Dr Randall Mindy: Why are people not terrified? What do we have to say? What do we have to do ?! Do not seek, Netflix, 2021.
While the latest climate film is not technically on climate change (spoiler warning: it’s an asteroid) it is Funny ugly laughs, surprisingly moving in places and an excruciatingly precise satire on the daily experiences of climate scientists, activists and change makers.
It is also a blockbuster. Do not seek has been consulted for more than hundred million hours within a week of its release and is comfortably at the top of Netflix’s Most Watched Rankings. It is arguably the most successful climate-inspired film since Two days later in 2004.
At first glance, Dennis Quaid heroically struggling through a new ice age and Leonardo DiCaprio blundering through disastrous TV interviews are very different stories. But I think it’s interesting and disturbing that these two stories about environmental risk are essentially the same – that people are being stupid about climate change. No one listens to the scientists in both films, with the resulting Armageddons then depicted in vivid CGI images. With 17 years apart, the two most successful climate films are based on the premise that we won’t solve humanity’s greatest challenge.
Of course, these are not the only climate stories (although that sounds like a big hit). I have identified seven typologies of climatic stories or parables with similar arcs. As you read, you will probably notice a story that is very evident by its absence;
1. “We are so stupid” stories – launched by Dr Strangelove Back in the days when nuclear annihilation was the existential threat of the day, these “We’re So Stupid” stories revel in the schadenfreude of humans’ profound stupidity in the face of threats of magnitude. In After tomorrow politicians are stupid, and in Do not seek everyone is silent. Edifying stories or painful prophecies?
2. Post-Climapocalyptic – since 1973 with Soylent Green, the “greenhouse effect” has been a useful fodder for cinematic dystopias. My favorite is the total lack of nuance Water world in which (to hammer the eco point) the bad guys literally live in a dirty old oil tanker. Interstellar, uses the collapse of the biosphere to lead the search for another world and the terrible German horror Hell makes global warming less frightening than its survivors. I’m tempted to put Wall-E in this category alongside Mad Max Fury Road.
3. Utopias on super-fuels – almost all space operas assume that humanity will make real progress once we use oil as fuel. The Enterprise ship does not run on gasoline. In tomorrow this potential is given a rather boring output, but Back to the Future nails it by feeding the DeLorean with organic waste in a mass production “Mr. Fusion” machine.
4. Artificial monsters – as the climatic parables progress, Frankenstein is the story that most closely resembles much of our climate talk – man makes monster, then monster destroys man. From The matrix to the The Terminator these stories of man-made monsters are easy analogies to climate change, and I expect our climate anxiety is growing we will see more.
5. Bad Humans V Good Nature – Avatar, Fern ravine, Princess mononoke and even Frozen II all are addressing the truism that people are bad for the rest of the planet. While the moral of these stories is laudable, seeking to ignite a more biophilic mindset, I wonder if there is a touch of misandry in them as well.
6. Oops, bad solution! – I’ve already written about Thanos of the Avengers and his terrible Malthusian mistake, in the same way, Downsizing takes a bad solution to the lack of resources (making people smaller so that they consume less) but makes a reasonable comedy. Snowdropsr is an excellent thriller set on a single train that survived a failed attempt at geoengineering. But it’s First reformed which explores a very tangible and terrifying climate response – nihilism and violence – in an exquisite film.
seven. Deus Ex machina – are films where technology, magic, aliens or superheroes repair the planet. In the 2008 remake of The day the earth stood stillAlien Keanu Reeves is sent to protect Earth’s fragile biosphere from humanity. Even the foreigner Predators fear that global warming will alter human DNA. In Geostorm a satellite network conveniently manages the climate (until it doesn’t) and 2067 a future ravaged by climate change invents time travel to a distant future that might not be. I was always a little surprised that there weren’t more. Maybe the Avengers will eventually tackle climate change?
Yes, I watch too many movies. But the experts at Yale have watched even more and I recommend their brilliant list of cli-fi movies. here if you want to explore the genre.
But, there is a typology of climate film which is notably lacking even if the public longs for answers …
8. How we fixed it stories – not Deus Ex Machina’s quick fixes – but the story of real, messy, difficult and unexpected ways to solve and recover from climate change. I have already written about how amazing this story can be.
I love the end of the children’s movie Penguiney happy feet – after people find out about the plight of the hungry penguins, a moving montage shows in a few images exactly how we could solve overfishing. There is a media frenzy of coverage, protest marches, government statements, consumer action and then a global fisheries treaty. It’s like a mini master class for kids on how we are making a difference for the better. I wish we had even a montage like this for climate action!
Of course, we have a familiar movie shot for heroes overcoming terrible obstacles – of the brutal gathering of Dumbledore’s army in Harry Potter, all of the “free peoples of the west” preparing to fight Sauron’s army. in The Lord of the Rings and maybe even the superheroes move through those swirling portals to save Captain America in Endgame. This is what we need for climate change, story after story of courage and compassion in the face of our climate monster.
History exists, but not yet in the cinema. Hope Netflix plans to follow Don’t Look Up with a big budget adaptation of Kim Stanley Robinson’s stunner The ministry of the future novel. It is the most compelling and incomprehensible story of facing the solutions I have ever encountered.
For once, I’d like to applaud the solutions to climate change, rather than laugh darkly at our response to it.