Film Review: To the Arctic 3D

<i>To the Arctic</i>, as narrated by Meryl Streep, is a lovely fable about nature and motherhood in the North Pole. The problem is, it may scare the pants off you. The other problem is, it&#8217;s all true.

To the Arctic, the IMAX 3D film narrated by Meryl Streep and directed by Greg MacGillivray (Dolphins, The Living Sea, Everest) shows us a world in which, if we’re not careful, there will be no more swimming in ice-cold waters, no more feasting on seals. At first this may not seem like something you’d miss.

But after you watch polar bears struggling to live at the top of the world in this film, you know our planet will be bereft. They’re cute enough—if not the jaunty creatures of Coca-Cola ads—when not scrambling to find a home on disappearing ice floes. We learn of one polar bear who swam for six days to find even a temporary resting spot, and another who didn’t make it (not to worry—the movie is appropriate for kids, with no gruesome scenes). Streep and MacGillivray’s team don’t use charts and graphs like Al Gore did in An Inconvenient Truth; global warming, or climate change if you prefer, is a given. If we continue the way we have with greenhouse gas emissions, we are told that the protective summer ice pack in the Arctic Ocean will be gone by 2050. The waterfalls from melting glaciers may be thrilling to view, but there’s no delight in this disorder; it portends doom for all Arctic dwellers.

Most of this 40-minute film is spent with one devoted polar bear mother and her cubs. They are the lucky ones. She is indefatigable, nimble, and even has enough milk to nurse both her cubs (apparently not always the case in today’s Arctic). They play gleefully, and kids will delight at their romps. But they are constantly on alert, on the run: finding enough ice, seals if they can, warding off new kinds of prey. Camera pans of melting ice floes spaced farther and farther apart make the point. So does the grim immediacy of a stalking male polar bear so hungry he will eat his own kind, necessitating “Ma” bear’s careful protection of her cubs. The view of males as predators, females as nurturers ready and willing to die for their young, may seem a bit retrograde. But we’re talking nature here, red in tooth and claw, if highlighted against white in just one bloody “feeding” scene.

On occasion, Streep gets a little preachy: The greatest gift mothers can pass on to their children is a healthy planet, she says. Can’t argue with that, but the movie does best when it lets the animals do the talking. For if the polar bears don’t get to you, the story of the caribou will. A thrilling overhead shot shows the caribou racing to the safe place where their females have always given birth—a run so powerful it seems that nothing could stop the urgent migration. But then you learn that the rivers they must ford are swollen from melting ice, and the caribou are slowed down. Some have to deliver before reaching their feeding ground, and the newborn calves are way too vulnerable.

Compare all this to a time when man and nature co-existed harmoniously. The movie cleverly uses 3D technology for a foregrounded framing device shot in nostalgic sepia tones, showing a time when the Inuit found more than enough food for any happy Eskimo family. (Snowflakes drifting toward you in the beginning of the film aren’t so innovative—maybe we’ve all been spoiled by Avatar.) Some Paul McCartney songs, though not new, are used to good effect, especially the “Because the world is round” refrain from “Because.” Round so far.