Humility and Hubris: A Review of Luc Jacquet’s “Ice and the Sky”
Two films, one director, highly similar opening scenes: the camera pans back slowly, revealing an uncertain picture. What are we looking at? What scale are we looking at? Only gradually does the image resolve and we realize we’re looking at shadows cast by creatures on an icy Antarctic landscape.
Famed French director Luc Jacquet has used this opening both to his most famous film, 2005’s Oscar-winning March of the Penguins and his most recent film, Ice and the Sky (2015). In the former, he turns his attention to those creatures casting the shadows. But in the latter, his narrative focuses on that shadow being cast on the ice (at least metaphorically). Rather than follow emperor penguins he now follows humanity’s impacts to the farthest reaches of the planet.
Ice and the Sky is Jacquet’s portrait of the age of the Anthropocene as seen through the career of Claude Lorius, the French glaciologist whose 22 polar expeditions across more than 60 years of research helped establish some of the most significant scientific evidence for human-induced climate change.
Jacquet’s film intercuts between fantastically restored expedition footage from Lorius’s journeys to Antarctica—starting with his first trip in 1957 at age 23 as part of the International Geophysical Year of cooperative earth science research—with Lorius today as an 82 year old journeying again to see changes in Antarctic ice resulting from climate change.
Lorius first helped determine that since different ratios of light and heavy isotopes of hydrogen in water correspond precisely to different global mean temperatures, examining cores of Antarctic ice laid down millennia ago could help determine what past climates were like. More significantly, Lorius realized that analyzing air bubbles frozen in ice cores could also reveal the changing composition of Earth’s atmosphere over time.
Before anyone tries to suggest that Lorius’s data is the product of fly-by-night science, they might want to take a look at Jacquet’s film.
Lorius’s research teams patiently constructed these two data sets to help establish clear scientific proof (despite what prominent skeptics have recently alleged) that there is a tight coupling between atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and global temperature, with increases in CO2 invariably leading to increases in global temperature over at least the past 800,000 years. And with human activities now leading to concentrations of CO2 never seen in that timeframe (currently more than 400 parts per million and climbing), the prospect of rapid and unprecedented warming has become undeniable.
Before anyone tries to suggest that Lorius’s data is the product of fly-by-night science, they might want to take a look at Jacquet’s film, which details just how humble and arduous the labor of this science actually was—certainly for no expected glory at the time.
We witness Lorius’s first year at France’s Charcot Base in Antarctica—300 kilometers inland and reachable only by a 28-day overland trek through 120 mph winds and 0°F temperatures—eventually ending in snow blindness and scurvy and the need to abandon the base before it is crushed by an oncoming glacier. Later we see a joint French-American expedition in 1974 endure temperatures so cold (-60°F) that all the odors from their cooking simply freeze onto the scientists’ clothes rather than evaporate into the air (and there is no water for washing clothes or selves). At one point, one of his expeditions needs rescue and the first two C-130 rescue planes sent to pick them up have their engines blow out because of the cold.
Still later, we see his team’s painstaking work to drill ice cores. The corer, trying to drill down more than a kilometer into the ice, can only drill one meter per hour, with the slightest kink in drilling angle potentially snagging the drill permanently in the ice and negating months of effort. Scientists studying the sample cores must do their work in a lab kept at -63°F to preserve the ice.
Clearly this is not work for impatient or vainglorious self-promoters.
Jacquet’s film also reveals that beyond the hardships and uncertainty about what, if anything, their data would reveal, Lorius and his fellow researchers found great joy in their work. East-West friendships among scientists flourished even at the height of the Cold War. Expeditions took breaks to conduct the southernmost soccer matches ever played on the planet. The ice, at both the landscape and microscopic scale, repeatedly offered transfixing wonder and beauty to captivate the imagination.
Had Jacquet stuck with just the restored footage and a story of how science is produced, he would have had a formidable film. However, he felt compelled to jazz up his historical narrative with constant intercutting to current-day Lorius contemplating the Earth’s changing landscape. At times, Jacquet’s attempt to tell two related but separate narratives—portraits of the humble scientist and hubristic humanity irrevocably altering the planet—lessens the effectiveness of either tale.
Indeed, to tie the two stories together Jacquet employs an increasingly exhausting voiceover narrator. The voice is supposedly Lorius speaking in first person although the narration actually is by a French voice actor Michel Papineschi pretending to be Lorius. He constantly offers ruminations like “Science is above political divisions” or “Ice is a river whose stillness is just an appearance.”
American audiences may find this near constant narration off-putting, especially when compared with the restrained use of narration in March of the Penguins, where Morgan Freeman’s velvet tones frequently fell silent to let stunning visuals speak for themselves. (Of course it is worth noting the original French version of March of the Penguins had three voice actors personify the father, mother, and baby penguins—so perhaps Ice and the Sky merely lets Americans get a taste of Jacquet’s true stylistic proclivities).
While the constant narration and fractured narrative may be wearying at times, Ice and the Sky ultimately achieves its two most powerful moments as a result of these choices. In the first, near the end of the film Jacquet presents a montage of Lorius being interviewed by television news people on program after program over many decades. For the only time in the film, the voiceover finally falls silent and we are left simply hearing the real Lorius’s voice quietly repeat the same message over and over: humans are causing climate change. Having seen his arduous efforts to come to that conclusion, this pause for a Cassandra-like moment of the lone prophet speaking (largely unheeded) truth to power becomes all the more agonizing to watch.
The scale of our hubris is made plain.
The second moment comes at the end of the film, when Jacquet closes on an inverse of his opening scene. Rather than show a close-up of a human’s shadow dominating the landscape, he circles away from the 82-year-old Lorius hiking along a glacier—pulling the camera back farther and farther until man is just a barely moving speck visible against a massive icy landscape. The idea that we could cast our shadow across such an immense and barren place seems preposterous and yet the film we have just seen proves it to be so—the scale of our hubris is made plain.
And yet with that same shot of a lonely figure on the ice, Jacquet also suggests that even with the impacts of Anthropocene being forever written into the geological record it would be even more hubristic not to realize that ice and sky will far outlast anything so puny as humanity.
Featured image: French glaciologist Claude Lorius contemplates the Antarctic ice that has been the subject of his life’s work, as seen in Luc Jacquet’s Ice and the Sky.
Peter Boger is a CHE community associate and earned his Ph.D. in environmental studies from the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies.He has served as programmer for CHE’s Tales from Planet Earth environmental film festival from 2009 to 2017. His research in animal studies and media studies explores the impacts of film and media celebrity on modern American wildlife conservation. His own short film on animals, On the Origin of Subspecies, played the 2008 Hazel Wolf Film Festival in Seattle. Contact.