Why Are There No Decent Blockbusters About Climate Change?
Hollywood has generally relished existential threats to humanity—nuclear war, pandemics, asteroid collisions, alien invasion—so it’s a bit odd it's studiously ignored the biggest actual existential threat to humanity there is.
We’re through the worst of the heatwave, but across the world—Japan, Greece, Algeria—this hot summer is killing and injuring people, and climate change means a summer like this one is twice as likely to happen in the future.
Late last year, more than 15,000 scientists signed a “warning to humanity” in the journal BioScience, urging us to answer the “moral imperative” to stop manmade climate change before causing “substantial and irreversible harm” to the planet.
It’s all getting very real. Yet nobody’s even tried to reimagine climate change as a monster which smashes up a city, in the long cinematic tradition of turning anxieties into crowd-pleasing, lizard-shaped spectacles.
There are a fair few good films in worlds where climate change has happened—Blade Runner, Soylent Green, Mad Max: Fury Road, AI: Artificial Intelligence—but they're not really Films Which Are About Climate Change. They’re as much about climate change as Die Hard is about Christmas. It’s just the frame in which their worlds exist.
It might be that Hollywood never quite got over spending $175 million on certified stinker Waterworld (plot summary: Kevin Costner sails around looking for a bit of dry land called Dryland for two hours) in 1995, but the climate change disaster film is out of vogue. The one big exception is The Day After Tomorrow, which was a) not very good, b) only tangentially based on science, c) released 14 years ago and d) came with the tagline ‘This year, a sweater won’t do’. We can presumably do better.
You’d think another devastating documentary like Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth could do the business, at least—except that last year An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth To Power made $5.4 million at the box office, about a tenth of what the original earned. There are loads of other docs out there, all with doomy, slightly tin-foil-hat names like Merchants of Doubt, The Eleventh Hour, Greedy Lying Bastards, and the never-not-hilarious Cowspiracy. None have had the impact An Inconvenient Truth did in 2006, perhaps because they don’t function as introductions to the curious; they’re more like set texts you have to read before joining the seminar.
NO ONE WANTS TO BE TOLD WHAT A GREEDY, THOUGHTLESS, ARROGANT P***K THEY ARE
You can understand why climate change brought on by global warming isn’t as alluring to filmmakers and studios as, say, an impossibly huge shark which hates Jason Statham. Action films are about an incredible individual bending the environment to his (still, almost always, his) will. You stick Tom Cruise, for instance, in a sticky situation with some terrorists and some missing plutonium, and he’ll punch people and jump out of planes and do that weird run of his until everything’s straightened out. Climate change is terrifying precisely because no individual is incredible enough to stop it. It’s also gradual and global. There’s no in-built countdown to build a narrative around, no control centre to set a final showdown in. It isn't something you can get The Rock to fire a rocket at, even just for the sake of having a decent explosion to use in the trailer.
There might be something more fundamental at play, though. The damage that human activity is doing to the planet is self-evidently stupid and self-destructive. People just don't like being told that to their faces. That's possibly why The Age of Stupid, in which Pete Postlethwaite looks back in incredulity from the 2050s at what short-sighted bloody idiots we all were at the beginning of the 21st century, didn't make much of an impact. High-handed earnestness doesn’t tend to translate to popular or critical success.
People in general do not like being told that they've nearly irrevocably ruined the planet they live on, and a climate change thriller would have to say that extremely loudly and repeatedly. It’d be right, and you’d know it was right. You just don't want to pay a fee to be told what a greedy, thoughtless, arrogant prick you—we all—are. Unlike in most disaster films, the villains wouldn’t just be avaricious corporations, corrupt politicians, or scientists who were so concerned with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think whether they should—it’ll be everyone watching.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.co.uk.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.