Film review: Is Chasing Ice the next Inconvenient Truth?

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EIS field assistant, Adam LeWinter on NE rim of Birthday Canyon, atop feature called “Moab”. Greenland Ice Sheet, July 2009.

Chasing Ice got straight to the point in its opening sequence, combining startling images of extreme weather events with strong anti climate change reporting in the US media. This story is not, as the title might suggest, entirely focused on the accelerating melting of the Arctic ice sheet, but is also a tale of the trials, tribulations and creative vision of National Geographic photographer James Balog who, in his time, was himself a climate sceptic.

We first meet Balog, sitting on a rock by an Icelandic glacier (large parts of the film were filmed in Iceland), talking about the journey we are about to witness, why he believes the climate fight is so important, and why he, in his own words, is ‘doing the only thing he knows how to do’ to help – documenting the story in photos.

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James Balog hangs off cliff by Columbia Glacier, Alaska to install time-lapse camera.
He talks about why he set up the ‘Extreme Ice Survey’, which involved placing cameras next to glaciers in Iceland, Greenland and Alaska to document their rapid retreat. We witness his heartbreaking discovery when he returns to some cameras 6 months into the project only to discover that due to a computer error a lot of them didn’t work. He subsequently had to dismantle them all, take them back to the US, fix them up again and start all over establishing them in these challenging and remote locations.

When the technology finally did work, the results were amazingly terrifying; showing rapid glacier retreats taking place at unprecedented rates through carefully shot and beautifully executed time lapse photography. His team also captured the longest ever recorded glacier calving, that went on for a full 75 minutes.

The 75 minute calving of the glacier is definitely the highlight of the film; that particular sequence of film is nature in movement of the very highest calibre and will surely go down in history as a sequence outstanding nature documentary filmmaking.

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James Balog, Director, Extreme Ice Survey, at minus 30 degrees F, Disko Bay, Greenland.  

Outstanding nature footage and photography aside however, any climate savvy person watching the film, will otherwise find it somewhat aged. The most up to date footage of extreme weather events depicted in the film, comes in the shape of imagery from Hurricane Irene – a powerful storm in its day but one that has been completely dwarfed by the events of this year, Hurricane Sandy in particular. Other outdated footage included Balog campaigning at the 2009 COP15 climate summit, which is now three years old.

Another issue with the film, is the ‘Made in America’ cheesy sequence in which Balog heroically combats his ailing knees to make his way up a glacier on crutches. This sequence has been cited by many reviewers alike, environmentalists or otherwise, as particularly over the top. However I’m personally glad it’s there; not because I don’t find it contrived because I do, but because we need to embrace attempts like this to communicate the climate debate to mass audiences, and accept that adding a cheesy personal twist here and there is precisely one such technique. Mass audiences who don’t find the science compelling enough need human interest angles.

And even though the extreme weather event footage is out of date, I applaud its use. Given the year that the US has had, this is the kind film that will encourage a renewed interest in climate change amongst the American people, and who knows it might just have a similar effect to the one that ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ had in 2007.

Chasing Ice is showing in UK cinemas until 18th April 2013 and listings here for USA & Canada.

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