April 23, 2022
by Carla Hay
Directed by Craig Leeson
Culture Representation: Filmed in various parts of Europe, South America, Asia, and Antarctica, the documentary “The Last Glaciers” features a predominantly white group of people (with some Asians, Latinos and indigenous people) talking about how climate change is causing mountain glaciers to disappear and filmmaker Craig Leeson’s attempt to film many of these glaciers while they still exist.
Culture Clash: Leeson says he wants this movie to be a wake-up call for people to take more action to protect Earth’s environment.
Culture Audience: “The Last Glaciers” will appeal primarily to people who are concerned about environmental issues; however, except for some stunning aerial shots of ice-covered mountains, this documentary doesn’t do anything significant or new for the environmentalist movement.
“The Last Glaciers” comes across as a documentary vanity project for filmmaker Craig Leeson to have footage of him paragliding over famous glacial mountains instead of being an important call to action about climate change. Leeson directed this 40-minute film (which had a special screening at select IMAX theaters in the U.S. and Canada), and he spends a lot of time in the narration talking about himself. Although “The Last Glaciers” is being advertised and marketed as an informative documentary about climate change, it’s really just a glorified travelogue showing Leeson (one of the movie’s producers) being a privileged filmmaker who used this movie’s budget to film himself going on mountain adventures, with the help of more experienced mountain guides.
Leeson says in the documentary that he wanted to film mountain glaciers that are disappearing because of climate change. However, this type of footage doesn’t have any real visual impact until people see “before” and “after” pictures. Leeson was mainly concerned about filming the “before” images, with him paragliding around these mountains. Although the scenery is stunning, Leeson does not reveal anything about disappearing glaciers that the Oscar-winning 2006 documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” didn’t already reveal. “An Inconvenient Truth” had plenty of “before and after” images as proof.
Filmed over a four-year period, “The Last Glaciers” gives bare-basics information about how glaciers affect Earth’s ecosystem. Cities that reside at the foot of these mountains, as well as coastal cities, are particularly at risk for being climate-change disaster areas by the mid-21st century, according to scientist predictions. It’s necessary information included in this documentary. However, it’s included almost like a secondary afterthought because the main priority of the movie is for Leeson to show how he’s a rare documentarian who got access to film certain parts of the Himalayas, Mont Blanc, and the Andes—three of the mountain ranges featured in the movie.
Any environmental experts interviewed in “The Last Glaciers” are each given less than a minute of generic soundbites. The experts who appear very briefly in the movie include Gisella Orjeda, former president of the National Council for Science Technology and Innovation; Bruno Pozzi, director of the Europe Office of the United Nations Environment Programme; activist Greta Thunberg; Jérôme Chappellaz, director of the French Polar Institute; David Molden, director general of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development; Arctic Basecamp founder Gail Whiteman; and NASA cryosphere scientist John Sonntag. The documentary needed more input from experts and less self-indulgent “let’s talk about me” footage of Leeson.
The people who are shown accompanying Leeson on these mountain trips include expedition leader Dave Turner, United Nations mountain ambassador Malcolm Wood, cinematographer Cody Tuttle and “The Last Glaciers” executive producer William Pfeiffer. Leeson and his team also got some assistance from local mountain guides. Tuttle died in a paragliding accident in 2019. The end of “The Last Glaciers” has an “in memoriam” title card for him.
There’s some “drama” in the movie when Turner unexpectedly gets sidelined from injuries he sustained in an unrelated accident. Turner tells Leeson in a videoconference chat that Leeson has enough paragliding experience to continue without him, as Leeson grins with satisfaction. After he’s recovered, Turner shows up for a “surprise” visit that looks staged. And there’s the obligatory “life-threatening” paragliding scene that has no suspense whatsoever because it’s obvious from the narration that everyone in that paragliding scene made it out alive.
At the end of the IMAX movie screening on April 23, 2022, there was a live Q&A moderated by climate activist Caroline Gleich, with four panelists Leeson, climate scientist Clara Henry, climate advocate Molly Kawahata and ice core scientist Peter Neff. Questions were taken from audiences who watched the movie in the IMAX theaters, but the Q&A quickly got repetitive with similar questions being asked. The answers consisted of things that environmentalists have said many times before: Using fossil fuels (the main culprit in the environment’s deterioration) needs to be replaced with cleaner alternatives. The panelists also repeated that change needs to happen on a systemic level, but people can help as individuals by reducing their carbon footprint and working to get politicians elected who can do the most to help with climate problems.
People who’ve never seen a documentary with aerial mountain footage might be very impressed with “The Last Glaciers.” The cinematography really is the best thing about this movie. But anyone looking for a more substantive documentary about climate change and what to do about this problem will have to look elsewhere. “The Last Glaciers” amounts to nothing more than a filmmaker’s egocentric travel diary masquerading as an environmentalist documentary.
IMAX Entertainment released “The Last Glaciers” as a limited one-day-only theatrical event in select U.S. and Canadian cinemas on March 22 and April 23, 2022.