Shelter Island // 2010 // 87 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Erich Asperschlager // March 21st, 2013
"The air stings like a fist of needles."
As small as the earth might feel these days, there are still places on it where humans aren't meant to go -- inhospitable environments that remain out of reach for all but the most determined explorers. That includes the Arctic. In the last century, fewer than 150 people have traveled by foot the last 5 degrees of latitude to the North Pole. One of those men was Admiral Robert Peary, in 1909 (despite compelling arguments by historians that Peary didn't make it as far north as he claimed). Two others, Sebastian Copeland and Keith Heger, documented their journey, timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Peary's expedition, in the documentary Into the Cold: A Journey of the Soul.
There's a reason so few people have made this journey. It took Copeland and Heger, both in top shape, 35 days to cross 400 miles ice on skis and snowshoes, each dragging 200-lb. sleds laden with gear and provisions precisely calculated to maximize calories and minimize weight. Over that time, the temperature never rose above minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit, and often dropped near minus 50 degrees. They battled frostbite, exhaustion, hunger, and the terrain. At these extreme temperatures the surface of the ice is more like sand than snow, making dragging the sleds even more difficult. Large, flat expanses are broken up by "pressure ridges" where the massive sheets of ice are forced together by currents and wind, rising up in hills of jagged ice. In one scene, Copeland and Heger come to a pressure ridge in process of forming. It's difficult to imagine the forces at work, even when Copeland starts throwing around numbers, the millions of tons of ice being shifted, pushed, and crushed by natural forces. That same shifting means that approaching the North Pole is like shooting at a moving target. Although the Pole is marked by a fixed point at the bottom of the ocean, the ice above is always in motion, meaning it's possible for a day's travel to be nullified by the treadmill effect of walking on moving ice.
Why do Copeland and Heger put themselves through it? Partly for the thrill and the challenge, but mostly because this is the last chance they or anyone else will have to traverse the ice on foot. Climate change has devastated the poles. Multi-year ice (ice that has been around for ten years or more) made up 80 percent of Arctic ice twenty years ago; it's only 3 percent today. The rest is "new," more fragile ice formed as the ocean freezes in the winter. If the trend continues, the Arctic cap will be just a collection of ice islands floating on the sea.
Copeland has long been a passionate activist for the environment, spinning a career in film and photography into a platform to address climate change, including lectures and a book of photography, Antarctica: The Global Warning. His Arctic expedition was funded and planned in part to raise awareness about the melting polar caps, but Copeland is more personally invested than that. Although it is sold as a documentary about the environment, Into the Cold is about one man's relationship with a changing landscape. Copeland isn't out to conquer the ice. He's there to commune with it.
Into the Cold is presented as "a film by Sebastian Copeland" -- and it really is. He is all over this documentary, on camera and as narrator offering play-by-play, science stats, and poetic navel-gazing like "I immerse myself in complete communion with the ice and feel at one with it...I get lost in the unique privilege of finding myself here, nourishing my soul with the pure and raw power of nature." His passion for saving the environment is either endearing or insufferable, depending on your point of view. The film takes a good half hour to get to the Arctic, after scenes of Copeland at an LA gala in his honor, training, packing, and talking to other travelers and Inuit elders in northern Canada. Don't go into this movie expecting an Arctic-focused Planet Earth. Gorgeous as it is, this documentary is all about the message.
Those interested more in the nature footage than climate change will still have plenty to enjoy. The Arctic is a harsh, desolate, lifeless place painted in whites and cool blues. Copeland likens it to being on the surface of the moon. There may not be variety or vivid colors, but that feeling of being on an alien world gives the place a beauty. Some of the most striking scenes take place inside their tent, where subzero temperatures turn their bowls of breakfast porridge into bubbling mad scientist cauldrons, and cover the walls in a layer of thick morning ice.
Where some nature films are made by large crews over many months, with the best equipment, Into the Cold is basically two guys and a handheld camera. Copeland and Heger didn't travel with a film crew (for obvious reasons), so they had to shoot everything themselves. Copeland may be a pro, but that doesn't make what they captured any less of an accomplishment. The results aren't as sharp as some dedicated nature documentaries, but the handheld HD footage is gorgeous, even in standard-def. Curiously, the DVD case lists the audio as 5.1 surround, but the only option on my disc was stereo. Given that Copeland likely didn't record his trip in surround, I'm not sure what a 5.1 mix would add, except to amp up the fairly generic background music and Copeland's narration. The DVD's lone bonus feature is a four-minute trailer for Copeland's photography book Antarctica: The Global Warning.
It would be easy to criticize Sebastian Copeland's documentary as pretentious and preachy, but I suppose if you are one of very few people to walk 400 miles across ice in freezing temperatures to the only place on earth where every other direction is south, you should be able to say whatever you want. Whatever you think about the messenger, it's hard to argue with the message. Copeland has dedicated his life to raising awareness about global warming, environmental legacy, and our collective impact on the world. Into the Cold is one man's Journey of the Soul, but the world it shows is everyone's responsibility.
Not guilty, but man does it look cold.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shelter Island
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 87 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Official Site