A mixture of personal recollections and subtle looks towards the future, the stunning and sometimes harrowing documentary Antarctica: Ice and Sky looks at Earth’s most mysterious and inhospitable continent, and how scientists risked their lives to parse the ecological and geological secrets hidden beneath its craggy, snow swept landscapes and luminous ice formations.

French filmmaker Luc Jacquet (March of the Penguins) joins scientist and climate change researcher Claude Lorius for an intimate look back on some of the first large scale fact finding missions to Antarctica. Now 82, but still active in his advocacy of climate change issues, Lorius (who is seen on camera, but has his words read and narrated in English by Michel Papineschi) walks Jacquet and the audience through the difficult, energy draining processes that went hand in hand with researching in a climate so brutal that a -30 degree Celsius day with no wind felt like a welcome heat wave.

Through a plethora of archival footage, Jacquet traces Lorius’ life back to his first expedition to Antarctica in 1956, when the scientist was only 23-years-old. That initial year-long voyage and ensuing trips back to the continent over the following decades only reinforced Lorius’ belief that scientists could learn a lot about how the climate of the Earth has changed by analyzing core samples of compressed snow and ice that date back to the Ice Age. Even before the technology was invented that could allow Lorius to get deep enough to retrieve these cores, he was convinced that the ice held information about what the climate on Earth used to be like.

The missions to Antarctica were dangerous and hazardous to one’s health, and accomplishing his then lofty and unheard of goals was easier said than done. People had been known to die on such trips. Weather could change so suddenly that travelling parties would often have to leave behind large amounts of equipment and personal effects just to stay ahead of storms that could come from out of nowhere and last for days on end. It was a continent with little documentation on its topography, so people could be travelling and suddenly run into a large mountain without being prepared for it.

In the few bits of modern day footage – largely of elderly Lorius standing on the continent and looking contemplative – Jacquet captures the grandeur and natural beauty of Antarctica, but the main appeal of the documentary comes from the well written narration and parsing over the extraordinary amount of archival footage at the filmmakers’ disposal. Not only does Antarctica: Fire and Ice depict a dangerous task, but the film underlines the amount of dedication and determination to a scientific cause necessary to a modern understanding of our climate.

Antarctica: Fire and Ice isn’t a film that deals with climate change issues directly for most of its running time, but it does make the work of Lorius, his crew, and other scientists seem downright heroic in hindsight. It’s an informative documentary, but also surprisingly inspiring. We need more passionate scientists like Lorius to continue with such difficult tasks, and Jacquet’s film about him will hopefully inspire future generations to take up such causes.