With the UN Climate Change Conference running in Paris from the 30th November to the 11th December, the UK release of Oscar-winning filmmaker Luc Jacquet’s latest documentary Ice and the Sky could not be more timely (and cannot be coincidental).
Jacquet previously visited the Antarctic with the 2005 nature documentary March of the Penguins. This time his subject is a human one; leading glaciologist Claude Lorius. Ice and the Sky presents a biographical version of his scientific career, narrated by Lorius himself, depicted using a mixture of new footage and archive film taken during scientific expeditions dating back to the 1950s.
Lorius’ key discovery was that the ice of the Antarctic was a storage medium recording climate information; the deeper the ice, the older the climate, and by drilling deep into the ice a picture of the Earth’s climate could be created over a vast time scale. Through this data Lorius demonstrated that global warming was a cyclical process repeating every 20,000 years. However, he also demonstrated that this process was dramatically accelerated by the burning of fossil fuels.
Ice and the Sky is a film that is fervently pro-science and pro-scientist. The crisis of climate change is presented as an incontestable fact but the aim is also to demonstrate the solid scientific basis that has led to this incontestability. Lorius and the film are very keen to show ‘men of science’ being above the pettiness of political and business interests.
For all the adventure and daring do on display in the archive footage. Jacquet's narrow focus on Lorius himself and a rigid chronological structure means the film takes a long time to get to its point. When it gets there it explains his discoveries in frustratingly simplistic terms. Examining the significance of Lorius’ theory that the air trapped in ancient ice could be released and then analysed is given less time than shots of the elderly scientist gazing into the darkness of a crevice, or looking to the sky in slow motion while emotive music swells whenever the subject of politics appears. Overuse of symbolism like this can make the film feel manipulative while also preaching to the choir. Drone shots flying over tundra and ice flows are undeniably handsome, but the overuse of imagery like this makes the film feel superficial.
This is an earnest and well intentioned documentary on a subject of incredible importance, but by giving the subject such a dry treatment so lacking in depth does the topic a severe disservice. Lorius’ story is incredible, and it could easily form the basis of an exciting dramatisation. But it is hard to see this documentary reaching the audience that it really needs to - those passively accepting the idea put forward by media outlets owned by vested interests that climate change is a myth because of a rainy summer or a cold winter, while island communities in the Pacific are literally disappearing under waves.