Theatre audience

2018 was a remarkable year for cli-fi, both for the number and variety of fictional films that addressed climate change.

Global warming played a leading role in a comedy and in an art-house social drama. It played a supporting role in a superhero flick. And it could be glimpsed in cameos in two alien-creature features and in a holiday comic book blockbuster. Allusions to climate change were also seen, by some viewers, in two other films. That’s a record-breaking eight theatrical releases, none of which was a disaster-film (think Into the Storm), apocalypse (The Day After Tomorrow) or dystopia (Mad Max: Fury Road). In 2018, cli-fi finally broke free of its early type-casting.

Here’s how it all played out.

2018 in review

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On the screen, climate change entered 2018 in the form of a miniaturized Matt Damon. Downsizing, a December 2017 release, was still in the theaters in January, drawing modest audiences, mixed reviews, and a Golden Globe nomination for supporting actress Hong Chau. (See YCC’s review here.) Despite its limited success, Downsizing, in which Americans try to live large by being made small, remains noteworthy for two reasons. First, it offered a rare comic take on climate change. Second, it’s one of only a handful of movies to have focused on reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.

Roughly two months after Downsizing left America’s cinemas, Avengers: Infinity War barreled in. The 19th film in the interconnected Marvel Cinematic Universe series, Infinity War would become the box office smash of the year, bringing in more than $2 billion worldwide and eclipsing even its immediate, and highly acclaimed, precursor, Black Panther. (See YCC’s review here.)

Infinity War was one of three 2018 films to feature an environment-avenging protagonist. Convinced that life everywhere had surpassed the carrying capacities of the worlds it populated. Thanos, the supersized alien at the heart of the film, sought in six “Infinity Stones” the power to reduce life everywhere, instantaneously and painlessly, by half.

In the film’s dramatic conclusion, Thanos, despite being wounded by the Avengers, succeeded in his mission. Along with half of humanity, half of the Avengers dissolved into dust on the battlefield. Those who remain now face a formidable challenge: Can they defeat Thanos and somehow reverse his terrible act? The sequel, scheduled for release at the end of April, will answer this question.

On a much smaller scale, the desire to avenge nature – and reclaim a broken life – is the motive force behind First Reformed. Loved by critics – First Reformed appeared on 12 “best” lists at the end of 2018 – the film barely registered at the box office. Nevertheless, many critics expected it to receive several Oscar nominations, especially for Ethan Hawke’s lead performance. It didn’t.

For this snub, climate communicators should perhaps be relieved.

As psychotherapist Leslie Davenport explained in YCC’s review of the film last summer, the dramatic arc of Hawke’s Pastor Toll, from emotionally scarred alcoholic to eco-terrorist, could overwhelm those already alarmed by climate change while providing ammunition for cynics who argue that environmentalists are misanthropes. And in the wake of the #MeToo movement, the film’s ending – Toll is dissuaded from blowing up his historic church, with a full congregation inside, by the love of a woman half his age – no longer feels so redemptive.

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After playing a leading role in First Reformed, climate change in the second half of the year appeared on screen only in brief cameos.

In The Predator, a ruthless federal agent trying to commandeer the technology of two aliens he is tracking across the American northwest speculates that they like the warmer climate humans are creating with their greenhouse gas emissions:

“How long before climate change renders this planet unlivable? Two generations? One?”

“That’s why their visits are increasing,” realizes the scientist he is interrogating. “They’re trying to snap up all of our best DNA before we’re gone.”

“Adapt themselves with it. And then move in. … They thrive in a hothouse environment. Maybe they’ll want to move into ours.”

By contrast, the Elon-Musk-like entrepreneur who plays the heavy in Venom seeks alien DNA to enhance humans’ chances of surviving on the new worlds they must find after they ruin this one.

“Overpopulation and climate change: These are two things he can’t control,” explains his chief scientist to the reporter who will involuntarily become the human-alien hybrid known as Venom. “We are literally a generation away from an uninhabitable Earth. Mr. Drake is using his personal rockets to scout real estate. On its way back, one came across a comet on which sensors registered life forms.”

Both of these late fall films are now available on blu-ray. Venom, which grossed $855 million at the box office worldwide, will definitely return in a sequel.

Environmental issues, including climate change, got slightly more screen time in the holiday blockbuster Aquaman. Based on the DC comic book, the world of Aquaman is derived from the myth of Atlantis. Several different kingdoms of water-breathing humanoids thrive in the depths of Earth’s oceans, undetected by humans. But these ocean dwellers are all too aware of humanity’s presence – and its global environmental footprint.

The king of one ocean kingdom, the half-brother of the half-human Aquaman, aspires to rule over all the others as “Ocean Master.” And with this massed power, King Orm plans to avenge the environmental insults and injuries the oceans have suffered at the hands of humans, with their plastic litter, their poisonous chemicals, and, yes, their greenhouse gas emissions, which have overheated the oceans’ nurseries. (Aquaman’s screenwriters perhaps deemed ocean acidification too complex for their viewers. It is never mentioned.)

Aquaman ultimately foils his half-brother’s plan to destroy human civilization. Nevertheless, one conservative critic immediately equated King Orm with Infinity War’s Thanos, explaining that “environmentalists make good movie villains because they want to make your real life worse.”

Despite its rambling plot and overwrought visuals, Aquaman did well at the box office, grossing more than $1 billion worldwide. A sequel is already planned. Given humanity’s accumulating impacts on the oceans, it’s hard to imagine that environmentalism wouldn’t play a role, but the bonus scene at the end of the credits suggests a more conventional plot: revenge.

Two other films deserve brief notices, even though neither explicitly mentions “climate change” or “global warming.”

Annihilation is based on a book by Jeff Vandermeer that many classified as “cli-fi.” Well worth seeing for its dazzling visualizations of the alien being that possesses the landscape and drives the plot, this late summer release is now out in blu-ray.

In the holiday release Vice, a political satire written and directed by Adam McKay about the life of Vice-President Dick Cheney, Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann detected a brief nod to climate change in the video clip of California’s wildfires near the film’s end.

Eight films in one year – and not a disaster flick among them.

Looking ahead – what to expect in 2019

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As of this writing, 2019 looks a lot like 2018 – without the depressed alcoholic pastor.

The year will be dominated by another Marvel Avengers movie. Endgame, the sequel to Infinity War, is to be released at the end of April. In it, the Avengers must resolve the human and environmental conflict set up in Infinity War. But will Marvel simply undo Thanos’s monstrous act and then forget about the underlying problem: a global civilization approaching the limits of Earth’s capacity to support it? Or, after dispatching Thanos, will Marvel have the Avengers take up the challenge of climate change, more creatively and humanely?

There’s some ground for optimism here. Previous Marvel movies – Iron Man, Iron Man 2, and the first Avengers – explicitly addressed the need for “clean energy,” and sustainability is a core tenet of the Afrofuturism that pervades 2018’s Black Panther. The trailers thus far have been silent on this point.

The Captain Marvel movie released earlier this month confirmed that the female superhero will appear in the April Avengers sequel, but it didn’t reveal anything new about the plot. Captain Marvel’s own powers, however, are linked to one of the Infinity Stones, the Tesseract, considered a possible key to “unlimited sustainable energy” in the first Avenger movie.

After Endgame, climate change may again be limited to cameos, again in the context of alien/creature flicks.

MFKZ, a rap-influenced anime feature that will be released on blu-ray at the end of March, includes a subplot about aliens using global warming to take over the world.

Another Godzilla will be released in May. Previous iterations have included environmental messages, but with so many creatures sharing the playbill this time, that might not be an option.

Two Arctic-themed animated features are scheduled for late November (Frozen II) and early December (Arctic Justice). With the steady drumbeat of news about melting ice sheets, the creators behind these projects might feel obliged to address global warming – or to studiously avoid it.

A bit of cli(mate) in every fi(lm)?

Climate change is distorted when it’s forced into old genres: disaster films, end of the world films, and dystopias. Until filmmakers better understand the bigger, deeper, longer story that is climate change, brief acknowledgements of its reality, as in the cameos described above, might be the best next step.

But even though climate change necessarily involves science, these cameos should not be limited to science fiction thrillers or superhero action movies. A recent YCC radio segment explained “how climate change could screw up homicide investigations.” The climate change cameo for a crime or detective movie almost writes itself.

“Why the extended range for the time of death, doc?”

“Because, lieutenant, at the moment we’re not sure about the exact mix of blow flies in the area where the body was found. With climate change, some faster-developing subspecies are moving in, and that affects how we determine the rate of decomposition.”

Climate change is already a significant factor in contemporary life. It will be pervasive in the future. Realism requires that any story about the present or the future include at least a small part for climate change.

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...