"Chasing Ice" is a beautiful film to watch, especially on the big screen. But the documentary's visual pleasures come with a heavy dose of guilt.
Because the ravishing images seen in Jeff Orlowski's film are coming about as a result of global warming. Orlowski follows National Geographic photographer James Balog as he sets up time-release cameras to monitor glaciers in Alaska, Greenland, and elsewhere around the world, watching for concrete visual proof of the effects of global warming.
Does he ever find it. Over the span of a couple of years, we watch as a once mighty glacier recedes and flattens, ending up looking like a wedding cake left out in the rain. There's one stunning, IMAX-worthy sequence where Balog and his team explore new 100-foot-deep chasms in the glacier, an eerie blue, carved by rivers of melted ice.
At another point, Balog's cameras are there when a 500-foot-long peninsula of ice and dirt suddenly calves from its glacier, rolling over and sinking into the ocean like the ship in "The Poseidon Adventure."
As the "debate" over climate change (which is really just the scientific community vs. some well-funded deniers) rages endlessly on, the pictures in "Chasing Ice" are clear, and disturbing in their implication of how much irrevocable havoc even in a small rise in the earth's temperature can cause.
And, lest you think that glaciers melting up north doesn't affect the rest of the globe, think of all that new water rushing into the oceans, causing sea levels to rise. And then take another look at that Hurricane Sandy footage you DVR'ed. "Some times you go over the horizon," Balog says, his voice hoarse with emotion, "And you don't come back."
Orlowski wisely frames his film around Balog's personal story, following his evolution from climate change skeptic to seeing-is-believing believer, and chronicling the many setbacks he faced in his Extreme Ice Survey project, from medical issues to faulty cameras.
Balog describes the "miracle" and "horror" of what his cameras are capturing, and "Chasing Ice" effectively evokes both emotions in the viewer. These are truly spectacular images that Balog has captured, and yet the beauty we see is really the death throes of these mighty glaciers.
I'm tempted to say that everyone should bring a climate change denier they know to the theater to see "Chasing Ice," but I know from personal experience at the family dinner table that those convictions run mighty deep. "Chasing Ice" is perhaps better aimed at those of us on the sidelines, who believe that global warming is real, but worry it's too complicated or elusive a problem to get involved with. Because there's nothing complicated about the sight of those glaciers wasting away.