Review: “Chasing Ice”

A scene from the documentary "Chasing Ice," featuring James Balog. Directed by Jeff Orlowski.The second most memorable image in Al Gore’s popular global warming documentary “An Inconvenient Truth”–bested only by the former Vice President operating a mechanical lift in order to stand at the top of a big-screen line-graph demonstrating the exponential growth of CO2 in the atmosphere–was the slide in his presentation that showed the dramatic receding of the ice on Mount Kilimanjaro. This was intended to function as the irrefutable photographic evidence for Gore’s facts and figures, the smoking gun of man-caused climate change. Nearly every popular news story and review on the film mentioned the slide. But global warming naysayers quickly offered counterarguments: “This is not the result of ice melting, but sublimation!” “The amount of snow on Kilimanjaro is actually increasing!” Even if Gore and the scientists were right (likely the case), these counterarguments demonstrated an important point: the photographs of Kilimanjaro tell us little of empirical value by themselves. It’s the science that matters; a picture is worth a thousand explanations.

The new documentary “Chasing Ice” is all about similar images, making it an infuriatingly one-dimensional and information-less film. Its subject, James Balog, is the acclaimed photographer behind the Extreme Ice Survey, a project in which cameras are planted next to glaciers all over Greenland, Iceland, Alaska, and Canada, snapping photos at consistent intervals in order to depict the rapid melting that is occurring. Balog argues that measurements and statistics can’t communicate the immediate threat of global warming like his pictures can, which is a view that I don’t understand. How are the images of fast-disappearing glaciers supposed to change the minds of climate change skeptics? No one has ever doubted what Balog’s photographs reflect, that the ice-caps are disintegrating in many Arctic regions. Instead, naysayers either argue that (1) human activity is not to blame for warming or (2) the glaciers are not receding due to exponential, atypical warming, but the natural cycles of weather. The photos address neither position. The documentary half-heartedly addresses the first by offering research findings that one could easily access on Wikipedia, and says nothing about the second.

The film ultimately exists for no other purpose than to congratulate Balog on his work, even though director Jeff Orlowski never communicates what’s so great about it. The fact that Balog’s photographs were the centerpiece of the best selling recent issue of “National Geographic” is apparently enough for the filmmaker. It’s easy to understand why the photos were popular in magazine form; high resolution shots of the mammoth masses of ice (the climactic scene of “Chasing Ice” features a glacier that is the size of Manhattan) are undoubtedly beautiful to look at. But beyond the pictures’ ability to convey the sublime landscapes of a largely unexposed part of the globe that is changing rapidly, they just aren’t deserving of a 75-minute documentary (at least, as far as Orlowski is able to convey). There are numerous scenes that cornily depict Balog as a sacrificial figure, risking injury to his bad knee while planting cameras in harsh landscapes for the greater good of saving the planet from overheating, that exist for no other reason than to pad the running time to feature length. Maybe there’s a “20/20” segment somewhere in “Chasing Ice,” but there certainly isn’t a compelling movie or any new revelations about global warming.