It seems that apocalyptic films have been on the decrease of late, maybe because we find ourselves living in one. They normally feature something like disease, war or alien invasion. But the question is, why is Hollywood still so squeamish about the real environmental crisis? Nicholas Barber finds out.
Whether you believe that art imitates life or life imitates art, is often the big question surrounding the phenomena. However, the 21st century seems to be a blockbuster in itself.
If you think about it, films like contagion and 28 days later come to mind right now. Before that, the climate crisis felt like every big budget movie about a world-shaking apocalypse.
Strangely, the uneven connection between environmental news reports and apocalyptic films, climate change is rarely spoke of in any of them.
We are normally accustomed to threats to human society such as war (Mad Max, Alita, The Book of Eli), disease (Zombieland, WWZ, Contagion), drugs that were intended to counteract disease (I Am Legend, Rise of the Planet of the Apes), alien invasion (Oblivion, A Quiet Place, Mars Attacks), and demons (This Is The End).
So much of this apocalyptic entertainment, but so little about climate change and carbon footprints. A future film genre that is screaming to get into the door of Hollywood.
In ‘The Core’, the Earth’s core stopped rotating and nuclear explosions required to jump start it. In Danny Boyle’s ‘Sunshine’, it is the Sun which is almost defunct, and again, nuclear explosions are what was needed to bring it back to its functioning ways again.
In Christopher Nolan’s ‘Interstellar’, the problem is crop famine. If Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Children of Men’ (The greatest apocalypse film ever), it is infertility.
The one stand out Hollywood film to feature climate change is Roland Emmerich’s ‘The Day After Tomorrow’. His interest in extreme weather conditions and ecological issues was evident decades prior.
The student film he made in 1984, ‘The Noah’s Ark Principle’, was set in a space station that could dictate torrential storms. In 1990, he released another science-fiction film, ‘Moon 44’. The set is corporations were mining for minerals all across the galaxy, having sucked Earth’s resources to nothing.
Once he cemented himself in Hollywood, Emmerich used ‘Art Bell’ and Whitley Stieber’s book, ‘The Coming Global Superstorm ‘- a 1970s – style disaster movie.
The beauty about TDAT was that it proved that a film could have extreme environmental themes and still manage to receive several hundred millions of dollars in revenue.
However, it is stupid and typically cliché as much as cinema gets, although parts of it hold up very well indeed. The panic-buying is on point although they got the toilet roll stockpiling completely wrong (no wonder).
In the film, when the US become predominantly uninhabitable, refugees headed south across the Rio Grande, but aren’t allowed into Mexico until all Latin American debt is cancelled. Considering this ‘Build the Wall’ era, it seems revolutionary.
Bad habits of Hollywood
More importantly however, at least for the concern of Hollywood, The Day After Tomorrow was a smash. The 6th highest grossing release of 2004. Unfortunately, it didn’t set an environmental-thriller-film-theme trend in the coming decade and a half.
The subject cropped up in documentaries, such as the Oscar-winning adaptation of Al Gore’s slide show, ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. However, fictional film directors didn’t appeal to climate change oriented films, even the creator of TDAT retreated from it.
Veering away from human induced climate change, his other environmental apocalyptic film came in 2009, 2012 – based off the mayan calendar date coming to a halt. He blamed neutrinos from a solar flare that caused the worldwide mass floods.
Maybe there are some crumbs that TDAT can offer as to why it was such a one off. The film starts incredibly well, a climate researcher, Professor Jack Hall, nearly falls to his death in the Antarctic when a mile-long crack opens up the ice shelf beneath him.
Shortly afterwards, huge hailstones start to hit Tokyo, tornadoes rip LA to pieces and helicopters fall from the sky in Scotland due to frozen fuel lines and other various catastrophes around the world continue to unfold.
The science behind these catastrophes may be off, but these scenes are clear enough to make anyone, climate change denier or not, to think twice about buying a gas-thirsty new car.
Where do you go next after you’ve just shown the majority of civilisation being flattened. Most of the film’s latter half is given over to Jack’s son Sam trying to stave off frostbite in The New York Public Library, while Jack is off hiking through the snow in pursuit of finding him.
These scenes are a bit insignificant don’t you think? Given what we have just witnessed in the opening half. Who cares about Jack and Sam? Blockbusters should be about saving thousands, if not millions of lives with an obvious hero. Concoct a cure for a virus or disarm a bomb is the usual outcome of many of these films.
In Emmerich’s own canon, they defeat a giant god-lizard-monster thing in ‘Godzilla’ and blow up a squadron of alien spacecraft in ‘Independence Day’. TDAT however, the happy ending is the father-son reuniting but society is still very much in tatters.
This could point us towards the answer of the lack of climate change driven films. Is it just too dismal to make a realistic film about it? Is it too big a problem for a two hour adventure? And of course, Spider-Man doesn’t have the ability to web the Arctic ice back together, i.e. There is not really going to be a single hero in this genre of film.
Talking about villains in climate change, we’re all one. Due of course to our own daily small choices to take that flight, eat steak and to upgrade to a new phone when your ‘old’ one is still perfectly working.
Although, you need to understand Hollywood’s point of view in not wanting to alienate the audiences in reminding them of the truth that none of us want to hear.
On the other hand, Hollywood can’t complain about our environmental friendliness without looking at themselves first. The average film draws in huge consumption of various pollutants such as; private jets, luxurious apartments and designer outfits.
TDAT had its share of product placement, the industry subsequently relies on loads of people flying all over the world to get them shots and then to promote the film once its been made.
Recent Joker star, Joaquin Phoenix, announced he would be doing his bit for the benefit of the planet by wearing one dinner suit for the entire award season. These seasons usually last 2-3 months. It is an insignificant announcement and is quite hilarious. It was mocked, especially by those of us who have had the same going out outfit for the last 10 years.
However, looking at a different angle, the statement is a sign that Hollywood are certainly aware of its own bad habits. Other signs include Producers Guild of America’s new Green Production Guide, and Sony’s move to install solar panels on its soundstages.
Unfortunately, I doubt we’ll see James Bond swap his Aston Martin for a push bike, although it would be a great site to see. After this film that we are currently living in comes to a climax (a happy ending i’m sure we all hope to see), will Hollywood start green lighting some more disaster movies which face the current climate crisis head on?
Credit: Nicholas Barber – BBC News Culture