Lights, Camera, Climate | Sierra Club


In the spring of 2002, several film studios were vying for the right to make an action film with an unusual adversary: ​​climate change. For Fox, who landed the deal, the haggle was worth it – when the film came out two years later, Two days later grossed over $ 550 million in worldwide box office sales, roughly four times its budget.

And even.

“A film like Two days later probably wouldn’t be made today, ”says Roland Emmerich, the film’s director and co-writer. Emmerich’s name may not be familiar, but not the many blockbusters he co-wrote and Star gate, Godzilla, and Independence Day.

Emmerich is right. Film and TV never really reprized the global warming star role as the villain in Two days later. When it comes to popular television and cinema, climate change is still on the bench even if it manifests itself elsewhere: in music, dance, theater, cli-fi fiction and even a sub-genre called solarpunk. .

So why, even as climate change has worsened, displacing millions of people around the world and costing hundreds of billions of dollars in damage, is it still missing from our screens? Hollywood producers love to turn disaster into entertainment. Why not a climate catastrophe?

When climate change shows up in big budget productions, its effects are subtle. Thought Blade runner, Mad Max: Fury Road, Interstellar, The road, and Elysium. In these films, climate change is like a secret menu in a fast food restaurant. If you know, you know, but you can enjoy the movie without connecting it to what’s going on in our world.

The problem is that movies and television don’t just reflect culture; they shape it too.

the After tomorrow perceptions both divided and altered. A 2004 study, completed after the film’s release and published in the journal Environment: science and policy for sustainable development, found that people who watched the film became more involved in and concerned about climate change. The film made them more aware of the effects of climate change, from severe storms to food insecurity to declining living standards. People who had seen the film were more likely to say that their next car would be fuel efficient and that they felt comfortable talking about climate change with their friends and family.

“I would say the film had a greater impact on American public opinion than [Al Gore’s] An inconvenient truth in terms of pure numbers, ”says Anthony Leiserowitz, now director of the Yale Climate Change Communication Program, which conducted the study. “The people who saw the film got involved and actually learned some important new ideas. “

But this awareness came at a price: some scientific inaccuracy. The film’s central catastrophe – rapid climate change enveloping half the world in ice – bears only a fleeting resemblance to our warming world. In Two days later, the Atlantic overturning meridian circulation, a conveyor-like ocean current that brings warm water from equatorial regions to Europe and the North Atlantic, stops. When he does, he almost immediately ushers in a new Ice Age from which the characters must escape. It is true that traffic is slowing down, that it is probably caused by climate change, and that stopping it could lead to more extreme weather events. But scientists estimate the change would take nearly 400 years.

Yet when it comes to the implications of climate change, such as climate migration, the film was on solid ground. Two days later includes a scene in which Americans flee the ice as they cross the Rio Grande into Mexico. When the producers shortlisted him, Emmerich recalls, the migration scene was polarized. “The Liberals liked him a lot, but the Conservatives hated him.”

The film also foreshadows something that is now commonly recognized in our culture and even has its own idiom: climate grief. In one scene, a teenage girl named Laura Chapman, played by Emmy Rossum, waits for a storm in the remnants of the New York Public Library, where she and a motley group of other New Yorkers have huddled together, burning books for warmth. Examining the scene, she said to a classmate: “Everything that has ever interested me, everything I have worked for, everything has been prepared for a future that no longer exists.”

Chapman’s words practically predicted Jamie Margolin’s testimony in 2019 at the Congress hearing on the global youth climate movement: “Everyone who will come to me after this testimony saying I have such a bright future ahead of me. me will lie to my face. “

We don’t know if Margolin has ever seen Two days later (via email, Margolin’s father said he was almost certain she had never seen the movie). But the parallels speak to the power of fiction: it can help us see things before they happen.

So why, even as climate change has worsened, displacing millions of people around the world and costing hundreds of billions of dollars in damage, is it still missing from our screens? Hollywood producers love to turn disaster into entertainment. Why not a climate catastrophe?

Emmerich doesn’t have a definitive answer, but he does have a few theories. Climate change moves relatively slowly, and Hollywood blockbusters tend to be action-driven, a fact that Emmerich got around in part by playing with science. Emmerich admits that he leaned heavily on the structure of Independence Day to make an entertaining film on the climate emergency. Both films have an ensemble cast, glimpses of how the disaster unfolds in other parts of the world, characters trying to reunite with loved ones, and even a scene where a dog is briefly endangered by the disaster. .

“I always said I had to cheat Hollywood for the movie to be made,” Emmerich says, adding that maybe climate change, with its slow-moving time frame, could find its way into TV, in the UK. during several episodes.

At least one TV show has proven it. The Amazon series The extent successfully merges the science of climate change with amazingly visual storytelling. The show is an epic space drama set hundreds of years into the future. Humans have colonized the Moon and Mars as well as the Asteroid Belt and are ruled by a United Nations-led Earth government.

The extentThe opening credits relate the time lag through the prism of a warming climate. Ice caps melt, oceans rise and the Statue of Liberty is submerged before reappearing surrounded by dikes. In the future of The extent, New York City endures, but the Hamptons are an island. The same goes for Anchorage, which is part of the Yukon archipelago. In Copenhagen, a dike has been erected around the old town; the rest is underwater. The storylines are so carefully drawn that there are entire Reddit threads devoted to studying all of the impacts of climate change on the show.

“I love to hear that,” said Naren Shankar, The extentis co-showrunner. Prior to becoming a screenwriter, Shankar obtained a doctorate in applied physics and electrical engineering. “It’s good, on a show like this, to present these ideas and deal with these topics in this unique and dramatic way. I love the connection between science and the media.”

What’s the secret sauce to dramatize global warming on screen? According to Shankar, simply the will to reflect it.

“People ask me about realistic representations of space and gravity [on the show], and our response is that we always try to make space a character – the hostility, the environment – obedient to real physics, because that gives you interesting and dramatic visual possibilities that you usually don’t see, ” he said. “We can say pretty much the same thing about climate change. It’s so much easier to get into this utopian-dystopian vision where the world is apocalyptic or you solve all the problems. “

The Hollywood producers’ need to solve all problems and have an end is reflected in the comments Fox executives gave Emmerich. Two days later ends with the film’s central tension – a father trying to find his son – happily resolved. They are transported by plane to a safe place. But the studio wanted a happier ending. He wanted Emmerich to reverse climate change.

And it’s not that easy to do, onscreen or off.

This article appeared in the summer quarterly edition under the title “Lights, Camera, Climate”.

About Victoria Rothstein

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