There’s a moment in the middle of Chasing Ice where photographer and documentary subject James Balog makes an incredible observation. He’s in Alaska with a memory card from a camera in his hand. He holds it up, saying, “This is the memory of the landscape. That landscape is gone. It may never be seen again in the history of civilization, and it’s stored right here.”
In the background, a glacier hums — quaking, deflating, dying.
Chasing Ice, a gorgeous and harrowing film by producer/director Jeff Orlowski, follows the photographer as he captures glaciers in their death throes. What’s killing them? I’m sure you could guess. But Balog wants you to know.
His answer is climate change – a word all but absent from this year’s political season. The photographer has made it his life’s goal to show the world mankind’s relationship with nature, and how the two are intertwined. More precisely, his current project, the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS), was put together to document the deterioration of glaciers in the northern hemisphere, in Iceland, Greenland, Alaska and Montana.
In all of those locations, Balog and his team planted a bunch of special, custom-built cameras programmed to snap pictures every half hour every day as long as it was daylight. The result is a collection of time-lapse videos showing months and months of change. In them, the glaciers come to life. They flow. The images are a visual feast and a tool for study.
Yet, the glaciers are shrinking, retreating hundreds of feet a year. Some, like the Solheim glacier in Iceland, look like monster versions of parking lot snow piles, collapsing into the earth. Others look like rivers drooling icebergs, which then flow out to sea, getting smaller and smaller.
There’s an incredible and heartbreaking beauty in these images. The colors – the blues and greens, especially – trapped in these glaciers are mesmerizing. But Chasing Ice isn’t just about the beauty of ice. If anything, the movie could use a bit more of Balog’s work, a bit more glory, a bit more winter porn, if you can excuse the term.
Aside from the visuals, the movie leans heavily on two things: science and struggle. The science is used to give a context to what’s happening to glaciers; the struggle encompasses Balog’s obsession with ice, the difficultly of technically pulling off IES and how the project is pushing Balog’s body (his right knee specifically) to the limit. You see Balog weep in frustration as technology fails him and you hear him remark on the “curious crunching effects” in his knee as he descends into glacial abysses. The struggle adds a human element to the chilling story.
Of any other documentary of its kind this year, Chasing Ice is only rivaled by Samsara in terms of visuals. But what makes Ice unique is its ability to inspire both awe and a humbling sense of fear. There’s a lot more on the line, the movie shows, than the loss of landscapes. And time, even if it flows at glacial pace, is running out.
Chasing Ice is playing at the Uptown Theater.