After a very awkward and breathtakingly stupid first date between Hollywood and Climate Change with The Day After Tomorrow, future dates were arranged because the first one technically went well for… um… investors. But investors pay for every date, so a second, third, and fourth date were all foreseeable as long as the money kept pouring in. And yeah, the money kept pouring in with films that ranged from blockbuster documentaries to sci-fi epics and preachy comedies, with plenty of odd and fascinating stuff in-between.
(I realized when I wrote Part 1 that this is a gigantic topic and could be a book, or at least a post about exploring every individual film’s relationship with our changing climate. While that would be fun, I work fill-time, am expecting a child, have an apartment to clean, and hobbies (when possible). So you’ll have to forgive me for speeding through the history of climate cinema at a breakneck pace. But here we go!)
An Inconvenient Truth came out in 2007, a few years after The Day After Tomorrow, as part of the wave of blockbuster documentaries that were popular in the 2000s. The science that The Day After Tomorrow horribly mangled was clarified, Al Gore did an excellent job presenting a lot of evidence about the threat of climate change, and the documentary received a colossal amount of criticism and scrutiny from both scientists and skeptics. While it made some claims that were controversial at the time, it mostly holds up very, very well. The one thing it didn’t do very well was make the urgency of climate change clear. Gore describes climate change as something that will happen and will become an urgent problem, rather than painting it as a problem that needs immediate and urgent action. A touch more urgency and panic, or anger, would have been welcome to push the viewer to action. Even so, it was a hit, made buckets of money, won two Oscars, and taught the world about what climate change actually was. I first saw it in high school and I’m embarrassed to admit that my only response was a mental note to use less electricity, when possible. The gravity of the problem did not hit me with that documentary, although it was a remarkable step forward for showing climate change in cinemas.
The Road is a post-apocalyptic film that came out in 2009. It’s an adaptation of a very, very grim and depressing book of the same name by Cormac McCarthy. The Road follows a nameless man and boy who scavenge their way through a totally destroyed America, trying to survive and reach somewhere warm to get through the winter. There’s lots of cannibalism, torture, murder, suicide, and general misery. And I’m sure McCarthy would get very grumpy if The Road were ever listed under ‘climate fiction’ at a book store. Because The Road is about a lot of other things first. It is about death, religion, suffering, and the depravity of the human race. But it depicts a world that has been so thoroughly destroyed that the biosphere is simply gone. Everything is dead. The plants have long since rotted away to nothing, there are no animals, there is no food. The film is incredibly grim, but I consider it a critical climate change film because it unflinchingly shows what climate devastation looks like, and what the last people in a devastated planet might endure. It’s a harrowing watch however, and the book is even more gruesome. So be warned.
Changing gears! James Cameron presents: James Cameron’s Avatar, by James Cameron, also came out in 2009 and is a very weird film on several levels. Intended to be Cameron’s next film after Titanic, the extraordinary costs of the film (set on an alien planet starring 2-meter tall, blue cat-people) sank it for a decade. However, filmmaking technology eventually caught up to the premise, and James Cameron is a tremendous fan of his own work, and he decided to push Avatar through production. Ten years after going nowhere, Cameron shot the visual effects masterpiece using incredible motion-capture technology to create the magical, tropical paradise planet of Pandora. The result is a stunningly beautiful, if a touch preachy, film about our relationship with nature, how material greed is a force of destruction, and that societies with a lot of reverence and respect for nature actually have an excellent point. It’s rather ham-handed and preachy, but Cameron loves nature almost as much as he loves his own films, and that kind of reverence is important to hang onto in a changing climate.
Interstellar was Christopher Nolan’s crack at a climate change film, which asked ‘Is leaving Earth a solution to climate change?” Um. Sure? The entire human racing leaving Earth is probably far more complicated, impossibly expensive, and waaaay more of a logistical nightmare than just solving climate change, but it’s worth exploring the idea. Nolan’s film shows a world with scarce and limited food, dust storms, and the breakdown of society as a broken climate and crop blights ruin what little is left for humanity to survive on But not to worry! The whole thing gets worked out in the end (spoiler) because the hero (Cooper) falls into a black hole, which lets him see every moment in time in his daughter’s bedroom (yikes), and he communicates the mathematical solution to interstellar travel to her through Morse code on her childhood wristwatch. I did not make a word of that up, that’s how the film ends. But don’t you see? That’s way easier than getting off fossil fuels! Piece of cake. Anyone willing to fall into a black hole and sort everything out for us? I didn’t think so.
Snowpiercer is another weird one where climate change makings everything cold instead of warm. Although the science is slightly more plausible than The Day After Tomorrow. In Snowpiercer, a geoengineering experiment meant to counteract the warming from climate change went way too far and the world froze over. Total bunk, to be sure, but at least it’s an improvement from the other ‘very cold climate change movie’. Although in Snowpiercer, climate change is more of a premise than the problem. The film is mostly about class structures, as the impoverished untouchables in the back of the train fight their way to the bougie front of the train to fix the evil and awful structure they live under. At the end of the film (spoilers) it turns out the geoengineering is wearing off and the planet is healing. So it’s an odd example. But an excellent film, if you’re looking for an intelligent and brutal action movie.
Ah, Blade Runner 2049. A very long film that lost a ton of money and is widely considered to be the most misogynistic film of the 2010s. No small feat. But it also showed a future of devastating climate change where Los Angeles was lost in a haze of red smoke (which turned out to be uncomfortably accurate during the terrifying fires there a couple of years ago), contaminated husks of farms could only grow bugs for protein, and large swaths of the countryside were abandoned, ruinous scrapyards. Profoundly bleak stuff, but even so, the human race continues. In fact, climate change was hardly addressed in the film, to the best of my memory. It was just something going on in the background. But it was clearly there all the same. Even so, this was not a film that many people saw and no one remembered for its take on climate change.
Don’t Look Up is perhaps the darling of this list, a much fawned-over and adored film (despite its flaws) for being a very on-the-nose allegory for the struggles of communicating, proving, and trying to solve climate change. Except climate change is an asteroid, because allegory makes uneven writers seem much cleverer than they are (hi Arthur Miller). Don’t Look Up perfectly captures the frustration of trying to make politicians, the media, and the public care about climate change, a long crusade that is only just starting to show results. In that sense, the film is quite remarkable. But where it goes off the rails is that (spoiler) in the end of the film, the asteroid isn’t stopped and it kills the entire human race in a hellish inferno. Which is dumb. And that is NOT what will happen with climate change, even in the most nightmarish scenarios. I disliked that the film ended with a “THIS IS GOING TO KILL US ALL’ message, which might be why climate change has left some people terrified of having children. So while this film is important in many ways, I wish the ending didn’t leave the audience with a stark sense of terror about climate change. We have reason to worry, but we also have reason to hope and a lot to strive for.
But that is my very brief history of climate change cinema. This is not a comprehensive list, of course. I’m sure there is a wealth of climate change films I simply haven’t seen and am not aware of. But I wanted to paint this history because while this list may seem pretty straightforward, something very strange happens with climate change and film in the 2010s that I saw as a symptom of how poorly our struggle to manage climate change was fairing. We’ll look at that trend, and the monsters behind it, in Part 3.