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Chasing Ice - Film Reviews

'Chasing Ice,' And Capturing Climate Change On Film

Mark Jenkins, NPR

Two decades ago, James Balog was one of the people who couldn't wrap his head around the prospect of global warming. The threat seemed too abstract, and the science too linked to the sort of computer-model analysis he disdained.

But the geographer-turned-photographer (principally for National Geographic) doesn't think that way any more. Neither will most of the viewers of Chasing Ice, the documentary that observes Balog's efforts to chronicle the planet's shrinking glaciers.

At first, Balog began visiting glaciers six months apart, photographing their dramatic shrinkage. He decided that wasn't enough, so he founded the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS) and began to place automated cameras at dozens of sites in Greenland, Iceland, Alaska and Montana.

His first attempts didn't work. Windswept rocks smashed the cameras; microprocessors failed, batteries exploded, and foxes chewed the cables. So Balog and his small crew successfully retooled, and the second-generation cameras produced thousands of images. Glaciers receded before his — and now, our — eyes. Sometimes the melting was so rapid that the ice retreated right out of the camera's view.

Jeff Orlowski, making his first feature documentary, tagged along on several EIS expeditions. Acting as his own cameraman, he documented the many disappointments and the drama of the scenery and weather, as well as Balog's obsessiveness.

When his knees start to fail, Balog has another round of surgery — he's had four so far — and then heads out once again to hike across tundra and rappel into ice-walled chasms. In one shot, he ventures into the Arctic wilderness on crutches.

Balog is no Al Gore, delivering slick lectures that Explain It All. But he does give illustrated talks, basing his patter on time-lapse photography. These startling images are irrefutable, showing glaciers losing size and bulk as their meltwaters flow into the ocean, raising global sea levels. (Are all glaciers withering? No, but the movie introduces a study that reveals that in one area, 96 percent of them are.)

Chasing Ice acknowledges the political resistance to climate-change data with montages of comments from news-channel talk shows. This is one of the conventional aspects of Orlowski's stylistically unadventurous movies. There's also an overbearing, derivative score that culminates with an end-credit song performed, unnecessarily, by Scarlett Johansson and Joshua Bell.

What sustains the film are neither words nor music but spectacular images of places few people have ever seen. They're in a region Balog calls "insanely, ridiculously beautiful," a phrase that Orlowski's images fully justify. The movie also includes some of Balog's still photographs, placed in context to show how the photographer works.

The documentary's climax, however, was shot during an event that Balog didn't see with his own eyes. It's a landscape-altering "calving" during which a melting glacier suddenly cracks, shimmies and collapses, as if being swallowed from inside. As Orlowski and two patient EIS team members watch, the likely future of the polar regions transpires in real time.

In Hollywood these days, such epic transformations are rendered with computers and called "morphing." Offering a lesson both to filmmakers and climate-change deniers, Chasing Ice demonstrates how much more powerful it is to capture the real thing.


'Chasing Ice' against the reality of melting glaciers

Ty Burr, Boston Globe online

The money shots come late in "Chasing Ice," a documentary about the pioneering glacier photography of James Balog. For more than an hour, we've followed him around Iceland, Greenland, and Alaska, as he and his assistants set up cameras facing the great ice sheets, programming them to snap photos at regular intervals. Finally we get the big reveal: The images are arranged as time-lapse sequences in which glaciers melt away like so much butter over the course of a year. As much as one may intellectually believe in climate change, to see it actually happening has the power to stun a viewer into wordlessness. Balog's work is flip-book apocalypse, and it is undeniable.

The rest of Jeff Orlowski's film works hard to build up its subject as an obsessive craftsman saint, and that feels vaguely beside the point. Ultimately, it's the pictures that matter and not the man who takes them. But Orlowski does share Balog's smoldering rage at a society that refuses to face the consequences of its actions, and that rage forms the necessary spine of "Chasing Ice." This is an agit-doc with no apologies and a lot of sorrow.

Early on, "Inconvenient Truth"-style charts show us a millennia-long dance of carbon dioxide levels and global temperatures, rising and falling in lockstep; in the last 50 years, the CO2 soars off the charts. But numbers mean little next to Balog's photos and Orlowski's video footage, which between them balance on a fulcrum between beauty and distress. Unceasing meltwater cuts deep-blue channels through the ice sheets before vanishing down abysses like liquid down a bottomless drain. Cryoconite holes — small round thaws created by soot blowing in from thousands of miles away — riddle the glaciers with gorgeous pockmarks. Balog's assistants videotape the calving of an unimaginably huge section of glacier into the sea; it's as if Earth itself is vomiting....

What Balog sees (and what Orlowski sees him seeing) is an epochal climatological change that is hastening toward the tipping point, if it hasn't already gone beyond. These photographs, unfolding in time, function as both proof and relic — a record of a landscape's memory. Behind the images lie an abiding scorn for those who are unwilling to recognize what's happening and a lucid dread about where we're probably heading. If that depresses you, I'm sure there's something entertaining on TV.


The most beautiful/depressing movie about global warming ever

Chasing Ice

Cheryl Eddy, San Francisco Bay Guardian Online

Even wild-eyed neocons might reconsider their declarations that global warming is a hoax after seeing the work of photographer James Balog, whose images of shrinking glaciers offer startling proof that our planet is indeed being ravaged by climate change (and it's getting exponentially worse). Jeff Orlowski's doc follows Balog and his Extreme Ice Survey team as they brave cruel elements in Iceland, Greenland, and Alaska, using time-lapse cameras to record glacier activity, some of it quite dramatic, over months and years. Balog is an affable subject, doggedly pursuing his work even after multiple knee surgeries make him a less-than-agile hiker, but it's the photographs — as hauntingly beautiful as they are alarming — that make Chasing Ice so powerful.


Sundance Diary

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks, San Francisco Bay Guardian Online

...manages to sidestep the frivolous argument between liberals and conservatives as to whether or not the polar ice caps are melting. In fact, this beautiful documentary is so jaw-droppingly visual, you end up interacting with and understanding the planet's ice structures as if they were your own grandparents. Trekking out to the furthest spots in the Northern Hemisphere, National Geographic photographer James Balog, his hard working-crew, and director Jeff Orlowski have created a document that will force the world to actually see what is happening as opposed to arguing assumptions. What I found even more unnerving is how beautiful I found crumbling ice caps to be. Am I part of the problem?