HBO’s Ice on Fire, directed by Leila Conners and produced and narrated by her The 11th Hour collaborator Leonardo DiCaprio, poses a grandiose question: “Can we reverse climate change, or is it too late?”
When taken at face value as a piece of filmmaking, the documentary is profoundly simple. It consists of talking-head interviews crosscut with drone shots of landscapes that are not long for this world, then on-location interviews, more drone shots, and numerous onscreen graphics that serve to inundate viewers with complex data.
Ice on Fire is an admirable effort, and its heart is very much in the right place, but it’s less of a rallying cry for change and more of a positivity-fueled approach to a topic rife with scary data and the reality of impending doom. The scientists and researchers in the film still have a sense of optimism in how climate change (mainly CO2 levels) can be lessened and, eventually, reversed. But many, including this reviewer, will and have taken umbrage with that all-too-sunny outlook.
From a commercial standpoint, having a still-positive take on an utterly terrifying subject is smart, but that is not the reality. Okay, so there are numerous studies about climate change, CO2’s effect on the Earth’s atmosphere, and how likely it is we can reverse any of the damage we’ve wrought. Ice on Fire takes the hopeful approach, which at face value is fine. But the way that the documentary portrays its themes and data does nothing to allow the film to rise above a rather decade-old take on climate change.
The talking-head interviews, while par for the course, help to deliver the film’s data in a from-the-source manner. The information is cut and dry but objective, and that is commendable. There are no freedom gases here.
As for the drone shots, there are far too many. They may be gorgeous, but I can’t help but feel I’m viewing such beautifully doomed environments in a fleeting manner — intangible and therefore unimportant.
For the film’s themes to hit home, we must care about these doomed lands, we must feel the snow, the wind, the flora, and the fauna. Yet, all Ice on Fire does is sweep to and fro while never dwelling in on the unshakeable reality and fragility of it all. There are moments where the documentary hints at this — as in an emotionally intense segment focused on the California forest fires — but more often than not, extinction, death, decay, melting, and more are only viewed from a safe distance.
Where Ice on Fire‘s economic approach to direction succeeds is in how the film uses graphics and actual scientists rather than famous figures a la Al Gore. Inundate a viewer with scientific words, numbers, and data and they might feel overwhelmed.
But the implementation of graphs and tables allows us to read and internalize lots of data and maybe, just maybe, it will force the average viewer to understand the realities of climate change and how it doesn’t only affect polar bears or rainforests — it affects everyone. And the fact that such data has been collected and presented by real scientists, both in labs and in the field, lends it all that much more credence.
Ice on Fire travels all over the world and DiCaprio’s sure-fire narration eases the ride, but as a whole, this film should say more. It may even have a stronger, more realistic stance on climate change and climate disruption, but it just doesn’t know how to say it.
In the end, Ice on Fire is an economically crafted and obviously expensive climate change documentary that even your uncle could stomach and understand, and for that reason, it (amongst other documentaries) should be necessary viewing in schools around the world, even if its core message is a little too positive and squeaky clean.
There is doom, there is gloom, there is ruin, and there is disaster, but Ice on Fire believes that, as the tides rise, humanity has the ability to swim instead of sink.