Noah Gittell, in his review for The Atlantic, first expressed his disappointment with Interstellar as a message film — “as a climate-change parable, it fails” — and then broadened his critique:

Why does Hollywood keep getting the environment wrong? Maybe it’s for the same reason that politicians have been unable to fix it. Because the ways that climate change and other environmental crises can be addressed are not dramatic or awe-inspiring. The dangers of doing nothing are horrifyingly cinematic, but the solutions are prosaic and dull.


Gittel’s review, along with many others published last week (including one in Yale Climate Connections), answers one of the questions raised in the first part of this series: No, Interstellar is not the beginning of serious cli-fi.

His broader critique of Hollywood also re-raises the key question asked earlier in this five-part series: “Can action-relevant messages about climate change survive translation into feature films?” Here, however, Gittel lets Hollywood too easily off the hook. Yes, America’s gridlocked political debate on climate change has limited Hollywood’s efforts to represent climate change, but many of the mis-representations seen on the screen result from filmmakers’ own engrained ways of thinking. Simply put, Hollywood is still stuck in the Holocene.

Just Another Dystopia

One of the more surprising feats director Christopher Nolan accomplishes in Interstellar is the either/or choice he creates between concern for the environment and humanity’s cosmic ambitions. While many reviewers contested his answer, most accepted the dichotomy, as if the diminution of the U.S. space program was brought about by federal spending on the environment. Left out of this accounting is the other 98 percent of the federal budget. (Funding for all sciences, including medicine, makes up only 2 percent of the budget.)

In the 98 percent world, American popular culture was very much affected by 9-11 and the decade of military spending that followed.

Entertainment Weekly’s ‘A Brief History’ feature and timeline.

First, Americans’ interest in stories about broken worlds increased. In “A Brief History of the Cinematic Apocalypse,” in Entertainment Weekly’s 4 July 2014 Apocalypse Issue, critic Chris Nashawaty provided a timeline of “apocalyptic” films that simultaneously tallied and categorized them. Their number rises after September 11, 2001, but environmental disaster films make up only a small portion of that increase.

Seen in this context, climate science is a source of useful plot angles and devices — something to catch and hold viewers’ attention until they are emotionally engaged — but no more important than accounts of alien invasions, nuclear holocausts, or zombies. To paraphrase screenwriter George Walizak, who figured in an August 12, 2004, Nature article about a screenwriting workshop for invited scientists, “the laws of thermodramatics” (emphasis in original) are more important for filmmakers than the laws of thermodynamics. Some science may be required to set up a disaster, but once the action begins, thermodramatics takes over.

Middle-Aged, Divorced (or Widowed), White Man vs Nature

Second, because few Americans are personally involved in fighting the war against terrorism, films turned to representative heroes. (After 9-11, the number of superhero movies also increased.) Without collective national action against tangible enemies like terrorists, it also becomes more difficult to depict collective national action against an abstract problem like climate change. Personal motives are expected.

Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) with his son Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal) in New York City after the superstorm has subsided.

In their analysis of The Day After Tomorrow, Robin Murray and Joseph Heumann, co-authors of four books on films that engage environmental issues, highlight the personal relationships that drive the film’s hero, Jack Hall, especially his relationship with his son. Matthew McConaughey plays the same sort of father-hero role in Interstellar; Richard Armitage plays that role in Into the Storm. And Jeff Fahey plays it in two B-list films.

In fact, in at least seven of the twelve movies discussed in this series, the healing or strengthening of family relationships (husband-estranged spouse, father-children) is one of the emotional subplots. Adverse climate change brings families together.

Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) tells his daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy) he has agreed to pilot the mission through the wormhole.

But only if they survive. With the exception of the three films that focus on local disasters (Ice Quake, Ice Twisters, Into the Storm), significant declines in global population are depicted or implied in the climate change films reviewed in this series. At the end of these films, the survivors must struggle to keep warm on a no-longer-overpopulated Earth that has slipped into a new ice age. Thus, far from dealing with the challenges posed by living in the new geological epoch that is the Anthropocene, these films reboot the Holocene. Once again, it is man vs. nature, albeit a middle-aged, divorced, estranged, widowed — or just recently remarried — man who is trying to reconnect with his children. And now warming the planet is a good thing.

The Nuclear Button

A third factor has complicated fictional depictions of climate change: the legacy of nuclear Armageddon films.

PhotoBy depicting the terrible destruction wrought by an exchange of nuclear weapons, or by imagining the broken worlds that might emerge in the wake of such exchanges, filmmakers could deliver a simple cautionary message: Don’t do this.

From Day After and its imitators, audiences are likely to take away the message that abrupt climate change poses a threat. But unlike nuclear Armageddon, which can be avoided by not using the multi-billion-dollar weapons systems humans have already built, avoiding catastrophic climate change involves taking new actions and making substantial new investments. “Do” messages are inherently more demanding than “don’t” messages, especially if they involve changes in established routines, like the burning of fossil fuels to power our daily lives.

Ironically, two cli-fi films, The Colony and Snowpiercer, could be read as “don’t-do-this” messages. The ice ages depicted in these films are the result of geo-engineering experiments gone badly wrong. Doing something about climate change thus seems worse, far more dangerous, than doing nothing.

The Cli-Fi Genre

The evidence reviewed here suggests that the cinematic norms followed by feature filmmakers may systematically distort their depictions of climate change science and policy options, just as journalistic norms once biased news stories toward “balance.”

As Murray and Heumann explained in an e-mail exchange, “cinema has the potential to bring environmental issues such as climate change to the forefront . . . [but] awesome cinematic presentations may actually obscure the ecological points on display.”

For example, instead of showing viewers ways to work together to avoid disasters, film and media studies professor J.P. Telotte observed in a recent NYT Room for Debate discussion of cli-fi, these “films make us feel better about our ability to survive them.” Because the viewer, like the on-screen survivor, is still alive at the end of the film, the risks posed by climate change are displaced onto others who are seen as lacking the luck or resourcefulness of the survivor and the viewer.

What is needed, George Marshall, founder of the Climate Outreach Information Network, argued in that same discussion, are “stories about successful struggle[s] to defend shared values with resolution in a world that is stable, secure, and in some ways better” (emphasis in the original).

Can Hollywood produce such stories?

No one has done more to promote cli-fi than Dan Bloom — he persuaded The New York Times to run the discussion that included Telotte and Marshall — and he remains optimistic about the genre’s prospects. “This is a long-term project, the popularizing of the cli-fi motif,” he said in an e-mail exchange, “but I believe we will see more daring movies . . . about climate change in the near future.” He then pointed out that HBO has greenlighted a film adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy.

In the meantime, Bloom works to promote the genre through the Cliffies, a series of annual awards designed to highlight significant cli-fi contributions. This year’s winners were selected by Bloom in consultation with outside experts. “In future years,” Bloom said, “winners will be selected by a polling and voting system [that will] allow members of the broader climate change community worldwide . . . to participate in the process.”

Recovering the Excluded Middle

Near the end of Why We Disagree About Climate Change, Mike Hulme reminds climate change communicators that the apocalypse, or global disaster, is an ancient myth or story type. It is thus not surprising that experienced storytellers slip into the genre so easily. But if the Anthropocene marks the beginning of a new story, then old plot elements must be refitted or discarded.

Interstellar’s long view of Miller’s planet orbiting the impossibly luminous black hole Gargantua.

Over the past several decades, filmmakers have imagined distant futures — from dying Earths to intergalactic space missions — many times over. But they seem baffled, paralyzed even, by the challenge of realistically imagining the near- to medium-term. Perhaps the emergence of new long-form options, like those series produced for HBO and Netflix, will permit less blockbustered minds to envision these futures. And working with smaller screens may make them less susceptible to being so bedazzled by their own visuals that they cover Earth in ice or, like Christopher Nolan, try to illuminate a planet with a black hole.

Also see:
Download the 5-Part Series: A Review of Climate Fiction (Cli-Fi) Cinema…Past and Present
A Review of Climate Fiction (Cli-Fi) Cinema … Past and Present (Pt. 1)
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)

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...