulate, and willing to put himself into danger for his craft. He’s the type of scientist that Spielberg would make a movie about if only he studied some sort of massive prehistoric creature. Orlowski’s film has a clear political agenda that he communicates without pandering. For the most part he’s able to use Barlog’s project to create a narrative arc and it has just the right combination of struggle and triumph to be a satisfying dramatic through-line. There will inevitably be plenty of viewers out there too tired of this issue to have any interest in Chasing Ice, but it would be a mistake to miss the film. It’s rare that movies about issues such as global warming are this informative, visually beautiful, and entertaining. See it before the world ends.