One foolproof way to make an audience cry is to tell the story of a dog who dies. (Sure, it’s manipulative, but I’m not sure I’d want to be friends with someone who sat dry-eyed through “Marley & Me.”) Yet did you ever think you’d shed a tear for dying coral? In “Chasing Coral,” the winner of this year’s Audience Award for documentary at Sundance, we see the coral beds of the world’s oceans in all their wavy phosphorescent delicacy and flesh-bulb splendor. They’re like flowers, brains, suction cups, tubular orifices; a lot of them come in sparkly psychedelic colors that look too wild to fit onto a rainbow.
Then we see the same coral beds after they’ve expired: vast stretches of stone-gray fossil, the former tentacles reaching up like dead fingers. Anyone who has been snorkeling has probably encountered coral graveyards like these, but only now does it occur to you that you’re seeing not undersea “rock formations” but skeletons. Corpses. Corals may have the placidity of plants, but in fact they’re self-feeding animals. They are — literally — the squishy bedrock of life, so if they’re disappearing from the floor of the earth (which they are), we all have a major problem.
The people who like to pretend that climate change doesn’t exist — or that it’s a “natural” phenomenon — hide behind a convenient array of lies. One of those lies is the “intuitive” theory of idiot gradualism: The temperature went up by just one degree? Who cares? That’s not very much! But “Chasing Coral” offers facts and figures so dramatic and alarming that you can’t quite believe you just heard them. Like this: In the last 30 years, we have lost 50 percent of the world’s corals. That’s right: 50 percent of all of it in 30 years. The epidemic is directly attributable to global warming (93 percent of the heat generated by fossil fuels gets absorbed into the oceans), and “Chasing Coral” offers a noteworthy case of why the “gradualism” isn’t so gradual. Let’s say that the average global temperature rises by one degree — which, in the eyes of people like President Trump, means that a perfect 78-degree summer day will now be a perfect 79 degrees. But in the ocean where coral live, the comparison would be more like if the human body temperature went up by one or two degrees. That isn’t gradual, it’s monumental (or maybe lethal). That’s why coral is being decimated in our lifetimes.
“Chasing Coral” was directed by Jeff Orlowski, who also directed “Chasing Ice” (2012), an extraordinary film — one of the most important documents of climate change ever made — in which he recorded the melting away of the Arctic ice sheets through time-lapse photography. It made the abstract arguments terrifyingly real, and so does “Chasing Coral,” which follows two activist-adventurers: Richard Vevers, an affable former London advertising executive who decided it would be his mission to use ad techniques to publicize the devastation of coral; and Zackery Rago, a tech geek and lifelong “coral nerd” who with his blond surfer’s coif and cherubic grin comes off like Jeff Spicoli’s marine-biologist brother.
These two launch a time-lapse experiment as well. They discover a phenomenon, which started in the ’80s, of coral beds turning completely white; they look beautiful, like designer sculptures, but it’s a stress response, the first sign that they’re dying — becoming mere bones. The natural lifespan of coral isn’t simply long, it’s indefinite, but there have been two “bleaching events” since the ’80s, when the ocean temperature spiked (prior to that, there were none) and coral around the world reacted. Vevers and Rago, who’s a camera technician for View Into the Blue, which created the make-shift underwater cameras used in the film, set up those cameras in Hawaii, Bermuda, and the Bahamas in anticipation of a third bleaching event. The logistical rigging up of the cameras is the least interesting dimension of “Chasing Coral” (as it was in “Chasing Ice”), especially when the first batches of footage turn out to be blurry and unusable.
The cameras never quite do what they’re supposed to, so Vevers and Rago elect to do the time-lapse photography manually, taking a dive each day to reset the camera and snap a single shot. When we see the results, the movie achieves a special power: The corals, in the space of a dozen images, go from colorful to white, life forms to death forms — and the transition is unexpectedly moving. It’s like seeing birds trapped in an oil spill. We feel we’re witnessing not just death but a heartless form of biological murder.
Documentaries about life on the bottom of the sea are often enthralling, because it’s like seeing a science-fiction fantasy world hidden right on our planet. It’s a timeless cosmos. But just because an ancient and nearly mystical network of coral reefs make up the ground floor of the ocean’s ecosystem — on which the entire planet depends — doesn’t meant that they’ll always be there. “Chasing Coral” culminates in a visit to the Great Barrier Reef, the veritable continent of coral that borders the north of Australia, and once there, we learn that 22 percent of this spectacular, 2,300-kilometer formation died in 2016. One-fifth of the Great Barrier Reef died. In 2016. That is so wrong, in every way, that you walk out of “Chasing Coral” feeling that Richard Vevers is correct: The more that people see, and understand, the death of our coral, the more they’ll realize that climate change isn’t just about wrecking the planet, it’s about humanity destroying itself.