Coral has a branding problem, if you will. Like a beautiful sunset over a pollution-choked city, some of the most striking images of underwater ecosystems stem from environmental mistreatment. If you’ve ever seen an ocean shot of pristine white reefs contrasting the blue of the water, you might be looking at an impending graveyard. “Chasing Coral” (which follows director Jeff Orlowski’s glacier erosion chronicle, “Chasing Ice”) takes that optics problem head on. In the process, his environmental film becomes something akin to a behind-the-scenes look at a political campaign. How do you meld the larger cause with individual efforts to sway the public into action?
Like other conservation docs (this year’s Sundance has an entire program devoted to climate), “Chasing Coral” features a heavy dose of natural majesty. In addition to the hi-res footage you’d expect from a ocean-centric portrait (clownfish and anemone fans will be pleased), Orlowski also incorporates some stunning microscopic time-lapse of living coral activity just above the cellular level. Reproduced in vivid neons and fluorescents, these biological processes look like something Bowman might see approaching the Star Gate.
The film provides a quick primer on rising sea temperatures — a climate change lecture that’s become so rote for environmental films, they could share animation sequences. However, Orlowski and co-writers Davis Coombe and Vickie Curtis realize that we’ve reached a point where the beauty and biodiversity of underseas worlds is not enough to effect change.
So Orlowski, along with former ad man Richard Vevers and a team of engineers and marine biologists, shift their focus to capturing images that make the issues more tangible. Their goal: travel to a coral reef on the verge of permanent damage and capture underwater time-lapse footage that will capture the degradation in real time. Amidst the appreciation for the natural world and the tiny battles for public attention, the process of developing a camera that can capture and transmit these time-lapse images gives “Chasing Coral” the added layer of a time-crunch caper.
Within this team of tireless camera engineers is the film’s star, Zackery Rago. Initially involved as a technician looking for a way to power the camera footage delivery system, his role changes as his lifelong obsession with coral science bubbles to the surface. (In an indicative example of the film’s ability to find humor in a daunting task, so does the bottom chyron in his talking-head segments.)
Through Rago’s enthusiasm, “Chasing Coral” also connects the work of this camera team to advocates of previous generations. Rago tracks his passions for coral taxonomy to John “Charlie” Veron, an Australian Jacques Cousteau of sorts whose TV specials provide a window into how coral life was shown to a wider audience, as well as the prevailing attitude toward the necessity of conservation action. When Veron expresses his regret for not doing enough in his media heyday, it’s another example of “Chasing Coral” showing how simple before-and-after comparisons aren’t sufficient.
Obstacles add drama without detracting from the larger issues at hand because the film does such a good job of showing how they’re intertwined. As things move toward the possibility of a catastrophic “bleaching event” (where temperatures in a region rise high enough to stop all regenerative coral processes), it gives the team’s efforts a race-against-the-clock urgency. You can feel the weight of every setback, bringing them closer to a scenario where getting this visual proof may take an extra year that they don’t have.
Though the filmmakers save the most dire prognoses for the latter moments of the film, it crescendos to a global snapshot of independent activists painting an accurate picture of imminent ecological dangers. It’s a rousing ending that doesn’t rest on false hope for an immediate reversal; it’s a reminder that the framework for action is in place, and motivated people are ready. It’s just a matter of whether the rest of the world is up to the task.
“Chasing Coral” premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. Documentary Competition. Netflix has acquired the film for distribution.