Once upon a time, Hollywood looked to the Fourth of July to draw big crowds to the cinema. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was “the third biggest movie-going day of the year.”

Movie director's chair

Not so this year. None of the three highest-profile releases that weekend – The BFG, Free State of Jones, and The Legend of Tarzan – even broke the $50 million mark.

But something else also was odd about the midsummer weekend.

Among the 20-plus new and recent releases competing for viewers over the Fourth were four animated (or partially animated) children’s films, four science fiction/superhero/fantasy movies, three horror films, two historical dramas, two spy movies, two action-adventures, one heist movie, a period romance, and a biopic.

None addressed climate change.

Why was this unusual? Because fictional films about climate change (cli-fi) have been summer staples since The Day After Tomorrow (TDAT) was released in 2004. So successful was its Memorial Day weekend debut that TDAT was still in cinemas six weeks later on the Fourth. And as a result of the publicity generated by that success, Michael Molitor, the primary science consultant for TDAT, concluded: “Nothing I have done in the 23 years of my climate change career may have a greater impact than this film.”

Cli-Fi Films of Recent Summers Past

No cli-fi film since has been as commercially successful as TDAT, but several have spurred and some have shaped national conversations about climate change.

In the early summer of 2015, for example, Mad Max: Fury Road was still enthralling viewers with its depiction of a brutal world in a climate gone wrong. Tomorrowland, with its more explicit references to climate change (and much more confusing plot), was being consigned to smaller art houses. And on the recently released DVD of The Kingsman, Samuel Jackson could be seen plotting to reverse climate change by ruthlessly culling the human population.

The summer before, in 2014, the critically acclaimed Snowpiercer had attributed its icy landscape to a disastrously misguided attempt to geoengineer the climate. And that cli-fi dystopia was followed by the weather-disaster thriller Into the Storm and, on the tube, by the second Sharknado parody of that genre.

Thus, there were good reasons to expect that by this point in the summer of 2016, at least one film would have taken on the challenge of climate change.

Coral Reefs and Alien Invaders

There were also good reasons to expect that two movies in cinemas this past Fourth of July weekend would at least mention climate change – one because it was germane to the plot, and the other because it had been of interest to the director.

Movie graphic

In a year when a third of the world’s coral reefs are suffering heat stress, it seems odd, even irresponsible, that a film about a reef-dwelling fish species would not mention climate change. But Finding Dory, the sequel to the children’s animated movie Finding Nemo (2003) never does. Perhaps, as with Nemo, the producers will address coral bleaching in an “Exploring the Reef” bonus video they include with the DVD for Finding Dory.

Given the plot, Independence Day: Resurgence clearly must focus its energies on the alien invaders. But one might have expected that Roland Emmerich, who also directed TDAT, would try to sneak in a few environmental messages, as he did through the character played by Jeff Goldblum in the original Independence Day (1996). He didn’t.

Forty-Nine Films in Twelve Years

To see just how far this year diverges from the former trend line, however, one must step back to see the bigger picture. With the aid of the International Movie Database (IMDb) and Movie Insider‘s calendar of release dates, one can garner basic information about all the films released, or scheduled to be released, in 2016, including made-for-TV movies and straight-to-DVD productions.

The graph below shows the number of fictional films produced each year since 2004 that have addressed climate change in some way. Red is used for films that focus on the adverse impacts of climate change. Black is used to tally films that depict the putatively disastrous consequences of efforts to address climate change. Snowpiercer and The Colony (2009), which both attribute their ice age settings to misguided efforts to geoengineer Earth’s climate, would be examples of the second sort of film.

Films chronology
A year-by-year breakdown of the films tallied in this graph can be downloaded here.

As one can readily see in the graph, after a decade-long stretch in which the total number of cli-fi films released each year increased from two to eight, the numbers for both kinds of films have dipped dramatically. Everything known about the films already scheduled for release indicates that in 2016, for the first time in 13 years, no full-length fictional film will address climate change – not even in an offhand way.

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Advance blurbs for two films slated for 2017 – A Sweet Spot in Time and Geostorm – provide some assurance that the cli-fi genre isn’t dead. But the abrupt and total downturn in 2016 raises some questions about its health.

Super-Tornadoes and Cataclysmic Ice Ages

For a special five-part series on cli-fi published in 2014, YCC consulted with a film editor who insisted on maintaining her anonymity. An especially successful film like TDAT, she noted, would spawn imitations – until that particular well dried up. That squares with Nico Lang’s account in Salon of Hollywood’s approach to release dates: “When something does well, you replicate its success until it’s no longer profitable.”

TDAT combined elements of the extreme-weather disaster film and, Emmerich’s more original contribution, the ice-age apocalypse/dystopia. In the years since TDAT premiered in 2004, imitators have produced five hurricane epics, 12 super-tornado movies, and nine ice-age dramas. These models of the cli-fi film are likely now obsolete.

Indeed, the increasing number of films that have, since 2008, depicted the possibly disastrous consequences of acting on climate change – rather than the disastrous impacts of climate change itself – suggests that filmmakers were already running out of new and interesting ways to re-tell these stories.

New Models for Cli-Fi Films: Cli-Fi Novels?

So perhaps the abrupt downturn in 2016 indicates only that filmmakers are taking time out to retool. If so, then they should look at some of the many new cli-fi novels, including several published earlier this year; there has been no downturn in their output. (See, for example, the six novels listed in the YCC Book Shelf for July.)

Very few of the 49 films produced between 2004 and 2015 were based on novels. TDAT was inspired by The Coming Global Superstorm, which included some fictional passages. And Snowpiercer and The Kingsman were both adapted from graphic novels. Most of the other films, however, were cinematic permutations of TDAT and other successful precursors like Twister (1996).

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The growing library of cli-fi novels – in Anthropocene Fictions (2015), Adam Trexler identified over 250 such works – could provide the inspiration and raw materials for another run of cli-fi films. According to cli-fi blogger Dan Bloom, however, thus far only Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy has been greenlighted for production, by HBO.

Do the Green Thing

Another possible direction for cli-fi, one suggested by the activist filmmakers at Do the Right Thing, would be to incorporate climate and environmental messages into films without making those messages the focus of the plot. (See their tongue-in-cheek instructional video here.)

With this approach, it is argued, one could normalize concern for climate change by making it an everyday phenomenon rather than the separated subject of rare but spectacular blockbusters.

In support of this proposal, one can point to the clear evidence of social progress in popular films and TV programs. Their casts now feature increasingly diverse arrays of characters. And in their plots one regularly sees women and minorities exercising expertise and authority, members of the LGBT community publicly celebrating their relationships, and children of different backgrounds and abilities making their ways in the world. Why not add environmental attitudes and behaviors to this progressive checklist for film scripts?

Movies image
Original ID Goldblum: Please recycle! New ID:R Goldblum: Only the uniform is green.

The De-Greening of Goldblum

Sadly, the opposite seems to be happening.

In the first Independence Day (1996), the Jeff Goldblum character is a conscientious environmentalist, bicycling to work and nagging his colleagues to sort their recyclables properly. In the new sequel, Independence Day: Resurgence, the Goldblum character has lost this edge. So while key markers of social progress are duly observed in the film – with a woman president competently exercising the role of commander-in-chief and with two male scientists publicly acknowledging their previously hidden romantic relationship – environmental issues have been left behind.

Likewise with the Marvel superhero movies. The first two Iron Man movies (2008, 2010) and the first Avengers film (2012) included explicit and positive nods to clean (or green) energy.

Colonel Fury – “The Tesseract could be the key to unlimited sustainable energy.”
Tony Stark – “Stark Tower is about to become the beacon of self-sustaining clean energy.”

Not so Age of Ultron (2015), the second Avengers movie, or Captain America: Civil War, which includes all the other Avengers and came out earlier this year.

The Next Twist in the Plot?

From this anecdotal evidence no definitive conclusions can be drawn. But it does now seem easier to ignore environmental problems when creating imaginary worlds than to ignore struggles for gender, racial, and/or social equality. And, in fact, it is easier to ask viewers to respect each other’s cultural differences and choices than to ask them to change their own lifestyles in order to reduce their carbon footprints.

And with fewer people making the trip to the cineplex, filmmakers may be reluctant even to hint at that more difficult environmental choice. Instead, they want to hedge their very heavy bets. (In 2015, the average cost per film for production and marketing was $100 million. The costs for the major releases were much higher.) No doubt this is why nearly half of the films in theaters this summer are remakes or sequels.

One of the two films scheduled for release in 2017, Geostorm, also looks to be a remake – of Our Man Flint (1966). If it and A Sweet Spot in Time are actually completed, they will deliver directly opposing messages on climate change: acting on climate change will lead to disaster; not acting on climate change will lead to disaster.

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What Hollywood will deliver after the missed and mixed messages of 2016 and 2017 remains to be seen. One hopes that filmmakers can learn how to tell compelling stories about effective responses to climate change. But in a world steadily edging toward the two-degree Celsius threshold for dangerous climate change, disaster movies will likely also see a comeback.

Author’s note on Sharknado: The fourth installment in the Sharknado series will be shown on cable at the end of the July. The first two Sharknado movies included references to “global warming” and “urban heat islands,” respectively, and so were included in the tally of cli-fi films. The third movie did not bother to invent a semi-plausible climatic-meteorological explanation for its sharknados, and so it was not counted. The fourth movie seems even further removed from reality; thus, it has not been counted against the claim that no cli-fi film will be released in 2016.

Editor’s Note: Michael Svoboda’s peer-reviewed analysis of more than 60 climate-related films released between 1966 and 2015 – “Cli-Fi on the Screens” – can be found in the JanFeb 2016 issue of WIREs Climate Change. Until the end of December, the PDF for the article can be downloaded for free here.

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...