6 movie cases

A fall 2015 Yale Climate Connections five-part series reviewed climate-fiction films from The Day After Tomorrow to Interstellar.

In the months since that series was posted, several new films have dealt with climate change in one way or another, most now or soon available on dvd, blu-ray, or online. (For some, these films might provide a short-term solution to the long-term problem of filling the hours spent with Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show.”)

This update reviews six of these films. Two – Mad Max: Fury Road and The Last Survivors – are engaging re-interpretations of the desert dystopia genre pioneered in the original Mad Max movie. A third, Sharknado 3, is a disappointing addition to the campy disaster movie franchise. The fourth, Tomorrowland, simply fails to hold together. But the fifth – Kingsman: The Secret Service – breaks new ground by incorporating an arch-villain in a film that addresses climate change.

Most interesting of all, however, is a made-for-TV movie that first aired on CBS in the spring of 1993 but which was only released on dvd* last month. Over its three hours, The Fire Next Time realistically addresses several possible impacts of climate change while depicting, at least in outline, alternative low-carbon lifestyles. This in 1993, on one of the three major tv networks!

The Desert Dystopia

Mad Max: Fury Road is to be released on blu-ray on September 1. Those eager to see a dystopic desert drama that vaguely alludes to climate change before then can look at The Last Survivors, available now on blu-ray.

Set in Oregon “a few years from now – and years since the last rain,” The Last Survivors follows a female protagonist as she seeks a way out of her dangerous, desiccated world. While it does not include the genetic inversions of Mad Max: Fury Road, it does have a ruthless overlord who recognizes that whoever controls the water also controls the land and the people who live on it.

Among the climate-fiction firsts racked up by The Last Survivors, in addition to its Oregonian setting, is the use of a samurai sword. That’s no match for the Cirque-du-Soleil leaning-pole attacks, from moving vehicles, during the climactic chase scene in Mad Max: Fury Road, but it adds drama to the protagonist’s final battle with the water miser.

Neither film suggests a practical response to climate change, but both make it seem quite nasty.

Jumping the Shark

It may seem silly to suggest that a movie franchise predicated on shark-filled tornados has lost its bearings,** but in upping the ante, as sequels typically do, Sharknado 3 increased only the number of sharks; the number of truly funny scenes and lines decreased. And gone are the amusing references to global warming (Sharknado), the urban heat island effect, and the shark-front on the TV weather forecaster’s map (Sharknado 2). The nation’s capital, destroyed and forgotten before the opening credits ran, gets much less screen time than Orlando, FL.

Tomorrowland suffers from the opposite problem: it never finds its bearings. Many will finish the film, which still has no date for its blu-ray release, confused about what they have just seen. Nevertheless, the film offers adults an edifying sense of how children might be affected by the steady stream of doomsaying. The future for young babyboomers was decidedly different from what’s now being offered to schoolchildren, and that’s a point Tomorrowland makes quite well.

Working Class Spies and Tea Party Politics

In print, climate fiction advocacy met climate fiction denialism fairly early on. In his 2004 novel, State of Fear, Michael Crichton, now deceased, presented climate change as a hoax propagated by conspiring and self-serving environmentalists. That sort of counterpunch was not delivered on screen until Kingsman: The Secret Service hit theaters earlier this year.

In this British spy movie, a smart working class tough is recruited for an elite unit of special agents, the Kingsmen. Meanwhile, a wealthy venture capitalist prepares to cull the world’s human population to save the planet from pollution, despoliation – and climate change. Kingsman does not deny these environmental problems, but it does mock public concern for them. (One of the Kingsmens’ trainers describes a scientist who had been the object of a failed rescue mission as “some climate change doomsayer.”) Instead it challenges elitism and class snobbery – while admiring the finer things money and education can procure.

In this context, the cull, which would be carried out by ordinary citizens mindlessly killing each other in response to a rage-inducing wireless signal, raises some flags. The signal is to be delivered via a free phone and internet service offered by the black, lisping, hip-hop accoutered villain played by Samuel Jackson. In this plot turn, some reviewers saw allusions to the “Obama phone” video that went viral, on conservative websites, during the 2012 presidential election.

So many culture-war flags are raised in this movie, in fact, that a reviewer at the website for the Glen Beck Program was prompted to ask, “Could this be the most conservative film of the decade?

There are lessons to be learned by watching Kingsman: The Secret Service, now out on blu-ray: Climate change communicators may be dealing with its political fallout for years.

American Climate Emigrants

There’s a bit of class/cultural conflict in The Fire Next Time, too, but it is used for opposite ends.

In this two-part, three-hour movie made for CBS in 1993, Craig T. Nelson plays the role of Drew Morgan, who owns a fishing operation on Louisiana’s Gulf Coast. It is 2017 and the shrimp he and his crew seek are leaving the warming waters, even as new disease-bearing ticks and mosquitos are moving into the bayou.

Drew likes his independence, and so he is skeptical of the climate science used to justify the implementation of new rules and limits. But then he encounters wildfires and water wars when he travels to California to retrieve his eldest son from relatives. Back in Louisiana he loses his business and his house – both uninsured because he could no longer pay the premiums with the proceeds from his reduced catches – to an exceptionally strong hurricane.

The family heads north, hoping to resettle in an environmentally-minded community in upstate New York where a former business partner now lives. (“Ecological Laws Strictly Enforced,” says one sign at the gated entrance. “Take a look at paradise: then go home!”) Their move doesn’t work out, so they continue on to a small village in Nova Scotia, the ancestral home of Drew’s wife. Over the course of this long journey, they encounter a Gaia-inspired religious community, a camp of eco-survivalists, and an Amish family living “plainly” in southern Canada. But the film ends ominously, with a heat-shimmering sun setting against a bright red sky.

“The Global Pattern Caused by the Greenhouse Effect”

Climate change is often a topic on news programs Drew and his family hear and watch, especially in the first part of the mini-series. Most memorable is an interview with Stanford climate scientist Stephen H. Schneider, now deceased, playing on an overhead TV in the storm shelter to which the family has retreated.

HOST: Hurricane Rachel, which has devastated Southern Louisiana, Mississippi, and the coastline of Alabama, has once again focused attention on the global pattern caused by the greenhouse effect. Dr. Schneider?

SCHNEIDER: Even though some people still won’t admit it, the effects of global warming have been with us for a long time. . . Had the global community taken concerted action 25 years ago, much of this might have been mitigated.

Remember, this is 2017 as imagined in 1993. The screenwriters, who must have started work on the script in 1992, imagined a crisis 25 years in the future so that their viewers, if so motivated, could do something about the problems depicted before then. The screenwriters also imagined that electric cars would be commonplace; that heat-deflecting elements would be incorporated into clothing, cars, and buildings; that energy would be conserved wherever possible; and that carbon fees would be levied on air travel.

The final version of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan released August 3 makes it a little easier to watch this 1993 movie now. A big step has been taken. But the screenwriters seem to have been right to imagine – in their script for Schneider – that it could take this long.

*”DVD” will be used when a film is released only on dvd, as is the case with The Fire Next Time. For films released in both regular and high definition formats, “blu-ray” will be used.
**The phrase “jumping the shark” was coined in response to what critics perceived as shameless pandering by producers/writers of
Happy Days when they showed the Fonz hopping over a shark while water-skiing off Florida.

Michael Svoboda

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...