At 45, world-class photographer Sebastian Copeland has achieved more than most people would in twice their lifetimes. His famous shots of A-list celebrities (including his cousin Orlando Bloom) and rarely traversed landscapes have earned him numerous international awards. He’s a tireless advocate for raising environmental awareness, traveling the world to study continuing global warming hazards and then preaching to folks at the U.N., the World Affairs Council and other organizations. He’s a boxer, a mountain climber, a danger seeker. He looks good with or without a beard. He was once married to Brigitte Nielsen.
Yet, while the rest of us are still playing catch-up, Copeland outdoes himself once again in “Into the Cold: A Journey of the Soul,” the riveting, first-hand account of his 400-mile trek—on foot—to the North Pole last March. Even the footage of Copeland’s month-long training for this masochistic mission is nerve-racking. The first challenge sends him hiking up steep Los Angeles inclines with a 100-pound weight strapped to his chest; in the final endurance test, meant to brace him for minus-50-degree Arctic temperatures, he is dunked into hypothermia-inducing water amidst bleak Minnesotan winter.
Finally, Copeland and his equally nutty accomplice, fellow Arctic explorer Keith Heger, are dropped somewhere in Arctic Canada. Dragging 200-pound toboggans weighed down with Arctic-equipped wireless devices, thermal clothing and a variety of pork-flavored concoctions, they attempt to reach the Pole in under two months, just in time for the centennial of Admiral Robert Peary’s 1909 expedition. Peary may have lacked the heated tents and telecom rigs that today’s so-called outdoorsmen need to survive, but the miserable current state of the ice caps presents Copeland and Heger with obstacles Peary could only have dreamed of.
“New ice,” or ice less than ten years old, has gradually replaced the sturdier ice of Peary’s day, after decades of melting. Thus, Copeland and Heger are forced to climb over endless “rubble fields,” ice dunes that look like all-white renditions of early moonscape interpretations. It is painful to watch these two, their balance hampered by their cross-country skis, hunching enough to cause back spasms as they pull their cumbersome sleds over the hills. They encounter lakes between ice fissures and wait hours for the chasms to naturally rejoin. They retire to bed plagued with frostbite and swollen lungs; they wake up in frosty streams of fog, realizing in horror that the Arctic drift has pulled them backward. Yet somehow they forge ahead, and amazingly, there’s only one misstep in the whole film: the shot of Copeland sinking beneath a broken ice ridge is likely the scariest image you’ll see for years.
But the most poignant, haunting scenes in “Into the Cold” examine phenomena most of us have only read about in textbooks. Copeland perhaps comes closer than any other filmmaker has to documenting physical evidence of the Earth’s rotation. We hear the crackling of ice as snow ridges tear apart, burrowing into each other, forming new mounds. When he reaches the Pole, we see the longitude and latitude on Copeland’s compass hit zero; barely a minute later, we are reminded how ephemeral and fleeting the North Pole is, how quickly its position shifts.
The fact that Copeland filmed the whole enterprise while stumbling and hacking and hurting for two months will impress even the most jaded video game-obsessed homebodies. It’s well-paced and well-photographed, and Copeland and Heger both have a loopy, ingratiating manner that actually makes the chilling journey seem lighthearted, at times.
The only Achilles’ heel is Copeland’s narration, which is flooded with flowery, spiritual mumbo-jumbo. Sentiments such as “feeling at one with the ice” abound, and just about every synonym for “Arctic tundra” is uttered here (most notably “the simplicity of the void.”) Several times throughout the film, Copeland marvels at the silence encompassing him in the Arctic, with the wind and the breathing and the slushy footsteps providing his only soundtrack. But ironically, in voice-over, he chatters away like the most numbing self-help cassette guru. Perhaps the one thing Sebastian Copeland hasn’t mastered yet is poetry.