Hollywood's cold front on climate change

NEW YORK • Humans ruined everything. They bred too much and choked the life out of the land, air and sea.

So they must be vapourised by half, attacked by towering monsters or vanquished by irate dwellers of the oceans' polluted depths. Barring that, they face hardscrabble, desperate lives on a once verdant Earth now consumed by ice or drought.

That is how superhero and sci-fi movies - among them the latest Avengers and Godzilla pictures, as well as Aquaman, Blade Runner 2049, Interstellar and Mad Max: Fury Road - have invoked the climate crisis.

They imagine post-apocalyptic futures or dystopias where ecological collapse is inevitable, environmentalists are criminals, and eco-mindedness is the villains' driving force. But these takes are defeatist, critics say, and a growing chorus of voices is urging the entertainment industry to tell stories that show humans adapting and reforming to ward off the worst climate threats.

"More than ever, they're missing the mark, often in the same way," said Professor Michael Svoboda, who teaches writing at George Washington University and contributes to multimedia website Yale Climate Connections. "Almost none of these films depict a successful transformation of society."

In Avengers: Infinity War, arch-nemesis Thanos opts to head off environmental collapse by reducing humanity, and all living beings, by half. In Godzilla: King Of The Monsters, eco-terrorists unleash predatory beasts to forestall mass extinction and keep humanity in check. In Aquaman, King Orm, leader of an undersea kingdom, concludes the only way to prevent earthly destruction is to wage war on humans.

Mr David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, one of the writers of Aquaman, said using pollution as a motivator made Orm more relatable. "It gave him some nuance."

But Prof Svoboda sees Orm as part of a trend that moves the climate crisis into emotionally familiar and comfortable territory. The villain is beaten and viewers feel relief, he said, not least because they have been let off the hook: People may be doing real harm, but the alternatives are worse.

The trend of linking environmentalism to eco-terrorism goes beyond superhero and genre flicks, he added.

In the 2017 indie First Reformed, Ethan Hawke plays a radicalised pastor who plots to blow himself up at a church service attended by a polluting industrialist.

"It plays into conservative talking points that environmentalists are out to reduce pollution and restrict lifestyles, and are genocidal," Prof Svoboda said.

More sober takes, at least on the silver screen, have largely been confined to documentaries, which - except for the 2006 Al Gore hit, An Inconvenient Truth - audiences and buyers mostly shunned.

One big feature that tackled climate change, The Day After Tomorrow, in which sub-zero super-storms envelop half the globe, was released 15 years ago.

Prof Svoboda cited Young Ones, a 2014 film starring Michael Shannon as a father eking out an existence in a drought-ravaged world, as a rare film about humans adapting to global warming, but it barely made a blip.

So, why are there not more realistic, semi-realistic or even hopeful films about climate change?

Because, several directors said, it is hard to find financing for movies that risk being real downers and challenge audiences to change their ways. Because mass extinction is soul-crushing and people seek out entertainment to escape.

Because, said The Day After Tomorrow writer and director Roland Emmerich, it is not easy to find a story that franchise-addicted studios will release. "We don't do a good job," he said, "and I'm constantly trying to figure out what could be another way to show it."

On both sides of the Atlantic, there are efforts to change that and to infuse narratives with hope.

Along with detailing how projects can reduce their carbon footprint during production, the Producers Guild of America and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (Bafta) are showing content creators how to incorporate green themes into films and shows.

On the Producers Guild's Green Production Guide site, a report by the non-profit Rocky Mountain Institute lays out ways that renewables can be portrayed on screen. Some plots come with a wink, from showing characters who go off the grid to philanderers who fall for their solar-panel installers.

The point, said Mr Jacob Corvidae, one of the report's authors, is to relay how robust the clean energy sector is, and to inspire hope. "We do need depictions that things could be okay, because people worked at it."

This year, Bafta released a study showing how many times ecological terms appeared on British TV in a year. "Climate change" appeared more than "zombie" but not "gravy", and was trounced by "queen" and "tea".

Bafta has also started an initiative, Planet Placement, to exhort content creators to help "make positive environmental behaviours mainstream". With screen industries' extensive reach, they said, "it's a chance to shape society's response to climate change".

"The past 25 years of the environmental narrative is about sacrifice and doom, and not doing what you want, and not getting what you want," said Mr Aaron Matthews, Bafta's head of industry sustainability.

"We don't think that's the right tone to get people over the line."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 19, 2019, with the headline 'Hollywood's cold front on climate change'. Print Edition | Subscribe