Editors' pick

Chasing Ice

Critic rating:
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MPAA rating: NR
Genre: Documentary
The documentary follows "National Geographic" photographer James Balog on a painstaking trek to set up time-lapse cameras across the Arctic in order to chronicle changes in glaciers.
Starring: James Balog, Svavar Jonatansson, Adam LeWinter, Jeff Orlowski
Director: Jeff Orlowski
Running time: 1:14
Release: Opened Nov 16, 2012
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Editorial Review

Pictures tell an alarming story
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, November 16, 2012

Chasing Ice” aims to accomplish, with pictures, what all the hot air that has been generated on the subject of global warming hasn’t been able to do: make a difference.

The documentary by Jeff Orlowski follows nature photographer James Balog as he documents melting glaciers, beginning in 2007, in Alaska, Iceland, Greenland and Montana. Called the Extreme Ice Survey, the project works like this: Balog sets up still cameras that have been programmed to take a picture, once every hour, for three years, of the same glacier, from a fixed spot. The idea is that those pictures, when played back sequentially in the manner of a time-lapse film, will show a dramatic and undeniable shrinkage that will raise awareness of a problem that’s too big, and too slow, to be seen by the naked eye.

As climate-change skeptics have noted, not all glaciers are retreating; some are, in fact, growing. The number of expanding glaciers, however, is very, very small, according to statistics cited in the film.

Yes, there are statistics. But by and large, Orlowski relies on photographs of what Balog calls the “sculptural,” “architectural” and “insanely, ridiculously beautiful” mountains of ice that are the film’s shockingly fragile subjects. The visuals are riveting, and they drive home the point that the film makes in voice-over narration by Balog, interviews with glaciologists and climate scientists and occasional charts and graphs: Ice is melting at an alarmingly un-glacial pace.

There’s other drama in the film, too. Balog’s survey -- though “obsession” is probably a better word -- is expensive, logistically challenging and plagued by technical difficulties. And Balog himself is also falling apart, as evidenced by the multiple knee surgeries he has undergone (a result of pushing himself up snow-covered mountains and into frozen crevasses, presumably, in pursuit of pictures of ice).

“Chasing Ice” will make an impact, that’s for sure. Whether it can be said to have been effective remains to be seen. This portrait of a man on a mission moves us, not by showing us what we’ve already lost, but what’s still at stake.

Contains brief obscenity.