'Ice on Fire': Film Review | Cannes 2019

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
Don't despair, the science guys are here.

Leonardo DiCaprio narrates and produced this documentary, directed by Leila Connors, that lays out how the Arctic's melting ice caps affect us all.

Actor-producer and activist Leonardo DiCaprio, director Leila Connors and writer-consultant Thom Hartmann, who all collaborated on the 2007 environmental documentary The 11th Hour, team up again for another measured, well-illustrated and highly persuasive examination of climate change, scheduled for broadcast on June 11 on HBO.

Showing theatrically first as a special screening at Cannes, where DiCaprio was in town with competition entry Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, this feature-length film essay focuses, as the rather too on-the-nose title might suggest, on the swiftly melting polar ice cap in the Arctic and the horrifying impacts that situation is already having on the planet.

However, the filmmakers put considerable emphasis here on the rise of renewable energy sources and new advances in carbon sequestration. These technologies offer hope that the world might, just might, be able to keep the global rise in temperature to a still dangerous two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, as committed to by the Paris Agreement. That's probably a good accentuate-the-positive tactic to take for a television audience, although some might argue that the thrust of Ice on Fire's argument is too reassuring given how high the stakes are and how bad the data actually looks. For those who agree with David Wallace-Wells, author of the harrowingly well-researched recent book The Uninhabitable Earth, that the situation is "worse, much worse, than you think," then Ice on Fire can seem a little too cheery and hopeful that an assortment of science boffins, some of whom appear here and eloquently explain their work, will save us.

Putting quibbles about pitch and approach aside, then as a beginners' guide to Arctic thaw and its consequences this is pretty exemplary stuff. Instead of anchoring the explanation around a dominant, often onscreen TED-talk-cum-storyteller like campaigner Al Gore or naturalist David Attenborough, Ice on Fire keeps the narration (only heard) from DiCaprio to a judicious medium, bedding it over stunning high-definition footage, often shot with drones or using time-lapse techniques, under the direction of cinematographer Harun Mehmedinovic. Mostly composed of original footage but with bits of archive material thrown in as needed, the film travels to the Arctic, Alaska, Norway, Iceland, Costa Rica and the fire-ravaged ruins of Northern California to tell its story.

Connors mostly draws from a pool of scientists for her interviewees, particularly ones working in the field gathering evidence of rising CO2 levels and other worrying metrics, and each of them seems to have mastered the art of explaining their work in manageable, clearly summarized sound bites. But the passion from all is also evident, as well as the horror, especially among those not working specifically in research, such as two firemen, Tony Gossner and Mark Basque, who sorrowfully recount how the recent fires in Santa Rosa were unlike anything they'd seen in their careers. Elsewhere, hope is generated by the efforts of fisherman Bren Smith, who marvels lovingly at the potential of kelp farming, while chef Itef Vita in Los Angeles shows just how glorious and fruitful an urban garden can be.

As strong as Ice on Fire is on people and landscapes, arguably its strongest achievement lies in the presentation of onscreen graphics. Like they say, a picture can be worth a thousand words, and in this instance the charts and animated effects presented do more to clarify the scale of the challenge than all the swooping shots of windmills and solar farms put together. 

Production companies: HBO, Tree Media, Appian Way
With: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Frances Morse, Patricia Lang, Pieter Tans, Jim White, Thom Hartmann, Michael Mann, Guthmundur Ingi Guthbrandsson, Catherine Lund Myhre, Peter Wadhams, Elizabeth Brown, Tony Gossner, Mark Basque, Daniel Rothmann, Janine Benyus, Ottmar Edenhofer, Brigette Knopf, Paul Hawken, Linwood Gill, Raymond Baltar, Kate Scow, Itef Vita, Bren Smith, Stasa Puskaric, Martin Hermann, Gabrielle Petron, Anna Robertson, Don Schreiber, Juergen Mienert, Pavel Serov, Katey Walter Anthony, Christoph Gebald, Jan Wurtzbacher, Daniel Nocera, James Murray, Chris Milne, Neil Kermode
Director: Leila Connors
Producers: Leonardo DiCaprio, Leila Connors, Mathew Schmid
Executive producers: George DiCaprio, Roee Sharon Peled, Nancy Abraham, Lisa Heller, Jennifer Davisson
Co-executive producer: Philip Watson
Director of photography/co-producer: Harun Mehmedinovic
Editor: Leila Connors
Music: Jeremy Soule, Jonah Johnson
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Special Screening)

Sales: HBO

98 minutes