When I first saw the title Chasing Ice, I envisioned a heist picture about diamonds. What I got, however, was a documentary about glaciers melting and climate change — and it’s one of the more curious documentaries I’ve encountered. What’s odd about it is that it’s virtually two movies in one (or maybe one short movie and about 20 minutes of supplemental “making of” material). On the one hand, you have the footage of the glaciers and this frozen world — and this stuff is impressive, even breathtaking in both its beauty and its terrifying isolation. Similarly, the time-lapse photography of glaciers melting and comparisons of the changing landscapes make an impressive case — even if you long ago stopped questioning the reality of climate change (and let’s face it, that’s going to be most of the audience for this film). So, right here, we have the kernel of a pretty terrific activist documentary — complete with the standard pitfall of all activist documentaries: preaching to the converted. But there’s more — and that’s where this doc causes some problems for me.
The title should give you a clue, I suppose, that this is as much about capturing these images as it is about the images themselves. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, the documentary didn’t just emerge like a genie from a lamp. (How many times have you seen a photo or film of a mountain climber becoming “the first man to set foot on this peak” and thought, “except for guy with the camera”?) It’s not unreasonable to be put in a position of seeing just how the film was made. At least in theory, that’s fine, but the balance of material here reaches the tipping point — where you wonder if this is more a film about photographer James Balog (who is behind the project) than it is about glaciers and climate change. I don’t deny he ought to be rightly presented as the architect and executor of the project, but the amount of time (especially in a 75-minute movie) devoted to his life, his family, his bad knee etc. It undermines the power of the film for me.
I still recommend seeing the film, however. The beauty and the enormity of the images compensate for anything that I found wrong with the film — and its message, regardless of how I feel about the overemphasis on Balog, outweighs everything else. So, yes: See the film, but you may end up feeling that it could have been more than it is. Rated PG-13 for brief strong language.
Starts Friday at Fine Arts Theatre