Pessimism in Movie Portrayal of Climate Change

August 26, 2021

Alyssa Rosenburg in Washington Post:

“Reminiscence,” a recent science fiction movie starring Hugh Jackman, takes place in a future Miami that has been transformed by rising sea levels into a new Venice. And yet, “Reminiscence” isn’t really about climate change or the response to it. Instead, the movie fixates on an addictive machine that lets users travel back into their memories. It’s about escape — not adaptation.

As such, “Reminiscence” is a great illustration of how strangely passive and defeatist an industry full of Prius early adopters has been about the biggest challenge of our time.

Hollywood’s reliance on big-budget action movies plays a role in its inability to address climate change effectively. In an industry reliant on chases, special effects and disasters, even ostensible “issue movies” get wedged into the same template.

The result has been some good films, as well as some very silly ones. George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road,” a ferocious chase movie driven by the link between climate stress and gender-based violence, falls into the former category. So does Bong Joon-ho’s despairing “Snowpiercer,” which depicts the remnants of humanity stratified into a vicious class system. Roland Emmerich’s flash-frozen planet blockbuster, “The Day After Tomorrow,” is firmly in camp goofy.

Excellent or risible, these movies share at least one thing: pessimism. Climate change will be catastrophic — as will be many human responses to it.

Even movies that explore adaptive responses to climate change make glum assumptions. In Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar,” humanity’s future lies on a far distant planet; Earth is unsalvageable. James Cameron’s first “Avatar” movie imagines that resource crises will drive humanity to galaxy-wide pillage.

It’s all well and good to warn viewers that climate change is real and that its consequences could be severe. But as with all political change, awareness is only part of the equation. If activists, be they filmmakers or politicians, want to persuade the public to adopt new behaviors, or even to do more than simply despair, they need to give the ordinary person a vision for what to do.

To be fair, not all the ways humanity might avert or adapt to climate change are inherently cinematic. And most people don’t go to the movies to be radicalized.

Amanda Little’s book “The Fate of Food,” for instance, is a fascinating journey through the efforts to develop artificial-intelligence-powered precision weeding machines, combat sea lice plaguing farmed salmon and build vertical farms that can mass-produce greens in urban centers. Little excellently dramatizes just how far shifts in climate and other environmental concerns have reached into our food system — though I don’t delude myself into thinking that the fight to change labeling regulations to curtail food waste would make for scintillating television.

But some stories about moonshot efforts to move humanity into a new era would make movies that are both inspiring and enormously fun, even if they don’t involve special effects.

Take the tale of Tesla. It’s easy to assume that the company’s story is well known: Its CEO, Elon Musk, has made himself exhaustingly ubiquitous. That’s a mistake. As “Power Play,” Wall Street Journal reporter Tim Higgins’s new book on Tesla, suggests, the real main character of a Tesla movie might well be someone like J.B. Straubel, the company’s former chief technical officer. Straubel played a critical role in designing the battery packs that could not only power Tesla’s cars but also make them exciting to drive. Done right, a “Power Play” movie featuring Straubel would be like “Ford v Ferrari,” a gearhead delight with the added stakes of saving the world from fossil fuels.

The idea that pop culture can tell these stories creatively and dynamically is not merely speculative. “The Ministry for the Future” novelist Kim Stanley Robinson has spent decades creatively imagining how humanity might respond to harsh conditions, whether that means Mars and the asteroid belt or a drowned New York City.

5 Responses to “Pessimism in Movie Portrayal of Climate Change”

  1. Daniel Berger Says:

    Let me go on record as promising that I would attend a properly-made movie based on “Power Play.”

    After all, “The Founder” made the cutthroat wheeling and dealing that founded the McDonald’s empire highly cinematic.

  2. indy222 Says:

    Perhaps the pessimism slant is because film-makers can’t devise a script that would be believable – even for a moment’s suspension of disbelief – for saving the Earth and which is also scientifically faithful and also faithful to human evolutionary biology that designed us. I doubt that a mere techno-optimist take on saving the future would be looked at any more favorably than “The Day After Tomorrow”, as just more cotton candy. The real issues that brought us here, are being examined by hardly anyone in the media. The media is dominated by selllers – sellers of the status quo paradigm that has enriched them, or sellers of new gizmo’s that they want to get investors into so they’ll get enriched now, or other eye-ball catchers of various persuasions trying to spin things. Like one I saw yesterday on how volcanoes are really “safety valves” for CO2 since some of the lava they spew can weather and soak up CO2. And they emit CO2. Neither of which are any news whatsoever, and both of which entirely miss the point that volcanoes care not a damn about what the weather or CO2 is like above ground. They’re not “safety valves”! But it sells print, so there you go.

    Technology will, yes, be essential to any hope for any getting out of this. But without a wholesale transformation of 8 billion human natures, techno-stuff will only accelerate our growth and our race towards the singularity. It’s incredibly frustrating to see YouTube video’s posted by “futurists” looking longingly at “The Singularity” ahead, where the cost of everything we want drops to zero (they suppose). Astronomers and physicists know what a singularity is REALLY like – not something you want to approach, unless you enjoy getting ripped atom from atom.

    • jimbills Says:

      Apocalyptic fiction increases in times of social turmoil and when there looks like there is a chance of economic breakdown. There’s a reason why zombies as a genre were popular in the 1970s, were not in the 80s and 90s, then took off again right after the late aughts recession. ‘The Day After’, about a nuclear winter, was in the 80s after Reagan’s sabre rattling with the Soviets.

      That’s part of the reason why apocalyptic fiction is popular, but the key to all fiction is conflict. There isn’t quite as much drama in a utopian future for fiction, unless it goes for the Brave New World route.

      The public’s mood shifts over time. It could shift away from apocalyptic fiction again, but it’s more unlikely to do so when everything in the news is about the pandemic, wildfires, and bombings.

    • jimbills Says:

      Apocalyptic fiction increases in times of social turmoil and when there looks like there is a chance of economic breakdown. There’s a reason why zombies as a genre were popular in the 1970s, were not in the 80s and 90s, then took off again right after the late aughts recession. ‘The Day After’, about a nuclear winter, was in the 80s after Reagan’s sabre rattling with the Soviets.

      That’s part of the reason why apocalyptic fiction is popular, but the key to all fiction is conflict. There isn’t quite as much drama in a utopian future for fiction, unless it goes for the Brave New World route.

      The public’s mood shifts over time. It could shift away from apocalyptic fiction again, but it’s more unlikely to do so when everything in the news is about the pandemic, wildfires, and bombings.

  3. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    I’ve been an SF reader since I discovered the genre as a child. Post-apocalyptic storytelling since people realized how much a war or a natural disaster can take away from us. Then came nuclear weapons, and a realistic chance that the Jack D. Rippers and Buck Turgidsons were in control of the world’s fate.

    So in my life the Apocalypse shifted from sudden global thermonuclear war to slow-motion yet inexorable disastrous climate change, but the premise of post-apocalyptic fiction didn’t have to change much. (Even Snowpiercer‘s premise was a failed geo-engineering effort to counteract AGW.)


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