Film Review: ‘Chasing Coral’ Dives Into Climate Change

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When an “Inconvenient Truth” premiered in 2006, it was one of the first high profile documentaries to confront the realities of climate change. At the time, former Vice President Al Gore warned of ways in which our climate could be affected in the coming years. Since that time, documentaries about climate change have become far less speculative. Instead, films like Netflix’s “Chasing Coral” can simply show you the devastation that is occurring in our ecosystems.

Chasing Coral” is a pseudo-sequel to 2012’s Oscar nominated “Chasing Ice” from director Jeff Orlowski. The film follows a group of scientists looking to document the coral bleaching phenomenon in reefs around the world. A coral bleaching event occurs when the coral animal turns pure white to defend itself from warming waters. While the phenomenon looks interesting, the process is deadly for coral, because it essentially stops the creature from eating. Coral bleaching events have begun occurring on a worldwide scale, and most worrisome is how frequent they are occurring. As coral bleaching continues, the ecosystems that are built around these creatures are perishing quickly.

This is where the team from “Chasing Coral” steps in to document the effects of the bleaching. Richard Vevers is the first individual who seeks to document the event, using “Chasing Ice” as his inspiration to do so. He sees the issues facing coral as a PR/advertising problem and thinks his skills can bring it to the public eye. Vevers meets with Orlowski, and the two gameplan the most effective way to document the bleaching event is through time lapse cameras. One of the people contacted to help build these cameras is a young coral enthusiast Zachary Rago. While Zach begins the documentary as one of the hired hands brought in to build the cameras, he quickly becomes one of the subjects of the film.

Just like other documentaries, including “Before the Flood” last year, “Chasing Coral” has no issue showing worrisome imagery. After all, the coral reefs are dying in unprecedented numbers. What makes this film so unique is that it showcases the deaths of these beautiful creatures in such a way that it makes the audience feel guilty about relishing the beauty on screen. Many of the shots of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef look beautiful at first glance. However, the film educates its audience on what the death of a coral looks like early in the film. Rather than thinking, you’re in an oceanic Vista, the audience becomes hyper-aware they are staring into a graveyard. It’s tough to swallow, and the imagery is harrowing.

The documentary does a strong job showcasing the difficulty in collecting these images for the audience. While the pacing can sometimes feel off, the film is able to present the images in a logical crescendo toward the end of the film. The team features frequent issues in their attempts to capture the imagery, and eventually makes a much larger sacrifice than initially anticipated. Since the tech is bulky and extremely difficult to move, Rago and others are forced to take time lapse photos in over 30 locations each day, in person. The achievement on that front is incredible, simply as a physical feat. It is also highly disturbing to watch a single piece of coral wither and die in a matter of 100 days.

These moments occasionally reveal a deep pathos within the subjects’ quests to save coral. The real standout of the film is Rago, who showcases a deep emotional connection to the coral on screen, and goes through a physical gauntlet to capture the images needed. While he begins the film as a simple tech, by the end of the film he is its hero. His journey is the most satisfying to watch, and when he’s not on screen, the energy in the film dips. He’s the literal and emotional heartbeat of the film, and makes you buy in on the premise quickly. Also of note for Oscar watchers. The film features an original song for the Kristen Bell sung “Tell Me How Long” featured in the credits. It’s an effective song and considering that “Chasing Ice” received a nod, it’s in play.

Overall, “Chasing Coral” is a very strong documentary that features incredibly beautiful, yet harrowing imagery throughout the film. The message is strong, and the imagery is memorable throughout. However, with the glut of climate change documentaries, it scary to think this one could get lost in the fray. Regardless, watch the film due to the poignancy of its message. It is tough to watch a coral reef perish around these subjects, but the undeniable message of the film is that we can still save the reefs. With this message broadcast wide, we can only hope that the right people are paying attention.

What did you think? Did you enjoy “Chasing Coral?” Let us know in the comments below.

“Chasing Coral” is now available to stream on Netflix.

Grade: (★★1/2)