Chasing Ice: Sundance Film Review

Doc about photographing glaciers makes a compelling environmental case without sacrificing beauty

PARK CITY — Aesthetics and eco-advocacy are a perfect match in Chasing Ice, a doc so stuffed with eye-soothing images one prays it can seduce a climate-change skeptic or two. With vistas made for the big screen and an engaging personality at its center, theatrical prospects are better than those of the usual eco-crisis film.

Nature photographer James Balog spent years photographing endangered animals for clients like National Geographic before discovering what looks to be his life's work. After shooting an important article on glaciers, he soon came to think of that as "a scouting mission" for a much larger project: Gathering a team of glacier researchers and other kinds of experts, he launched the Extreme Ice Survey, setting up dozens of cameras in Greenland, Iceland, Alaska and Montana that would automatically photograph ice formations throughout the year, providing visceral evidence of glaciers' astonishing shrinkage rate.

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Following the team through the first stage of their campaign, filmmaker Jeff Orlowski watches as impressive coordination -- custom-made electronics to control cameras, elaborate rigging to anchor and protect them from terrible weather -- fails in the field. But Balog, who refuses to quit even when his own body fails (he treats multiple knee surgeries like tune-ups for further ice-trekking overexertion), retools the gear and eventually gathers stunning evidence. We watch as the photographer -- who 20 years ago was dubious about global warming -- gives presentations in which time-lapse movies illustrate three to four years' worth of shocking glacial retreat. The before-and-after images are viscerally compelling, and Orlowski backs them up by interviewing researchers whose hard data proves we're not just seeing the Earth's normal atmospheric cycles.

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Though the film's arguments are convincing, Chasing Ice feels much less dogmatic and didactic than some of its peers, largely because of the attention Orlowski pays to Balog's photography itself: More so than Manufactured Landscapes, which featured another eco-centric photographer, Chasing Ice conveys the visual richness of Balog's work, where an astounding variety of shape, color, and translucency makes ice seem like a worthy object for a career, even if its disappearance weren't so closely linked to humanity's fate.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival, U.S. Documentary Competition
Production Company: Exposure
Director: Jeff Orlowski
Screenwriter: Mark Monroe
Producers: Paula Du Pré Pesmen, Jerry Aronson, Jeff Orlowski
Music: J Ralph
Editor: Davis Coombe
Sales: Josh Braun, Submarine
No rating, 75 minutes