If you’ve been considering renting Roland Emmerich’s 2012 to watch on December 21 and relish the Earth’s fictional devastation, don’t bother. Not only is it a terrible movie, but you can catch a comparably awe-inspiring cataclysm in Jeff Orlowski’s documentary Chasing Ice, and it’s real.
Among the incidents filmed by Orlowski’s crew as they sojourned in arctic regions was the abrupt crumbling of an ice formation the size of lower Manhattan and two or three times higher — counting the skyscrapers.
True, the frigid glacier hosted no human habitation, which gives its self-destruction a bit less poignancy than, say, the demise of Los Angeles while John Cusack is arguing with his ex. But, while this stunning scene may not be an immediate disaster in human terms, it foretells the long string of disasters a climate affected by increasing atmospheric CO2 could unleash — and, in some places, already has. Footage of Tropical Storm Irene’s ravages in Vermont opens Chasing Ice, which profiles photographer James Balog and his quest to record evidence of climate change that no one could ignore or dismiss as scientific groupspeak.
Balog’s solution: pictures. Fascinated by ice, the acclaimed nature photographer had noticed that some of his best subjects seemed to be disappearing. So he formed a team called the Extreme Ice Survey to set up cameras at strategic locations near glaciers in Greenland, Iceland, Alaska and Montana and capture time-lapse footage of their changes over several years. At first, the cameras fell prey to arctic conditions. But once the team figured out the logistics — a process shown in the film — they gathered dramatic evidence that glaciers are melting into our seas with unprecedented speed. The vast majority of these ice masses are not, as some climate-change skeptics assert, creeping back in the winter. They’re gone for good.
None of that will surprise anyone who has seen Balog’s TED talk or the extensive press coverage of his work. As a documentary, Chasing Ice offers most of its likely viewers grim confirmation of what they already know, rather than the thrill of discovery. To add an element of drama, Orlowski sometimes turns the camera on Balog himself, emphasizing the doggedness that keeps him climbing glaciers with a bum knee when he’d rather be with his family. But, driven as he may be, the photographer is just too normal for his obsessiveness to carry the film; this is no Errol Morris or Werner Herzog material.
The real trump card of Chasing Ice is its beauty. Balog calls ice a “limitless universe of forms,” which he proceeds to depict in stills that will take your breath away. Sometimes glaciers just look like dirty snow; sometimes their melt fields and “calving” areas (where chunks break free of the mass) seem to shimmer before us, as unearthly and alluring as anything in a visionary science fiction film.
It’s easy to get mesmerized by the images caught by Balog’s and Orlowski’s cameras, so much so that one almost forgets the point they’re making. What we’re witnessing as this foreign ice world shifts and dissolves could be the inexorable ending of another world — ours.