Many people, regardless of where they stand on the issue, are apt to roll their eyes a bit when they hear a new global warming documentary is set to be released. The public opinion has shifted significantly since 2006’s An Inconvenient Truth (which has a sequel due out at the end of the month). You no longer need to convince most rational thinkers that the polar ice caps are melting. While climate change docs may feel like they are preaching to the choir, in his latest film Chasing Coral, documentarian Jeff Orlowski has tweaked the standard gospel. In an hour and a half, this unexpectedly affecting film will make viewers do a complete 180 on a natural phenomenon that they never thought they’d empathize with: coral reefs.
“I’ve always been drawn to the magic of the ocean,” declares successful advertiser-turned-activist Richard Vevers in the film’s opening. Chasing Coral then proceeds to put its money where its mouth is, as it uses unbelievably stunning aquatic shots to truly capture the overwhelming beauty of the sea. This is an educational film, but even as we are being fed informational tidbits, they are paired with breathtaking underwater vistas. In terms of visual clarity, we’ve come a long way from the days of Jacques Cousteau.
It is this picturesque view of nature that really gets a foot in the door for the film’s message. The average person doesn’t put much thought into what goes on beneath the surface of the ocean, so they don’t really give much weight to the problems occurring there, even though they have a detrimental global impact. As a species, we have collectively agreed to adopt an “out of sight, out of mind” approach to interacting with the world around us. Chasing Coral’s crowning achievement is that it humanizes its subject, something we don’t even normally think of as being alive. In film, coral is normally shown as a dangerous obstacle (think Cast Away or Moana). Orlowski makes us care.
The scientists in the film, both the talking heads and those actively researching in the field, make a point of continuously comparing the motivation of coral to that of human beings. This is typically in response to its resilience, its drive to go out swinging. One of the early signs of doomed coral is bleaching, which the film describes as being similar to body’s fever response to fight off illness. These analogies help to put the peril into perspective, particularly because a stretch of white coral looks absolutely gorgeous to the unfamiliar eye.
Toward the end of the documentary, one of the young scientists gets an opportunity to interview his idol, leading coral expert Dr. John “Charlie” Veron. In responding to his pupil’s question about the environmental impact he’s witnessed, you can hear the pain in his voice as Vernon responds, “I’m glad I’m not your age.” This is a man who has devoted his life to understanding marine life, only to see it gradually being wiped off the face of the earth. The interview is the emotional climax of the film, and it is sure to rope in the more reluctant members of the audience.
Thankfully, like most compelling documentaries, Chasing Coral uses its final moments to find a more optimistic note. While much of what preceded it felt like the precursor to an apocalyptic science fiction movie, the film’s resolution revolves around testimonials from impassioned citizens from every corner of the globe agreeing to take a stand. The film is being released on Netflix, so hopefully it will be able to utilize its wide reach to inform the masses. This cautionary tale is far more grand than coral, and once we realize as much, perhaps we can reverse the consequences before it is too late.