Movie offers a rare look at Arctic wildlife


A film crew followed a polar bear family for five straight days during the filming of “To the Arctic,” which is now playing at the National Museum of Natural History. (Florian Schulz/Visionsofthewild.com)
June 15, 2012

How do you give viewers a sense of living in one of the coldest places on Earth in the midst of a steamy summer? Try “To the Arctic,” a new Imax film about the creatures that depend on ice and freezing temperatures to survive.

Over the course of four years, a crew spent eight months in three countries — Norway, Canada and the United States — to capture Arctic wildlife on film. The 3-D movie gives kids and adults a rare view of how polar bears and their companions thrive in these extreme conditions, and why they’re now in danger.

“There’s very little up there except a lot of beauty,” said Greg MacGillivray, the film’s director, who made his first film 57 years ago — when he was 10. “The animals are spread out; the food sources are spread out. The expanses are immense.”

As the camera pans across a dazzling white landscape where snow, ice and chilly blue water are the only three elements that matter, narrator Meryl Streep admits that most humans couldn’t live here.

“But to the polar bears and their cubs, it’s paradise,” she explains. “They’re at home here, and only here.”

The movie charts how the Arctic — which is warming at a rate at least twice as fast as the rest of the globe — is changing and how this shift jeopardizes the species that have survived there for thousands of years.

“To the Arctic” gives viewers a rare chance to see the animals that call this part of the world home. At one point, a Pacific walrus practically leaps out of the screen, shoving its face against an underwater camera.

And for the first time ever, the filmmakers were able to track and film a polar bear family for five straight days, 24 hours a day, while sailing on a special ship known as an icebreaker. While this feat provides some of the movie’s most lighthearted moments, including a scene in which the two cubs play with each other, it also delivers the tensest segment, in which a male bear stalks a mother and her two cubs because melting sea ice has made seals and other sources of food for bears scarcer. The family was subject to four attacks in five days.

MacGillivray described the experience of watching the pursuit as “intense, and nerve-racking.”

Steven C. Amstrup, a polar bear researcher who gave scientific advice to the film’s directors, said the movie shows kids and adults what’s at stake with climate change. “We didn’t want another extravagant big picture on the Arctic and not describe what the threats are.”

— Juliet Eilperin

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