“My name is Claude Lorius,” says the subject of Luc Jacquet’s “Antarctica: Ice & Sky” more than once during the well-intentioned enviro-advocacy film that closed this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Only, the voice we hear on the soundtrack belongs not to Lorius — the noted French glaciologist — but rather to voice actor Michel Papineschi, while the marvelous archive footage we see onscreen has been similarly manhandled in an apparent bid to make Lorius’ arctic adventures seem more dramatic, when in fact no such help was needed. The end result is a colossally overproduced white elephant of a movie that obfuscates both its own protagonist and his important message with layer upon layer of unnecessary “style.” (Tellingly, the word “documentary” appears nowhere in the film’s publicity materials.) French audiences — who have a high tolerance for overly decorous nature films — may flock to this Oct. 21 release, but “Ice” will need a fair bit of post-production reupholstering for foreign export.
It’s no secret that the version of Jacquet’s 2005 “March of the Penguins” that won the feature documentary Oscar (and earned an astonishing $77 million at the U.S. box office) had undergone a considerable makeover from its original French release, where (among other differences) voice actors “played” the roles of father, mother and baby penguin in lieu of Morgan Freeman’s stentorian narration. Here, Jacquet brings a similarly heavy directorial hand to bear on the very worthy subject of Lorius, a sort of Jacques Cousteau of global climate change who remains a spry, hardy adventurer at age 82 — to judge from the film’s repeated images of Lorius nimbly trekking across the same arctic vistas he first visited as a much younger man.
We see that Lorius, too, in reams of home-movie footage shot during his many expeditions, beginning in 1956, when the 23-year-old scientist volunteered for a year-long stint on a French ship bound for Greenland as part of the Intl. Geophysical Year. Two years later, Lorius was headed to Antarctica, where he hunkered down with two other scientists at the French research base Charcot Station — an underground bunker largely void of creature comforts (the men wore their clothes until they wore out, and suffered from snow blindness and scurvy). But like the great explorers of old, Lorius was seduced by the possibility of mapping uncharted land, and the scientific discoveries that might be found therein.
When they weren’t analyzing the frozen tundra of the South Pole, it seems that Lorius and his fellow researchers documented themselves with a zeal to rival todays YouTube and Instagram mavens, resulting in a wealth of color 8mm and Super 8mm motion-picture film that has been expertly cleaned up and blown up here, offering us an intimate glimpse of life at the bottom of the world. (In one indelible bit, Lorius is seen reading himself to sleep in his Charcot bunk with a copy of the Michelin guide, dreaming of poulet de bresse and Burgundy wine.) If only Jacquet had the good sense to let that footage speak for itself, rather than drowning the silent images in music, sound effects and even bits of imagined dialogue, which, rather than drawing us further into Lorius’ world, push us out. (One repeated effect — the sound of clumps of snow falling into the bunker from the entrance hatch — calls to mind the image of an industrious foley artist on the recording stage.) Bruce Brown did this sort of thing better 50 years ago in “The Endless Summer,” in part because he was doing it for laughs.
It was in Antarctica that Lorius had his eureka moment: the realization that air bubbles trapped in millennia-old blocks of glacial ice could be used to determine the surface air temperature from the day they were first formed. The deeper one drilled into the ice, the further back in time one could theoretically travel. And so Lorius began to dig — a game of inches that stretched across decades, many subsequent expeditions and technological advancements, and which would ultimately yield samples from more than 72,000 meters below the Earth’s surface, containing climate data reaching back 800,000 years. The conclusive evidence — that man has had and continues to have a perilous effect on the environment — will neither surprise enlightened secularists nor do much to convert the anti-Darwin scolds who stumble into the cinema by chance. Still, there are fascinating tidbits nestled in among the familiar news of a rapidly warming planet and a looming new ice age — including Lorius’ discovery of radioactive particles from U.S. above-ground nuclear testing, carried by time and tide to these heretofore pristine environs.
Oh what magic Werner Herzog — who cast his own camera upon the Antarctic in 2007’s “Encounters at the End of the World” — might have made of Lorius’ tale. Instead, Jacquet has taken a movie all about air bubbles and rendered it entirely airless — as schoolmarmish in its way as Al Gore’s Oscar-winning slide show “An Inconvenient Truth.” Lorius cuts a more innately compelling figure than Gore, but “Ice and the Sky” makes him seem almost a sidelong observer to his own incredible journey. It comes as a downright shock when, late in the film, we finally hear the real Lorius’ voice in a montage of television interviews. Then it’s back to Jacquet’s endless decorous shots of the old man walking (and walking and walking) across melting glaciers and burned-out forests — a suitably aggrieved witness to the destructive power of man, and to this watered-down cinematic testament.