In theory I welcome documentaries about climate change. Luc Jacquet’s documentary Antarctica: Ice & Sky is about Claude Lorius, an 84-year-old glaciologist. He is one of the first researchers to discover a link between greenhouse gases and global warming. That’s a far more dreary subject than the one in Jacquet’s earlier film March of the Penguins. And choosing a more depressing topic is not one of the film’s missteps.
One of the film’s errors is playing French actor Michel Papineschi’s narration in English. Papineschi’s voice is fine. The script gives him lines that make Lorius introspective about his accomplishments. But I still wished that the documentary gave us Lorius’ voice, or at least something closer to Lorius. I would have been okay with a French voiceover. Subtitles are fine, it makes me focus on the movie more.
The documentary begins with him standing around the southern continent’s breathtaking sights. Jacquet films these places beautifully while showing the vulnerability within these monumental ice scapes. We sense clarity as these shots drive the point across that all of these will disappear soon. CGI also helps us see what’s in store for the future of Antarctica and thus the world.
Ice and the Sky then switches from beauty to the bitter cold. It shows a heightened version of most people’s nostalgia for ‘real winters’. As we’ll see, 1956 was also a time when, for instance, maps didn’t depict the continent properly. It details a time when colonialism had to rebrand itself as benevolent scientific exploration. We return to a fateful Halloween in 1956, the first time Lorius set sail for Antarctica.
The documentary makes it seem less like Lorius was a qualified scientist. It makes him instead seem more like a young man in an entry-level job. The film relies on his and company’s archive footage, as well as newsreels of that time. The footage, showing equipment barely touching the ice, adds to the nostalgic feeling. Yet while watching this, there’s a sense that the film not only reduces Lorius’ voice but Jacquet as well.
He’s replaying footage instead of shaping it into his own message and insights into climate change. Or perhaps, Jacquet chooses the vintage footage showing the hardships of building the infrastructure that Lorius needs to live. It does have that quality that immerses us into a harsh environment we can’t help but love. It also shows us a lot of Lorius drinking and eating with his fellow scientists.
There’s more of the film showing young people working in the snow. It shows us how we’re robbing future generations of the same experience. It takes half an hour before we see Lorius work. Which is a strange choice since the latter is what we expect of a movie about a scientist. What interests me are methodology and the eureka moments. It eventually takes us to the science but we arrive there in, well, a glacial pace.