With the coronavirus curves flattening, the new challenge is to prepare to re-engage the world while maintaining social distancing. Toward that end, Yale Climate Connections has prepared this guide to cli-fi, which lists more than 70 movies you can watch at home and provides some pop-culture talking points you can use to start discussions of climate change – when your public spaces open up again.
In what follows, 22 movies are named; a complete list of over 70 films, sorted by type, can be downloaded with the link at the end of this piece. The embedded links lead to webpages with options for online streaming or ways to purchase titles on discs.
Editor’s note: This post deals exclusively with movies. Readers seeking suggestions for cli-fi novels should consult Amy Brady’s monthly columns.
The three waves of cli-fi
Climate change got its first Hollywood credits in the 1970s. The publication of Silent Spring (1962), The Population Bomb (1968) and The Limits to Growth] (1970), combined with the excitement generated by the first Earth Day (1970), seems to have persuaded filmmakers to experiment with fictional films about environmental issues.
Some of these films briefly touched on climate change in the context of plots focused on other problems, like pollution or overpopulation. The best known of these, the cult classic Soylent Green (1973), is set in New York City in 2022, with 40 million residents enduring “the greenhouse effect,” … “a heat wave all year round.” The final line of the film reveals the secret of the title – not disclosed here.
In the 1990s, Hollywood took a second, and closer, look at climate change. Likely prompted by climate scientist James Hansen’s appearances before Congress in 1988 and 1989, by books by Bill McKibbben and by Al Gore, and by the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, filmmakers produced seven climate-related movies over just four years.
In these seven movies – FernGully (1992), Split Second (1992), The Fire Next Time (1993), The American President (1996), Waterworld (1995), The Arrival (1996), and Twister (1996) – screenwriters worked with four distinctly different film genres.
The third, biggest, and still ongoing wave of cli-fi movies began with the release of The Day After Tomorrow in 2004, three years after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its third assessment reports. In the 16 years since, filmmakers produced more than 60 films and experimented with another three genres.
The seven film genres of cli-fi
The seven different genres filmmakers adapted to tell stories about climate change are disaster movies, apocalypses, dystopias, psychological dramas, comedies, animated children’s movies, and alien/superhero movies. Each genre has distinctive features that influence how viewers perceive – or misperceive – climate change.
A cli-fi disaster movie follows a group of characters through a terrifying event – tornado, hurricane, or technological breakdown – that threatens their lives and property. But these disasters do not end their way of life. Most of the main characters survive. Then they begin the work of rebuilding their communities with the expectation that life will return to normal.
Many still consider Twister (1996) the best of the tornado disaster movies. It follows a team of scientists as they chase storms through Oklahoma’s tornado alley. Their goal: to better understand the conditions that create these increasingly dangerous storms so that better warning systems can be created. Propelled as much by the chemistry of the cast as by the special effects, Twister still thrills. And it may even take some of the edge off having to safely shelter at home.
In The Fire Next Time, a category five hurricane destroys the homes and livelihoods of the main characters, a family living on Louisiana’s Gulf coast in 2017. But this two-part movie made for CBS in 1993 goes beyond the typical disaster story in depicting a deep and permanent transformation of life. Perhaps because climate scientist Stephen Schneider (who died in 2010) advised the filmmakers, The Fire Next Time engages climate change more broadly or deeply than any film before or since. It deserves a line on any cli-fi must-watch list.
Extreme weather disasters sparked by misused technologies constitute the third kind of disaster. A good example of this mostly bad subgenre is Geostorm (2017), in which parts of Afghanistan, Tokyo, and Florida are demolished when conspirators hack a space-based weather control system.
The endings distinguish apocalypses from disaster movies. Life does not return to normal. Instead, the world has been transformed, typically by being frozen, flooded, or desiccated.
The Day After Tomorrow (2004) is the most prominent example of a cli-fi apocalypse. Borrowing some ideas and lines from a quirky bestseller about superstorms, director Roland Emmerich concocted a scenario in which the warming climate could flash-freeze the planet into a new ice age. The film follows a scientist who first recognizes the impending threat and then rescues his son from an ice-bound New York City.
The Day After Tomorrow was a hit at the box office. Because it also depicts spectacular tornados ripping apart Los Angeles and a towering ocean wave surging through New York City, The Day After Tomorrow’s success inspired many imitations of its major storyline (new ice-age) and of its minors (tornados and superstorms).
Although his movie misses some of the criteria for a cli-fi apocalypse, director Darren Aronofsky hoped that Noah, his 2014 retelling of the biblical flood story, would raise concern about risks from rising sea levels. One could also construe the Dust Bowl-like setting of Interstellar (2014) as a warning that global warming could lead to a desiccated world that can no longer support agriculture. Despite their bleak themes, both films will entertain home-sheltered viewers.
Dystopias begin in the ravaged worlds left after apocalypses—in worlds submerged by higher sea levels, frozen under ice, or reduced to desert by drought.
The first and most ambitious of the flooded dystopias is the aptly named Waterworld (1995). “The future: the polar ice caps have melted, covering the Earth with water. Those who survived have adapted to a new world,” living in floating towns and defending themselves against pirates.
By contrast, the ice world of Snowpiercer, the 2014 film by Oscar-winning director Bong Joon Ho, is the result of a too-successful attempt to cool Earth’s warming climate. The vividly imagined interiors of the globe-circling train make Snowpiercer an entertaining fable about environmental injustice.
With its artfully grotesque social settings, gripping chase scenes, gritty performances, and Cirque du Soleil acrobatics, Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) provides a compelling example of the third cli-fi dystopia: a world reduced to desert by drought.
Disaster movies, apocalypses, and dystopias make up half of all cli-fi movies. Whereas disaster movies mislead by suggesting that life can return to normal, apocalypses and dystopias mislead by returning life to the struggle against nature. Seemingly unable to imagine how humans might solve the human-caused problem of climate change, filmmakers resort to re-telling old stories they already know. But if done well, these can fill a night at home alone.
Anxiety drives the plots of psychological dramas – often to self-destruction or violence. First Reformed (2017) provides a recent, critically acclaimed example of this genre. After he discovers the explosive vest of an eco-activist who committed suicide, a depressed minister imagines he will find redemption in his own act of terrorism.
Films from this group probably won’t provide entertaining escapes from the coronavirus crisis, but many, including First Reformed, end on a positive note. Sadly, climate change is often forgotten when their characters’ anxieties are eased by deepened human bonds.
Comic takes on climate change have been relatively rare. In the past 25 years, just five have appeared – in one of two forms.
In the first, climate change is incorporated as a subplot in a situation or romantic comedy. In The American President (1995), the new love interest of the recently widowed president lobbies Congress to raise mileage standards, with the aim of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
In the second form, satire, the setting is given an absurdist, climatic twist. Downsizing (2017) imagines a world in which humans’ carbon footprints can be reduced by shrinking their actual footprints to less than an inch.
When situation or romantic comedies take on climate change, they typically end on a note of can-do optimism. The notes on which satires end are not so clear.
Animated children’s movies
The first animated children’s movie to address climate change, albeit indirectly, was screened at the opening of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in1992. In FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992), fairies successfully resist the destruction of their rainforest home, in part by recruiting a Walkman-wearing “city kid” to their cause.
Another kind of forest is at stake in Frozen II (2019). The sister princesses of Arendelle discover that their parents participated in a plot to dispossess their indigenous neighbors by building a dam to disrupt the microclimate that sustained their sacred forest. Definitely worth a view.
Aliens and superheroes
Aliens have played three very different roles in these mixed genre movies: opportunists, colonists, and protectors.
In Split Second (1992), a murderous alien finds a new home in the flooded tunnels of 2008 London.
The aliens in The Arrival (1996) are more aggressive. In order to reset Earth’s climate dial to their species’ preferred temperature, they pump out billions of tons of greenhouse gases from underground locations in Central America.
In the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, the aliens seek to protect Earth’s biosphere from humanity’s neglect and abuse. These aliens are good guys with a difficult job to do.
In 2015, filmmakers realigned the roles in this plot. The protector of nature, the one who sees that climate change is an existential threat, became the villain, a malevolent enemy willing to sacrifice millions of lives in pursuit of his goal. Superheroes (or super-agents in the case of Kingsman) save the day by defeating the villain.
Three interrelated Marvel movies – Avengers: Infinity War (2018), Avengers: Endgame (2019) and Spiderman: Far from Home (2019) – represent the zenith of this genre, together grossing nearly $6 billion.
In this trilogy, the Avengers are first defeated by and then defeat Thanos, an alien warlord intent on halving life in the universe in order to restore nature’s “balance.” Viewers cannot help but cheer when the Avengers vanquish Thanos and thwart his plan.
But what about the environmental problems that prompted Thanos’ actions, problems everyone accepted as real at the beginning of the story? As nothing is said about them at the end, are viewers being encouraged to think that these problems, too, have been vanquished?
Since 1992, filmmakers have produced more than 70 cli-fi movies, in seven different genres. This post named 22; another 50+ are included in the complete list you can download here.
But as the descriptions of the seven genres suggest, the creators of cli-fi movies seem unable to imagine effective action on climate change. That story remains to be written. Perhaps by you?