A system of satellites and lasers that controls the weather, as depicted in the new climate change-inspired disaster film Geostorm: Yeah, sounds pretty laughable.
But the premise of the 2004 blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow seemed ridiculous when it came out, too. (In the movie, global warming affects the Gulf Stream ocean current, shutting it down in mere days, sparking a global weather catastrophe.)
In 2015, however, scientists found the ocean current that triggered global storms and a New York City deep freeze in The Day After Tomorrow actually was slowing down. Essentially, Hollywood had produced an extreme funhouse mirror version of the climate reality of the decade to come.
The study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, pointed to the melting of the Greenland ice sheet into the North Atlantic Ocean as the most likely cause of altering what is more broadly known as the North Atlantic Thermohaline Circulation. The findings don’t mean that we have a new ice age on the horizon, as depicted in the movie. But the changes in the ocean could put the Atlantic coast at greater risk for rapid rates of sea level rise.
With the release of Geostorm and the affects of global warming becoming clearer and clearer, we investigated whether Hollywood is making more movies about global warming. Today, when the real life climate and energy fights seem impossible to win, filmmakers and audiences are looking for fictional, winnable battles on the big screen.
We spoke to experts and surveyed disaster and apocalyptic action movies from the '90s till now to find out what they tell us about actual attitudes about climate change. As both budgets and world-ending destruction in cheesy disaster movies like Geostorm have ballooned, natural disasters have started to become the reality for billions across the globe. If awards speeches and fundraising are anything to go by, it's clear Hollywood has noticed. But does any of it make a difference?
We completed a survey* of natural disaster and disaster-related films from the 1990s to the present, using lists from IMDB, to track the presence of climate change on screen. We then determined whether each of these films either alludes to climate change, or invokes the idea that human actions related to resource consumption (i.e., the cause of global warming) are responsible.
We left out films that seemed like they were in specialized categories of their own, like supernatural or space-driven disasters, documentaries, YA Sci-Fi, and TV movies (except for Sharknado because that made quite the pop-cultural splash). But we included a range of natural disasters, since global warming has complicated and far-reaching effects on weather that can impact the severity of extreme events.
Broken into four-year segments, here's a look at how the number of natural disaster films that don't invoke climate change compare to those that do.
In the last four years, the ratio of non-climate change films to climate change films has nearly evened out.
Overall there aren't many climate change-inspired films, but there are more in the last four years than in all the previous time frames. And the increase of climate change-invoking films overlaps with the fact that 2015 and 2016 were already the world's two hottest years on record, and 2017 is shaping up to be number three.
Global warming comes to Hollywood
The global warming-meets-Hollywood trend shows no sign of slowing. Both The New York Times and The Guardian recently wrote about the role of global warming in recent and forthcoming films, including Geostorm, Blade Runner 2049, Mother!, and the upcoming Downsizing.
"Cli-fi," or "climate change fiction," has also emerged online as a sub-genre of science fiction that "imagines the past, present, and future effects of climate change," according to the Chicago Review of Books.
Experts agree the uptick in global warming-spurred disaster scenarios in film makes sense in light of the last 27 years.
James Aston, the University of Hull's Film Studies Programme Chair and an expert in apocalyptic cinema, told Mashable via email he's noticed an increase in pessimism, and a proliferation of adult culpability for the destruction of the Earth, in apocalyptic film produced after the millennium. An Inconvenient Truth came out in 2006 — its central call to action was that we owe addressing climate change to future generations.
"Films indicted adults as the reason for the plight of the earth," Professor Aston said, "and positioned their children as innocent inheritors of the post-apocalyptic world."
The University of Cologne's Professor Roman Bartosch, who specializes in "eco-criticism," studies how art and culture reflects and affects human anxieties about the planet. He's noticed an increase of and hunger for stories that express "a sense of guilt and fear that humans have inflicted upon themselves by transgressing certain limits."
In Geostorm, Gerard Butler's engineer-with-an-attitude character has to save Earth from a climate disaster of its own creation. After global warming causes extreme weather to make Earth nearly uninhabitable in 2019, the international community joins together to build "Dutch Boy," a system of satellites that surrounds the planet and controls the weather.
Three years later, something goes wrong with Dutch Boy, the weather starts to go lethally haywire, and it's up to ... Gerard Butler? ... to save us all. In an interview with the social change website Rappler, Geostorm director Dean Devlin discussed the timing of the release of the movie, which coincided with hurricane season and, particularly, Typhoon Lan in Japan.
"The underlying issue of the movie has never been more relevant," Devilin said. "At the time we made the film, we were still calling these kinds of storms the storms of the century, and now they're happening so fast."
Does telling stories about global warming actually do the planet any good?
The jury is out on whether movies — let alone sensationalist blockbusters like Geostorm — actually motivate viewers to take action on climate change. Bartosch cites The Day After Tomorrow as "the standard example" of how films that directly invoke climate change "openly discuss questions of science or, more generally, the role of humans in a changing climate."
"There exist a number of studies engaging with behavioral change of audiences after having watched the film" Professor Bartosch said. Yale Climate Connections found that The Day After Tomorrow increased viewers' "willingness to act on the issue."
"The problem is," Bartosch said, "that such changes in behavior hardly last."
"Hollywood ... and the apocalypse film has no real answer for the issue of climate change."
Aston had a similar response.
"I would say Hollywood/commercial cinema and the apocalypse film has no real answer for the issue of climate change," he said. "Perhaps the spectacular arrangement of these films and the strict codes and conventions mean that it is difficult to adequately represent such a theme?
It might also be that to do so would make the film too close to the ‘real’, too immediate and thus too traumatic and threatening."
Audience members' responses to Geostorm aligned with the above theory of how films affect viewers' perception of global warming solutions — or don't. Filmgoers we talked to in New York exited the film ambivalent.
Shelly Miller objected to the sensationalist sci-fi premise as a whole, on the grounds that it did not depict climate change as it is. "They said it instead of showed it," said Shelly Miller, who is in her 50s. "It would have been much more effective if they'd shown more of the climate change things."
"I feel like this movie wasn't really helpful," added Ms. Miller's friend Eunice Martinez. Reflecting on the weather-controlling satellite system, Ms. Martinez added, "We think that we can just build a machine and that will fix everything. When it's really our behavior we need to change."
Envisioning disaster, projecting our fears
Perhaps the increase in disaster and apocalyptic films dealing with climate change is not an answer to the increase in extreme weather events, but a response to our lack of effective solutions for a problem so large that it renders audiences (and global response) numb and paralyzed. Our attempt to manipulate the narrative of climate change on screen — through a story in which the hero and the planet survive — may reflect our inability to control the colossal problem of global warming as it becomes more unwieldy in real life.
There is consensus among climate scientists that one of the clearest manifestations of man-made climate change is an increase in the frequency and magnitude of some types of extreme weather, particularly heat waves and heavy precipitation events.
The past six months alone have witnessed a barrage of deadly extreme weather events, including California's deadliest and most damaging wildfires on record, which followed the state's hottest summer. The U.S. has been hit by three major hurricanes, one of which set a global record for maintaining at least 180 mile-per-hour winds for more than a day. The scenes from Santa Rosa, California, to the island of St. John have been nothing short of apocalyptic.
However, "many of the gloom-and-doom visions — appropriate and likely as they are — are not without their problems," said Professor Bartosch.
Unlike our climate change movie heroes, in the face of catastrophic climate scenarios like those depicted in Geostorm, "we can’t do much else," he added, "than sit back and enjoy the spectacle of apocalypse while we can."
Films are concentrating more on climate change but — as witnessed anecdotally in our interviews at the Geostorm screening — they don't seem to be doing much for the planet. So far, they've been little more than escapism. So call your members of congress, demand re-entry into the Paris Climate Agreement, reduce your carbon footprint, and vote in every single election. For our planet, and for our future.
But in the meantime, might as well pass the popcorn.
*Disclaimer it is entirely possible that we may have left some films off the list, or we even may have accidentally misclassified a film's relationship with global warming ...although we really, really tried our best not to.
Read more: http://mashable.com/