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Raw rush

Chasing Ice shows epic cinematography


As a genre, most environmental documentaries have two big strikes against them: preachiness and boringness. They’re preachy because pretty much any narrative that advances an agenda-backed message is preachy (see: politics, religion). They’re boring because there are only so many wonky interviews, data-laden graphs and billowing smokestacks an average viewer can take before their minds wander to greener pastures.

That makes Chasing Ice, the jaw-dropping story of nature photojournalist James Balog’s extraordinary quest to capture on film the demise of 16 of the world’s glaciers, something of a miracle. This movie is visually mind-blowing, narratively engaging and largely un-wonky. It is anything but preachy and boring.


Balog founded the Extreme Ice Survey in 2007, on the heels of an assignment for National Geographic magazine to photograph glacial decay in various parts of the world. Spurred by both the innate beauty of the iceforms and the alarming rate of their demise, Balog launched an unprecedented effort to anchor high-tech cameras into the most unforgiving landscapes imaginable, providing a network of fixed reference points to document—via one still-frame shot every daylight half-hour—a genuine geological event in real time. And while he and his team hiked, waded and climbed the glaciers to first set up the cameras and then download their data at regular intervals, Balog went into Ansel Adams mode and shot the ever-loving hell out of what he calls the “insanely, ridiculously beautiful” natural forms.

Chasing Ice director Jeff Orlowski clearly had full access to Balog, his team and his images throughout the mission, so he began with a phenomenal palette of raw material. But even the best material needs a firm guiding hand, and the 28-year old Orlowski demonstrates an uncanny knack for story in this, his first feature-length project.

The movie opens with a fast-paced montage of media talking heads arguing over the climate-change issue, moves smoothly into a set-up of Balog and the germination of EIS, switches to a brief but impactful section of data on the rate of CO(2) in the atmosphere, jumps back into the monumental difficulties of designing and executing the camera systems, diverts into a side story about the knee that Balog repeatedly damages along the way, segues into a brief Balog family profile, returns to the technical story with the triumph of the camera system finally working, and then showcases the unbelievable time-lapse sequences of the glaciers on their seemingly irrevocable retreat.

Chasing Ice is touching (Balog literally weeping in frustration as the first timer design continually breaks down), ecstatic (Balog and colleague celebrating the new timer system’s success) and funny (a clever time-lapse sequence shows the slow-mo wipeout of a dogsled carrying members of the EIS crew).

But what gives Chasing Ice its enormous emotional weight is the ice itself, as depicted by Balog and interpreted by Orlowski. Glacial colors and forms carry the same transfixing power held by more accessible forms of elemental nature like fire and moving water, and there are dozens of breathtaking shots and scenes throughout the film. In fact, this review has probably already exceeded its quotient of superlatives, which is okay because there are simply no words to describe watching, in high-definition slow-motion, a five-kilometer section of ice break off the calving face of a glacier and crash into the ocean, great masses of ice being thrown like ice cubes in a mixer and incomprehensible volumes of water erupting around them. This is geological history, happening literally before your eyes.

That alone should compel you to see this film, regardless of where you stand on climate change.

Chasing Ice continues at the Wilma.

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