Which brings us to the documentary “Chasing Ice,” a work of visual art that’s difficult to review as a film.
Is it accurate? Undeniably. Beautiful? Breathtakingly so. Controversial? No more so than a tasteful nude photo. But the medium is indeed the message, and in the case of “Chasing Ice,” it’s impossible to argue with 80 minutes of melting polar ice caps in high resolution. Or at least five actual minutes and a whole lot of filler.
Meet environmental photographer James Balog, who built his career showing how inextricably linked humanity is with nature. His wildlife photography has ranged from iconic National Geographic covers to limited edition U.S. postage stamps, and his work with forests and endangered species has earned him awards, appearances on CNN and a TED talk. “Chasing Ice” follows him as he embarks on his career-defining project, the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS), which consists of a set of time-lapse cameras set up at 13 locations — mostly in or near the Arctic Circle — to capture glaciers as they “calve” (break off) into the ocean.
The images are striking. In addition to documenting the slow retreat of dozens of miles of glacier in a single year, Balog also captures on video a Manhattan-size hunk of ice crumbling off a Greenland glacier. The scale is so big it almost defies human understanding — sort of like climate change itself.
Unfortunately, the movie saddles itself with needless drama. Do we really need to spend so much time seeing that they lost a year of shooting due to faulty electronics? That’s cutting room floor material. Meanwhile, viewers are treated to a squirm-inducing trip to the surgeon to watch Balog endure his third knee repair surgery, after which he receives a strong admonition to stop his glacier-hopping antics. Can you guess if he listens to the doc? Nope — very next scene there he is, digging his toe grips into the side of an ice cliff as he snaps photos of a gushing, icy waterfall. We get it — he’s dedicated.
And that’s why you can’t really fault the film. There’s nothing like being shown visual evidence of your errant ways to make you feel guilty about something you’ve done wrong. But what if the only thing you’ve done wrong is exist? Yes, it’s true, we’re altering the environment, but what are we supposed to do about it? I don’t have a windmill in my backyard, but I do have CFC bulbs in all my sockets and use canvas bags every time I go shopping.
Balog says that he just wants to be able to tell his daughters that he was doing everything he knew how to do to fight global warming. And he is: He’s taking the best damned pictures of melting ice caps that have ever been taken. But what does this mean for us, besides more wacky weather?
“Chasing Ice” feels more like a footnote for “An Inconvenient Truth” rather than a change-inspiring film in its own right. But that’s exactly what the world needs — a movie that shows us how to live in such a way that we’re not making things worse for our descendents. Get Angelina Jolie to make a movie where she bathes in her recycled grey water. Boom: We just solved global warming.
Or maybe that’s the point — maybe we can’t solve it. Is that why Glenn Beck is so pissed off?