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'Chasing Ice': Documenting the end of ice

Some of the ice that James Balog chases in "Chasing Ice"
Some of the ice that James Balog chases in "Chasing Ice"
Chasing Ice

“Chasing Ice” is a documentary about nature photographer James Balog’s “Extreme Ice Survey,” which uses time-lapse photography and video to document the severe reduction of glaciers due to climate change. And also it’s a movie about proving that climate change exists. In its best moments, the movie is about looking at the hypnotizing majestic movements of glaciers and the very impressive and disturbing time-lapse of glacier retreat.

In terms of the “Extreme Ice Survey,” the movie is mostly interested in the story of how the time-lapse photography came about. It seems like it would have been a simple thing to set up cameras in front of glaciers and allow them to auto-shoot. But actually, nothing like that had ever been done before and special equipment had to be created. And getting the equipment to the glaciers became increasingly difficult for Balog. The trips require much hiking and ice climbing and Balog has an increasingly dysfunctional knee. But he seems willing to completely ignore his body in order to get the photos he needs. In the opening scene we see him happily standing barefoot in the Arctic Ocean to get a close-up of some ice at shore. That’s dedication. I spent a summer in Northern Canada and even dipping a hand or foot in that water for a second is torture.

The revealing of the time-lapse photos is satisfying after curiosity builds for much of the movie. There’s a great score by J. Ralph that plays during the montage that together creates a hauntingly beautiful aesthetic.

Unfortunately we don’t get enough of the time-lapse photos or of Balog’s other, beautiful ice photos. The time-lapse stuff understandably happens at the end because the movie is partly about getting the images.

The movie teases us by throwing in a Balog photo or two from time to time and then only in the end credits do we get an extended montage.

In addition to those things, the movie is also a lecture on climate change. In this way, the movie is meant for American audiences more than anyone else. The U.S. is the only country in the world still debating the existence of climate change caused by global warming. Which isn’t to say that most of the rest of the world is further along in solving the problem. We live in the age of irony where we exercise our concern for climate change by saying “Isn’t it ironic that we’re destroying the earth like this when we know full well we shouldn’t be.” And then happily go back to doing it.

Balog says that he undertook the “Extreme Ice Survey” because people need a visual aid to understand that climate change is real. Balog explains that he could have been a scientist but chose not to because he didn’t like working with statistics and computer models. He didn’t want the subject of his work to be reduced to that, which seems to also be the purpose of the movie. The movie then shows us a bunch of statistics and computer models to prove that climate change is happening.

Personally, I didn’t feel that I needed another lecture on climate change. I would rather the movie just be about Balog’s attempts to publicize the effects of climate change through his study than also be a movie about proving it. But whatever the result of Balog’s project, he’s doing admirable work creating a visual document of glaciers that we might never see again.

Note: the end credit sequence that features Balog’s photos and a song sung by Scarlett Johansson can be seen on youtube here.

**1/2 (out of 4)

Related Posts:

-The Loneliest Planet
-All is Lost

David Jackson can be reached at

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