Is climate change Hollywood's new supervillain?
disaster master Roland Emmerich. But the incremental death march of the real thing was considered a little too slow for Independence Day’s king of kablooey. So impatient was he to bring forth a biblical flood and subsequent ice age that was epic enough to swallow the Statue of Liberty, Emmerich conspired to make his cataclysm happen in days, not decades, courtesy of a cosmically unlucky (and scientifically unlikely) flash freeze.n 2004, when climate change was still called global warming, it was considered sensational enough to get top billing in The Day After Tomorrow, a city-smashing blockbuster by
In 2017, the desire to accelerate climate change – even in the name of brash, mass-market pop art – is quaint yet horrifying. The nagging feeling that humankind may already have zoomed past some sort of ecological tipping point thanks to our voracious appetites for cheap energy and consumer goods seems increasingly undeniable. Previously, we looked to the multiplex to vicariously experience the catastrophic aftermath of freak super-storms and monster tsunamis; now we see these images appear with increasing and distressing regularity in the news.
Perhaps that is why climate change is a common theme across a broad range of movies this year, either as an obvious baddie or a subtextual spectre. The forthcoming eco-thriller Geostorm optimistically suggests that we could circumvent the cataclysmic heavy weather caused by climate change if only we tasked someone like scientist-astronaut Gerard Butler to invent a network of weather-controlling satellites. But when that system malfunctions, the planet reaps the whirlwind (not to mention mega-storms and tidal waves). Director Dean Devlin, who produced Independence Day with Emmerich, seems keen to outdo his old partner in terms of on-screen mass obliteration, with cities such as Dubai, Tokyo and Moscow in his apocalyptic sights. Whether global audiences will be excited by such destruction after recent natural disasters in Mexico, Sierra Leone, Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, remains to be seen.
Similarly direct is An Inconvenient Sequel, the follow-up to Al Gore’s Oscar-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. The 2006 film was a crucial climate change primer that compiled scary collapsing icebergs and even scarier statistics (in short: tundra-enlightening, very, very frightening). Some reviews suggest the statesman’s sequel – which ponders how to tackle climate change in the increasingly science-sceptical era of Donald Trump – may have been unnecessary as well as inconvenient. But it is not as if the planet’s situation has improved, and Gore’s impassioned yet measured messaging bears repeating.
Postapocalyptic sci-fi will always be a popular film playground, but increasingly it seems as if we are being invited to look at worlds worn out rather that instantly shattered. Before it blasted into space, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar painted a plausible portrait of the US as a parched, crop-free dustbowl beyond resuscitation. Earlier this year, Logan presented a harsh, scrappy near future that looked as exhausted as its ailing hero, a planet teetering towards a more relatable kind of collapse than the apocalyptic threats of superhero cinema.
Even the imagery and palette of screen dystopias seems informed by freakish weather that climate change has made commonplace. The whooping, bestial carnival of Mad Max: Fury Road seems like one of the only sane responses in a world where 18-wheelers are dwarfed by electrified dust-devil storms that block out the sun. The crimson-choked Las Vegas of Blade Runner 2049, meanwhile, might not even be three decades away; cinematographer Roger Deakins was inspired by the Australian storms of 2009 that gave the Sydney Opera House a Martian makeover (in reality, red topsoil scooped up from the heart of Oz).
A shared anxiety about how we have abused our planet and how it might ultimately retaliate has seeped into recent cinema in other intriguing ways. Darren Aronofsky’s densely allegorical Mother! encourages any number of environmental interpretations, with Jennifer Lawrence as a barefoot earth mother whose Edenic dream home is invaded by selfish, rapacious squatters – an intensifying nightmare that leaves her traumatised but mostly bewildered. Despite its surreal, disorientating escalations, the central message is consistent: what is wrong with these people? How can they do this?
In the forthcoming Downsizing, Oscar-winning writer-director Alexander Payne imagines a near future where eco-conscious Norwegians have developed a sci-fi shrink-ray that can zap people, such as stressed everyman Matt Damon, down to just five inches in height. Everything about this growing community of nu-Lilliputians is smaller – particularly their carbon footprint. In the film, the procedure is marketed as a quasi-altruistic lifestyle choice that doubles as a lottery win, suggesting participants will improve the planet’s sustainability as well as artificially extending their savings.
Payne’s movie is a sociocomic parable that has the reassuring presence of Damon at its centre, an actor audiences have seen surviving in tough environments. But with the shrinking process irreversible, Downsizing seems to make a subtle but important point, one arguably as frightening as any large-scale disaster movie where a catastrophe annihilates humanity. Any real-world solution to our inescapable climate change problem is likely to be similarly and uncomfortably extreme – an even more inconvenient truth. Until we overcome our indifference to this monumental problem, the outlook is only going to get worse. Where’s Gerard Butler when you need him?
• Geostorm is released in the UK and US on 20 October.