January 21, 2018

Posted December 2, 2012 by D. K. Holm

There are many ways that the makers of Chasing Ice could have presented their material. They could have focused on the history of the earth and its atmosphere, perhaps backed with a score by Philip Glass. Or they could have concentrated on the receding ice in the north pole of the earth, the ostensible subject of the film. Or for a somewhat little approach, director Jeff Orlowski could have told his story, taking a page from Michael Moore, and revealed his own ecological worries, his discovery of James Balog, the National Geographic photographer and head of the organization Extreme Ice Survey, which uses time lapse cameras to track the reverse flow of ice in some 18 isolated locations. The director’s reactions to Mr. Balog might have been interesting.

Instead, Mr. Orlowski chooses hagiography. Following the model of the Oscar and Nobel winning Al Gore documentary An Inconvenient TruthChasing Ice is as much about Mr. Balog as it is the ecological legacy that human beings are leaving their heirs. The film comes across like a campaign biography. The viewer sees Mr. Balog at home packing kits, wrapping bandages around his damaged knees, during hospital stays, in meetings with colleagues, and on the road giving power point and TED talks about his work, and weeping and / or cursing over faulty equipment, with periodic cuts back to the remote shelfs of ice he is chasing. Still, at least in Convenient Truth  the filmmakers showed some restraint and did not shove Gore’s wife and kids onto the screen to underscore their patriarch’s undying dedication to the earth and their undying support. And also here, Scarlett Johanssen stands in for Melissa Etheridge with a closing credits paean.

Organizations no matter how noble apparently need an equally noble figurehead to synthesize the complex of information to be distilled for masses confused by such concepts as ice-albedo feedback and thermal inertia or blindly terrified by what seems to be an increase in extreme weather events. But to be very clear about this, while the subject matter of the movie is important its presentation is modified by the now-patented pattern of the lone battler to save a lonely planet. A cynic might think that the Extreme Ice Survey offers a convenient if also necessary opportunity for people to take extreme sports vacations to remote regions, funded and supplied by corporate sponsors such as Nikon and The North Face, were it not for the shocking results of Mr. Balog’s camera testimony. That the film is a mess doesn’t help alleviate impatience with its hagiographic “great man” theory of ecology, particularly when some of the scenes seem staged,  like an infomercial, such as strategy meetings which seem to have multiple camera placements, a la Broadcast News, and a subplot in which Mr. Balog sends a small group to camp out on a ridge in hopes of seeing a major “calving,” or breaking off of ice from a glacier. Weirdly, Mr. Balog called his team just as the event was about to occur. In any case, amid all the drama the film neglects to tell the viewer how the team chose this particular site and this time as a likely opportunity to capture this usually unseen event on film. To make the obvious pun, despite the often breathtaking photography and urgency of the film’s message, thanks to its egocentricity Chasing Ice leaves one cold.