Spoiler warning for a whole whack of films
The Great Barrier Reef is dying. Average temperatures in the Arctic are spiking, leading to massive glacier melts and rising sea levels. British Columbia just declared a province-wide state of emergency due to raging wildfires.
Climate change is very much here.
Yet, despite recent attempts, many big-budget movies have largely botched the opportunity to tell meaningful stories about the responses of people and communities to climate change.
Such conversations might sound frivolous, a sideshow to the real issues of Trump withdrawing from the Paris Agreement and Trudeau approving massive oilsands pipelines. But like it or not, Hollywood has huge influence over our collective understandings of issues: let's never forget the rumoured role that Top Gun had on Navy recruitment or impact of Zero Dark Thirty and Argo had on perceptions of government competency.
That's why it matters a great deal that Hollywood has propagated particularly reactionary narratives about climate change in the few decades, including the white saviour trope, deep-seated misanthropy that blames "overpopulation" and "overconsumption" for toxic pollution while letting rich and powerful people off the hook, and a distinct lack of class or race analysis.
Such stories thus crucially shape our understanding of how to respond to the ongoing crisis.
Arguably the first in cinematic "climate fiction" (referred to in some circles with the cringey shorthand of "cli-fi") was 1973's Soylent Green, which opened with a frantic montage of cars and highways and lots of people and waste and suburbs and clearcuts and landfills and smog and, well, you get the picture.
The film also makes an explicit reference to the "greenhouse effect," fairly impressive feat given that climate change didn't really hit the public consciousness until the late 1980s.
Charlton Heston played the lead role as Detective Frank Thorn, finding out through the course of the film that the eponymous and mysterious food product was actually made from human remains; why a meal replacement company founded four decades after the release of the film would name itself "Soylent" is positively baffling.
Climate change also served as a thematic backdrop in 1995's Waterworld, the Kevin Costner-led film—featuring a completely flooded world and a clever cameo from the Exxon Valdez—which Rotten Tomatoes gives a 42 per cent rating and describes as an "ambitious misfire." Again, a rugged white man serves as protagonist.
It wasn't until 2004's The Day After Tomorrow, brought to you by the team behind Independence Day, that climate change actually became the subject of the film, as opposed to a mere backdrop.
Clay Dasilva—a PhD candidate at the University of Waterloo who's working on a thesis about political ideology in climate change films—said in an interview with VICE Canada that the film "was the first that took up a contemporary, present-oriented approach" to the issue, featuring a climate scientist as protagonist and depictions of a United Nations climate change conference.
Unfortunately, the movie was pretty disastrous—it currently sports a 45 per cent rating on Rotten Tomatoes—and barely passed the Michael Bay threshold of filmmaking.
The science of The Day After Tomorrow was total nonsense: the North Atlantic Current halted literally overnight, resulting in massive tornadoes and KOed weathermen and the Hollywood sign getting decimated and an immediate global ice age that features flash freezing of people and the release of wolves from the local zoo.
Beyond that bullshit, the messaging was effectively the same.
To quote Twin Peaks villain-turned-US president Kenneth Welsh's address at the finale of the film: "For years, we operated under the belief that we could continue consuming our planet's natural resources without consequence." This echoes a previous phrase from protagonist Jack Hall that humanity's survival "all depends on whether or not we're able to learn from our mistakes."
Such language regurgitates a near-constant theme in climate change movies: that the universalizing "we" is to blame for apocalyptic flooding and hurricanes and hail and fires and drought and pestilence.
Not the eight richest people who have the same amount of wealth as the poorest half of the world's population, allowing them to exert astronomical influence over public policy. Nope, just regular people. The ones "overpopulating" and "overconsuming."
Some recent movies have got slightly better at exploring this tension between class, race and climate change.
The very intense and on-the-nose 2013 movie Elysium established a physical delineation between the miserly world predominantly populated by poor people of colour and a nearby space station where rich white billionaires hang out and protect their own.
Released only a week prior, Snowpiercer channelled similar class-oriented themes with workers in the back of a literal train that runs around the frozen world with a perpetual motion engine revolting against their rich overlords at the front (we're not even going to start with the meaning-of-the-polar-bear-at-the-end debate, although it's most likely a Coke commercial).
The year 2014 saw the release of the brutally overwrought space opera with a killer Hans Zimmer soundtrack that was Interstellar, with Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway abandoning Earth due to Dust Bowl-esque droughts and crop failures, which to director Christopher Nolan's credit is a likely symptom of climate change.
Rounding out the vaguely woke climate tetralogy was 2015's Mad Max: Fury Road, set in a brutal post-apocalyptic world filled with resource wars and monstrous warlords. It received rave reviews, largely due to excellent action sequences, strong feminist themes and grossly oversaturated cinematography.
But all of the four movies commit the same fundamental errors with their depictions of people dealing with the impacts climate change. Every protagonist is a white man; one could argue that Charlize Theron was the true hero of the latter, but it wasn't exactly titled Mad Furiosa. So this point doesn't trip us, let's call it a problem with white protagonists in general.
Some may deride this as mere "identity politics." But this kind of representation matters.
After all, it's black, Indigenous and people of colour who will suffer the harshest consequences of climate change. Positioning white men—Matt Damon, Chris Evans, Matthew McConaughey and Tom Hardy, respectively, joining the likes of Charlton Heston, Kevin Costner and Dennis Quaid—as the heroes of such climate movies sends a very clear signal of whom directors imagine as "saviours" of these climate dystopias.
It also goes beyond mere individual representation.
In almost all these films, impacts of climate change are represented as effectively worldwide. Think the unending desert in Mad Max, or ceaseless ocean in Waterworld, or snow-covered globe in Snowpiercer. Key plot points often involve finding exceptions: the Green Place, the Dry Land, the Wormhole. But they're very much exceptions in the respective universes.
Not to go full Neil DeGrasse Tyson, but that's not remotely how climate change will continue to unfold.
Rather, it will be what Rob Nixon has dubbed "slow violence," largely against poor and non-white people: eroding coastlines, reduced access to food and water, higher risks of disease and illness, forced migration from ancestral homes. "Developed" urban areas will certainly be impacted—there is no place on Earth that won't—but the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events will disproportionately decimate places in the Global South and on the fringes of "developed" society (such as Inuit peoples in the Arctic and predominantly black communities in the United States).
These dystopic films effectively gloss over that. Some go even further.
That becomes especially pronounced in Interstellar, during which McConaughey's highly punchable character spouts colonial and conveniently apolitical bullshit like "we used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt" and "we've just forgotten that we are still pioneers" and "this world's a treasure, but it's been telling us to leave for a while now."
As Dasilva notes in an interview, Interstellar's fundamental ethos "denigrates a whole worldview of people who are interested in caretaking and being good stewards."
Moreover, it denies the role that poor, non-white people play in resisting such oppressions through recommitting to their homes in the face of climate change and other catastrophes. It channels the identical argument made by people like Scott Gilmore and Jonathan Kay, who call for remote and Northern Indigenous communities to "just move" to the South and fail to understand the integral spiritual, cultural and historical role that specific geography plays.
And that's where serious filmmaking enters the picture.
Usually with far lower budgets than the aforementioned movies— Mad Max: Fury Road cost $150 million, while Interstellar came with a $165 million price tag—as well. That's likely no coincidence.
Take 2012's beautiful Beasts of the Southern Wild as example, a movie that centres Hushpuppy (a young black girl living in a Louisiana bayou community) as protagonist. Climate change is acknowledged as a fundamental theme from the get-go, with Hushpuppy's school teacher warning of impending storms and the need to be prepared.
The impacts of climate change manifest slowly. Flooding and coastal erosion and sickness that disproportionately devastates the predominantly black community. Catastrophe occurs, and the community supports itself, even when forcibly removed by a white disaster management team. Hushpuppy has a series of monologues that litter the film. They could feasibly serve as direct indictments of the morality of Interstellar and many other climate films.
"Daddy says: 'Brave men don't run from their home,'" she says at one point. Later, completing the thought, she says: "The brave men stay and watch it happen. They don't run."
The film—which was made for a miniscule $1.5 million budget, produced by the non-profit studio Cinereach—concludes, not with any sense of singular triumph over nature or even villain, but returning to their home. In a 2012 interview with The Atlantic, director Benh Zeitlin said: "People should not be forced to leave their homes. The whole movie is about why you can't be pulled out of your home."
The same ethic can be observed in 2002's Whale Rider, which coincidentally enough featured the youngest nominee for Academy Award for Best Actress—Keisha Castle-Hughes at 13—until Quvenzhané Wallis undercut her for Beasts of the Southern Wild a decade later.
Climate change isn't explicitly mentioned in the movie Whale Rider. But the finale of the spectacular film, in which dozens of southern right whales beach themselves on the shore of New Zealand's northeast coast, is becoming a more frequent occurrence due to climate change. The novel that the film is based on actually references the collapsing ice of Antarctica as a contributor to the beaching.
Like with Beasts of the Southern Wild, there is no grand battle against a singular megalomaniacal villain. The underlying narrative of Whale Rider—made with a budget of around $4 million—is one of Indigenous resurgence in the face of colonization, trauma, loss of culture and, arguably, climate change.
Almost the entire film takes place in and around the small town of Whangara. While there are indeed defined protagonists in each film—Pai in Whale Rider and Hushpuppy in Beasts—their actions takes place within critical frames of place, culture and broader community.
Compare that to any of the other climate films mentioned: there's no real sense of place or commitment to place. Hell, the conclusion of Snowpiercer saw the film's very setting—a massive class-divided train—derail and explode, ostensibly killing all inhabitants save two, in some anarcho-primitivist wet dream that leaves children to fend against a fucking polar bear.
Locations and homes become mere disposable backdrops in which bland, white heroes exact revenge or rescue efforts. There's no tangible commitment to actual communities or peoples, but simply The World, which is really peak colourblind discourse. And that sends a very particular message of what "solutions" to climate change look like: technological innovation, conquest of new places and planets, white saviourism, lower "consumption" rates.
Massive studios can count on audiences coming to see action movies with stars and unambiguous messaging. Especially if it doesn't challenged preconceived notions.
We have to move beyond that kind of Elon Musk bullshit in cinema and the policymaking that it helps justify.
If Canada and other countries are going to truly pursue "solutions" to climate change—and at this point by solutions we're effectively talking about mitigating the worst possible outcome and adapting to the already unfolding chaos—we must listen to (and in this case, watch) the perspectives and experiences of black, Indigenous and people of colour, as well people living in low-income and rural conditions.
Not just in individual representation, although that's clearly an improvement. It's have to include the recognition of distinct understandings of place, society and governance outside of a Eurocentric capitalist context.
Of course, it would be naive to assume that a few more thoughtful films are going to "solve" climate change. To get anywhere near that, we'll need a rapid and radical transformation of society, including for how transportation, buildings and industrial processes are powered.
But to get there, we'll also need a massive shift in conceptions of land, culture and history. That's the terrain that filmmaking is often best at, offering visceral narratives for viewers to imagine alternative ways of being and relating; while documentaries can be great, people often don't respond well to apocalyptic facts and figures being shouted at them.
There are clear examples of such possibilities in Beasts of the Southern Wild and Whale Rider about communal responses to the traumas of climate change.
And while flawed, Elysium introduced a valuable class analysis into questions about access to healthcare and housing, with Mad Max adding a collective sense of struggle.
We live in truly terrifying times, but also of tremendous creativity and passion. It's time for studios to recognize that and start addressing climate change as the truly catastrophic force that it is and the resilience that stares it in the face. Based on recent history, it's likely that Hollywood won't produce.
Keep your ear to the ground—or rather eye to the screen—for the low-budget films, the quiet ones, the stories of resistance that can perhaps change the world by helping us imagine a response to climate change that isn't that of cowards who run from their home.
Follow James Wilt on Twitter.