Cinema is in its serious season.

After the autumnal equinox, the number of character-based and/or epic dramas appearing in theatres generally increases. It may be that Americans become more somber as the days grow shorter — or because nominations for Academy Awards are due in early January. Over the past four years, three-quarters of the nominees for the Academy’s highest accolade — Best Picture — have premiered in the final quarter, a third in December alone.

Fictional films about climate change (cli-fi), by contrast, have thus far been summer fare. Ten years ago, The Day After Tomorrow (Day After) opened on Memorial Day weekend. This year’s additions to the cli-fi roster, Snowpiercer and Into the Storm, opened in June and August respectively.

That is about to change. Christopher Nolan’s new film, Interstellar, will open on November 7. The title clearly points to the stars, but the trailers begin with deteriorating environmental conditions on Earth, at least partly because of climate change. Is this the beginning of “serious” cli-fi?

That question will rise again later in this series, after working back through the cli-fi films of the last decade to Day After. In revisiting this material, there will be surprises — and spoilers. Some reviews of Snowpiercer referred to it as a second Day After; it’s actually the ninth. And Day After itself was inspired by a book for which its authors claim interstellar authority.

Is there a logic, a pattern, to how these films get made? In attempting to answer this question, this series will pose a question climate change communicators will do well to consider: Can action-relevant messages about climate change survive translation into feature films?

Passenger-Train Earth

PhotoBy the summer of 2014, vaguely environmental sentiments had already been voiced in two major releases, Noah and Godzilla. Noah expressed doubt that humans could live in nature without despoiling it; Godzilla presumed nature would balance whatever humans did — if sometimes in monstrous ways. These are not mantras for sustainability.

Snowpiercer plowed into theaters in June, just as Godzilla was leaving. But as a result of a dispute with his American distributors, director Joon-ho Bong’s film was only shown in smaller art-houses, the sort of venues where foreign and indie films live. Thus the American box office for Snowpiercer, now available on dvd, is much lower than its foreign take, and lower than the domestic take for films that received far less acclaim.

Snowpiercer is the name of the train that circum-locomotes the globe each year, its powerful engine and sleek shape piercing any snow that might pile atop its rails in this icy landscape. Inside this endlessly migrating machine, nearing the completion of its 17th annual circuit as the film begins, lives a diverse remnant of humanity.

In this and in many other respects, Snowpiercer is better than its original source material. The monochromatic French graphic novel by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, and Jean-Marc Rochette includes only Caucasian characters. And their ice-age landscape is the result of black-and-white malice, “a climate bomb.” (Something like a nuclear winter has darkened the skies.) In Joon-ho Bong’s film, the ice age is the unintended consequence of a too-successful attempt to offset global warming by spraying aerosols in the upper atmosphere.

In both the book and film, however, the train is segmented by class. The wealthy live in spacious compartments near the front; the poor live crammed atop one another in dark and grimy cars at the rear. After years of neglect and abuse, rebels (whose leaders are played by Chris Evans, John Hurt, and Octavia Spencer) decide to fight their way to the front. In this effort they are aided by a “Kronole”-sniffing engineer (played by Kang-ho Song) who designed Snowpiercer’s security system.

After capturing their immediate overseer (Tilda Swinton), the rebels claw their way forward, suffering losses with each advance. When a battered remnant finally reaches the engine, powered by an almost-perpetual motion machine, Snowpiercer’s designer, Willard (Ed Harris), explains that their rebellion had been part of a larger plan: a necessary culling of the population and a practicum for his successor, the surviving leader of the rebels (Chris Evans).

And now the perfectly correct number of human beings, all in their proper places, all adding up to what? Humanity. The train is the world; we passengers humanity.

In the graphic novel, the rebel accepts Willard’s offer; he becomes the keeper of the engine. In the final scenes of the movie, by contrast, viewers learn that the Korean engineer’s obsession with Kronole has been tactical rather than pharmaceutical: it’s an explosive. Having observed signs that Earth has warmed in the 17 years since Snowpiercer began circling it, the engineer blows open one of the tightly-sealed outer doors, derailing the train in the process. Only two survivors emerge from the wrecked train cars: the Korean engineer’s teenage daughter (Ah-sung Ko) and an African-American boy (Marcanthonee Reis).

Into the Storm and Climate Selfies

PhotoStrangely missing from Snowpiercer, a film set in the late 2030s, is something ubiquitous in Into the Storm: digital recording technology. In this 21st century update and knockoff of Twister, everyone has a smartphone, and many have sophisticated digital video cameras. Trading on the film craft of Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield, every scene of this movie, written by John Swetnam and directed by Steven Quale, purports to be some character’s personal video record of that moment.

Twister (1996) followed an amiable group of scientists as they tracked tornados through central Oklahoma, hoping to place a barrel of advanced instruments in the path of a funnel. The heavily equipped crew of Into the Storm is focused on getting good footage, “weather porn,” that can be assembled into a documentary and then sold to a cable network.

Weather models take these storm trackers to Silverton, a small Oklahoma town where the local high school is preparing for an afternoon graduation ceremony. After a few false starts, funnels begin to form and then, ominously, merge. The town is destroyed by the F5 tornado that results, so big that those over whom it passes experience several seconds of calm while in its hurricane-like eye.

Twister made no claims about climate change. The storm tracker (Sarah Wayne Callies) in Into the Storm hints at it when she observes that weather patterns are changing. “What used to be a once-in-a-lifetime storm seems to be happening once a year now.” And, she then acknowledges, tornadoes may “start shifting to places they’ve never been before . . . like Los Angeles, or Chicago, or even London.” The reference to Los Angeles is likely a nod to the tornado sequence in Day After, from which the special effects team behind Inside the Storm almost certainly learned some tricks. (Recently published research lends credence to this clustering of tornadoes.)

Tornadoes rip through Los Angeles early in TDAT.

One multi-funnel sequence from Into the Storm.

Reviews of Into the Storm, scheduled for dvd release on November 18, have been decidedly mixed: high marks for special effects, low marks for plot, script and acting. But meteorologists who revere Twister have made their peace with Into the Storm. Seven contributors to Capital Weather Gang recommended it. And Mashable climate and weather reporter Andrew Freedman confessed, “Into the Storm Is Pure Weather Porn. And That’s OK.

Although skeptical about the film as a whole, Dorothy Woodend, film reviewer for The Tyee, says that Into the Storm gets one thing about human nature exactly right: “the tendency of humans to stand in the path of imminent disaster and destruction and simply watch it happen. . . . Instead of running away, they film [it].”

One leaves Into the Storm convinced that every impact of climate change will be exhaustively documented. When it affects them personally, humans will make and post videos of their experience. “Adapting” thus means making sure one’s smartphone is fully charged before the hurricane, surge, thunderstorm, flood, heatwave, tornado, drought, blizzard, freeze, or migrating virus hits. Those who survive will then rebuild their lives right in the path of that same danger, as the citizens of Silverton vow to do in their final video testimonials.

An Arm and a Leg, or Euphoria over Dystopia

Into the Storm offers, sadly, a realistic depiction of how humans have reacted, and will likely continue to react, to the extreme weather risks linked to a warmer climate. Life will go on — on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.

By contrast the implicit message of Snowpiercer is that responding to climate change will ultimately crash the system, wiping out everything in the process.

  • Humans will not act to reduce the causes.
  • When they respond to the consequences, the results will be catastrophic.
  • The response to the catastrophe will be oppressive.
  • The only possible response to the oppression is further destruction.

Which will leave an Asian Eve and an African Adam to repopulate an ice-bound Earth — if they are not eaten by the polar bear they see on the mountain ridge in the final frames of the film.

Why then the broad acclaim for Snowpiercer, at Daily Kos, Grist, The New York Times, and Salon (Joe Romm at Climate Progress and Ann Hornaday at The Washington Post bucked this trend.)

One example of Joon-ho Bong’s real genius is the character of Gilliam (John Hurt), who is missing an arm and a leg. Initially, viewers infer that Gilliam lost them to the cold, or they were hacked off as punishment. Only at the end of the film is it explained that Gilliam sacrificed his limbs, when anarchy and want ruled the rear of the train, to prevent the killing of children for food.

Inventing a new circle of hell, as Bong does with his striking visuals and world-spinning stories, is a praiseworthy artistic accomplishment. But it is not at all clear that one can reverse-engineer solutions from such a broken world.

Also see:
Download the 5-Part Series: A Review of Climate Fiction (Cli-Fi) Cinema…Past and Present
Ice-Fi: The Motion Pictur-Ice-sque Legacy of The Day After Tomorrow (Pt. 2)
The Long Melt … The lingering influence of The Day After Tomorrow (Pt. 3)
Interstellar: Looking for the Future in all the Wrong Spaces (Pt. 4)
(What) Do We Learn from Cli-Fi Films? Hollywood Still Stuck in Holocene (Pt. 5)

Michael Svoboda, Ph.D., is the Yale Climate Connections books editor. He is a professor in the University Writing Program at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he has taught since...