'Chasing Coral': Film Review | Sundance 2017

Courtesy of The Ocean Agency / XL Catlin Seaview Survey / Christophe Bailhache
True to its title, this is a riveting quest movie.

After building a persuasive case in 'Chasing Ice' that the planet's glaciers are melting at an alarming rate, documentarian Jeff Orlowski turns his attention to imperiled reef ecosystems in this powerful wakeup call.

If you’ve ever snorkeled on the Great Barrier Reef or dived among the other major underwater wonderworlds across the globe, don't be surprised to find yourself getting misty-eyed during Chasing Coral. Even for those limited to swimming virtually among parrot fish and sea turtles over vast marine ecosystems of astonishing color and complexity, this superbly crafted documentary is likely to wield an unexpected emotional charge. The irrefutable visual evidence presented here would be hard for even the most stubborn climate change skeptics to ignore, detailing devastating losses to one of nature's most stunning creations that also threaten the foundations of a vital food and oxygen source.

Picked up worldwide by Netflix the same day as its rapturously received Sundance premiere, the film is an endlessly fascinating quest to capture conclusive evidence of a global phenomenon known as "coral bleaching," a stress response that represents the initial shutdown in the death of this vibrant food-factory organism.

A companion piece by documentarian Jeff Orlowski to his 2012 feature Chasing Ice, which undertook a similar investigation into Arctic glacier retreat, this oceanic counterpart mixes illuminating science with laymen's terminology, and breathtaking footage of coral reefs both in all their splendor and withered into sad graveyards. That earlier film launched a significant impact campaign, and this one stands to do the same, its Netflix platform perhaps providing even greater leverage to move the needle on renewable energy.

The filmmakers spent 3½ years on the project, dipping into decades of research from dedicated marine biologists and reef experts, many of whom provide terrific interview material. Hearing them talk of these sprawling underwater cities, with their almost alien interconnected life forms working in mutually beneficial harmony, is as beautifully descriptive as it is scientific, at times conjuring an almost magical sense of wonder. Likewise, their accounts of the destruction of reefs due to warming global water temperatures go beyond data to convey a deeply personal stake in this threatened world, which directly affects our food supply, oxygen, weather and climate.

Just to give one startling example, a marine biologist early on shares photographic evidence that 80-90 percent of corals in the Florida Keys have been lost over the past 30 years, leaving behind barren rock faces and decaying reef skeletons that once hosted a wide variety of symbiotic species. The figure for worldwide coral losses is over 50 percent, with acceleration suggesting that reefs could be wiped out in our lifetime.

Leading the push to get the word out on this crisis situation is Richard Vevers, a former London advertising executive turned ocean conservationist. While his cocky ad-speak about bringing his creative thinking and communication skills to the scientific table can get a little tiresome, there's no doubting his commitment, the payoff of which we get to observe first-hand.

The unlikely star of the film, however, is Zack Rago, a self-described "coral nerd" from Colorado who works as a camera technician for View Into the Blue, which developed the dome-covered, wiper-equipped underwater time-lapse camera rigs used here to document the bleaching phenomenon. Spontaneous and funny, Rago is an engaging on-camera personality whose unfiltered response to the devastation he witnesses as part of the diving team feeds the movie's tremendous heart. It's also delightful to watch him geek out when he gets to meet the hero of his days as a student of evolutionary biology, veteran Australian coral guru John "Charlie" Veron, whose vintage footage is incorporated here.

Driven by lush scoring from composers Dan Romer and Saul Simon MacWilliams and propulsive editing from Davis Coombe, the film becomes a suspenseful race against time to lock in bleaching evidence. Camera units are placed in at-risk underwater locations in Bermuda, the Bahamas and Hawaii, but the trial-and-error results of the new technology prove problematic.

The filmmakers then hatch a new plan, shifting their focus to the Great Barrier Reef on the Northeast coast of Australia, considered "the Manhattan of the ocean." When the time-lapse cameras and uncooperative weather again foil the research, the divers choose key GBR locations to shoot manually, multiple times a day over 40 days. The results are an inexorable death march, distressing particularly when witnessed with emotive sensitivity by Rago.

Hard evidence reveals that 22 percent of the Great Barrier Reef died in 2016, which one American scientist equates to losing most of the trees between Washington, D.C., and Maine. Think about it.

Outreach efforts drew in reef conservationists from all over the world to help record bleaching events, yielding a punchy global montage with urgent testimony from all corners. As a call to reduce carbon emissions while there's still time to make a difference, it's remarkably cogent.

Despite the conclusive findings — dynamically presented at a symposium via then-and-now comparisons employing screen wipes — the final section of the movie takes a more cautiously upbeat turn. The Ocean Agency, founded by Vevers, is working to find and protect healthy reefs that can serve as future seed banks. And the list of countries that have committed to 100 percent renewable energy is encouraging.

While the U.S. is not among them, 31 American cities plus the state of Hawaii are. How that will be impacted by the Trump administration's threat to withdraw from the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change remains to be seen, and the known stance of key cabinet nominees regarding coal and oil is a worry. Perhaps these guys could benefit from booking time on the converted school bus on which Rago and underwater camera engineer Trevor Mendelow now run a coral reef classroom. At the very least, they should catch this powerfully persuasive film.

Distribution: Netflix
Production companies: Exposure Labs, in association with Argent Pictures, The Kendeda Fund, in partnership with Ocean Agency, View Into the Blue
Director: Jeff Orlowski
Writers: Davis Coombe, Vickie Curtis, Jeff Orlowski
Producers: Larissa Rhodes, Jeff Orlowski
Executive producers: David J. Cornfield, Linda A. Cornfield, Ryan W. Ahrens, Jill K. Ahrens
Directors of photography: Jeff Orlowski, Andrew Ackerman
Music: Dan Romer, Saul Simon MacWilliams
Editor: Davis Coombe

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentaries)
Sales: Submarine

93 minutes

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