A New Pop Culture Climate


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In December of 2018, I got around to watching the much-hyped indie movie favorite from Paul Schrader, First Reformed. I did so, purely coincidentally, maybe a day or two after I had finished reading Richard Powers’s eventual Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Overstory. Though I would heartily recommend both movie and book, I am not sure the rapid-fire combination is entirely advisable.

They were both remarkably powerful pieces of culture, and both are elegies for a dying—a murdered—planet. They are keening laments, both intensely visceral and difficult to look away from. I recall sitting up late into the night after the credits rolled on First Reformed, drinking bourbon and trying to parse out why, when consumed sequentially as I did, they seemed so dire. I write about climate change (among other things) for a living, and have done so for over a decade now; I am well aware of our general state of direness, and I wasn’t sure why two pieces of fiction tangentially related to the issue were so affecting.

I eventually realized that neither piece was actually about the warming world, they just seemed to refract around it in dramatic and tragic ways. Climate provided the backdrop, a new spacetime able to be curved and shaped by whatever the actual story might be. I was reacting not to the way these stories related to civilization’s existential threat, but to the realization that it was starting to seep into every story.

Once you see that new reality, it becomes hard to miss. Speculative climate fiction (“cli fi”) and ecological dystopianism aren’t that hard to find—think Paolo Bacigalupi’s books The Water Knife and The Windup Girl, or, say, WALL-E—but over the last few years, climate change has been suffused into the background of popular culture that doesn’t necessarily focus on the dystopia outside. It no longer needs to be plot, but backstory; not text, but subtext, or in the case of more in-your-face sorts of media, it can be a joke, an ironic gauntlet slapped against a deserving face.

This reflects the reality of the situation better than even most well-meaning politicians can manage. Scientists will tell you about a “new normal,” how the warmed world isn’t some catastrophe that will show up on one particular day, but a new set of rules the planet is forced into following. It is here, now, and why wouldn’t that show up in the books we read and the movies we watch? We don’t need hacky anti-scientific nightmares like The Day After Tomorrow. We don’t have to talk about climate change, because we are always talking about climate change.

Google “Climate change movies” and you’ll primarily be served a number of documentaries—Chasing IceChasing Coral, Merchants of DoubtAn Inconvenient Truth—but not much in the way of fiction. The Day After Tomorrow will be high up in your results, but again, no one should think they’ll be blinded by science by that particular disaster of a disaster movie. (You might also spot the more recent film Geostorm, though I advise you to look away as quickly as possible.) Of course, Google “normal Earth climate movies” and you won’t fare much better; the “climate” isn’t something we—people, writers, directors—would have to worry about in a not-dumb world. And yet, here we are. 

In First Reformed, climate is an explicit driver of the plot, featuring a man so despairing of the planet’s fate that his fiancé turns to Ethan Hawke’s troubled, alcoholic pastor for guidance. But this isn’t an ecological fable; it is a character study and an exploration of how any of us can be good in the face of, well, everything. The pastor’s son had died in the Iraq War, a fate for which the character blamed himself. Hawke’s Toller didn’t start the movie as concerned about the climate as his parishioner’s fiancé, but the man’s concern bled out into the world and into the film’s main character.

One might think that First Reformed is exactly the type of movie to incorporate climate change into its plot: highbrow, independent, no decades-old recycled IP within miles. But the places this new normal have started showing up consistently would never be confused with arthouse cinema. 

“Your entire generation fucked this planet into a coma,” says a metal-armed super-soldier from the future. The very R-rated 2018 superhero movie Deadpool 2 features a villain-turned-collaborator (Cable, played by Josh Brolin) who arrives from fifty years on with a mission to save his family; the fact that the future he arrives from is a ruined hellscape thanks to the choices made in the present is merely a bit of world-building. Climate change and ecological destruction isn’t why Deadpool and friends are trying to save a troubled kid from a life of violence, but they do provide a sort of baseline reality from which that story can grow.

By the time the movie’s somewhat tangled plot is sewn up, Cable has joined the good guys, and instead of returning to the future to see his family, he even exits as something of an eco-warrior: “I’m gonna stick around for a while, and make sure the world doesn’t shit itself into oblivion.” Our new heroes are climate activists, if not necessarily the most charming ones. The revolution here is that the obvious reality of the warming world can be played as a joke: of course we’re utterly fucking up the planet. Why not have some fun with it?

In another 2018 Marvel property, the delightfully campy Venom, the villain—Carlton Drake, an Elon Musk clone, more or less, played by Riz Ahmed—is hell-bent on saving a world he views as being on the brink of collapse. “You’re being dumb, Brock,” he tells Tom Hardy’s investigative journalist-slash-alien-host. “I’m not insane, what’s insane is the way humans choose to live today. Think about it: All we do is take, take, take. It can’t go on. We’ve brought the planet to the brink of extinction. We’re parasites.”

Drake’s idea is to bond humans with the newly discovered extraterrestrial creatures recently brought back from outer space, in an attempt to create a whole new species that could survive his other project, the colonization of planets less habitable than Earth. Our own species, to state the obvious, has failed.

“Overpopulation and climate change—these are two things that Drake cannot control,” one of Drake’s employees, a whistleblower scientist, tells Hardy’s Eddie Brock. “We are literally a generation away from an uninhabitable Earth.” 

Writing for The Ringer this year, Miles Surrey said that “Tom Hardy seemed to be the only person in the production who was in on the joke”—meaning the sheer zaniness and cult potential of the movie—and that no other cast member could match his “gonzo energy.” The argument was that this mismatch essentially lowered Venom’s ceiling, but it may also have served to juice up the back story: if the only “serious” bit is the villain’s motivation and the threat of a changed planet, maybe that argument sticks in a viewer’s mind more than if the entire production was acting like extras in the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Sticking with the Marvel universe, another somewhat different entry into this genre is The Avengers multi-movie storyline. Supervillain Thanos has decided that the cure for a galaxy that consumes out of control is mass genocide; again, human (well, humans as well as every other species across millions of planets) failures to rein ourselves in are not necessarily the plot in itself, but the inciting baseline for all that follows.

A common theme of all these is that none of us know what to do about climate change. Thanos and Carlton Drake come up with genocide and weird alien symbiosis, absurd blunt-force bomb-like solutions which the heroes then have to defuse. In First Reformed Amanda Seyfried’s fiancé is so convinced of humanity’s doom that he turns to terrorism, and Hawke’s pastor even appears to take up that mantle toward the end of the film, essentially embracing his own path toward true self-destruction. These aren’t solutions in any meaningful sense; they are Hail Marys, primal screams over a situation ostensibly out of control. In the real world, it is perfectly clear what must be done—stop burning fossil fuels, yesterday—but humans, in the form of governments and corporations, have refused to meaningfully push toward that end. And so these stories of apparent helplessness, or roundabout eco-fascist solutions, arise from that place of stagnation and frustration. We tell stories about our failures, whatever they may be.

In the past, when some touchstone of apocalypse bled into mainstream culture it was out of a fear of a potential dystopia. The obvious example here is nuclear war. Once the threat of nukes became apparent to the general public, movies grabbed hold and didn’t let go—the radioactive monsters of the 1950s, Dr. Strangelove‘s sheen of dire inevitability, the tick-tock toward doom of War Games; it hasn’t really gone away, either, with throughlines to movies like The Peacemaker in the 1990s on up through the latest Mission: Impossible entry, where plutonium cores go missing and threaten the world order.

But this storyline persists because, post-Hiroshima and Nagasaki at least, it hasn’t happened yet. The nuclear apocalypse that either is threatened or arrives in countless movies still only exists in the real world as potential energy, a boulder hovering at the cusp of the cliff. What the new movies, even the farces like Deadpool and Venom, understand better than most of the politicians ostensibly in charge of stopping it is that climate change is here, now, and it isn’t going away. The apocalypse in this case is kinetic energy, the boulder hurtling down the cliff face and pushing whatever other plot ahead of it.

The nuclear stories more closely resemble the more standard “cli fi” of recent years, in that they are purely speculative. Dating back at least to 1954’s Them!, where giant radioactive ants threaten humanity, the nuclear threat was painted as what could happen, if our predilection for destructive power was allowed to escape out into the world. While speculative, though, they also seem firmly grounded in the present time: the giant ants were born of the Alamogordo nuclear bomb tests, a specific, real-life event that happened in living memory of most everybody who would have been in the theater. Godzilla was released that same year; the king of all monsters was also born (well, awakened, but close enough) of nuclear testing, this time in the South Pacific.

If you work through the nuclear canon, this was a feature rather than a bug. The stories were all set squarely in a recognizable nowDr. Strangelove worked so well because, as absurd as its characters were, its apocalyptic comedy of errors seemed vaguely possible. Are you, Ms. 1964 Movie-Goer, are you really sure the people in charge of all those missiles in their silos or bombs on the B-52s are as competent as we would like to believe? War Games works because people had begun to understand computers and hacking, and the possibility of some completely inadvertent, non-human catastrophe started to feel feasible; The Peacemaker works (well, to an extent; I’m guessing most people reading this are among the masses who never saw it, George Clooney be damned) because the idea of a stolen warhead walked across borders in a backpack had started to seem reasonable; Mission: Impossible — Fallout worked because terrorists who commingle the technocracy with anarchy feels like a side note in a story about Peter Thiel in three years. 

In other words, there wasn’t much imagination necessary. That’s not to say the storylines aren’t creative or interesting—only that the audience understood the threat they fictionalized to be a legitimate one. Climate change’s problem, when it comes to both storytelling and policy-making, is that it doesn’t have quite the urgency of a hurricane or earthquake or attack of radioactive ants. Andrew Revkin, the long-time climate reporter and journalist, has called it a “slow-drip problem,” one where the urgency may be hard to grasp because the cup under the dripping faucet takes its time to overflow. Nuclear armageddon, though speculative, was and is understandable; scientists and activists can insist that Miami will someday be under water, but the singular flood holds a lot more movie cachet than the three inches of water repeatedly sloshing from the gutters at high tide.

This means that any attempt at giving climate change true movie-level urgency is likely to fall flat, for one reason or another. The Day After Tomorrow is an absurdity because it takes the concepts behind the changing climate and imagines an acute crisis rather than the simmering decadal build that it is. The newer creators using it as a backdrop, at least on some level, understand this: it’s not a big bomb dropping, it’s small ones, dropping over and over, every day, everywhere. It’s not just the Australian wildfires but next year’s as well, it’s Hurricanes Maria and Harvey and the one that will hit Miami in three years, it’s a European drought and a missed Indian monsoon season and all the versions of those that will happen now, year after year, in the world we have created. What becomes common can become backdrop; the set of the play, rendered immediately understandable because we all know what we’re looking at.

There are some highbrow and extremely impressive movies that stem from the same place but shy away from the “present-ness” of those nuclear stories. In 2013 and 2014 sci-fi fans were treated to two excellent entries where climate change was again the backdrop, only a bit further back from the actual timing of the story: Bong Joon-Ho’s Snowpiercer and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar posited a world where people were forced into some version of escape. In one case it was a speeding train, endlessly circumnavigating a globe rendered frozen and uninhabitable by a climate engineering scheme gone wrong; in the other, humans ventured out into space and through a wormhole in order to eventually learn how to live away from our home planet, now suffering from a new global dust bowl.

Looking back on these movies now, it almost feels like something of a missed opportunity. These were futuristic worlds (easy crewed space flight out past Saturn, trains with engines functioning as thermodynamically impossible perpetual motion machines), and audiences could be forgiven if they didn’t come away thinking that they were intended to reflect current realities. They were about catastrophes that could happen, not those that are happening. Then again, rooting either one of them more firmly in the present would have turned them into capital-C Climate Change movies, instead of films with other messages to sort through. Interstellar, though a bit heavy-handed, argued largely that humans, with all our flaws, still possess the decency and ability to work together toward common goals; Snowpiercer was a tightly wound parable of class and oppression. Did either really need the added weight of being wielded as a political cudgel? 

Richard Lawson, writing for Vanity Fair last year, argued that movies where climate is text rather than subtext aren’t likely any time soon. “It’s hard to imagine what a direct climate change movie made now would look and sound like,” he wrote. His main point is that such a film, made expressly to sound the alarm on climate, would turn off too many people given the issue’s absurd level of polarization. “it’s all too easy for a withering smirk from a denialist to shut down a vital conversation about climate change. I doubt a studio would be willing to risk money on something that could so readily be branded as liberal propaganda.”

This may well be true, but the studios don’t seem to mind letting climate play as that new normal we all swim through. When it comes to the comic book movies, there is an argument that this is a better idea anyway: Oh, you’re fine with the time travel or the bulletproof alien symbiotes, but the characters’ concern over global warming was a bridge too far?

Lawson acknowledges this, noting: “What seems more likely than a definitive climate change movie is that the realities of our plight will slowly seep into everything else … Climate change will get rolled up with all the other pernicious ills, part of the fabric of our worry rather than its own individual existential menace. That’s mostly how we process things, in increments and allegory.”

The question is, are filmmakers processing the public’s grief, frustration, and worry over the changing climate, or is the public osmosing those messages from the films into its understanding of the crisis? In other words, in which direction is causality’s arrow pointing?

In 1961, Gallup polled Americans about their fears of nuclear war; thirty percent reported feeling a “general fear or dread” and another eleven percent “had a pessimistic outlook and weren’t sure whether or not they would wake up alive each day.” The year before, seventy-two percent of Americans polled said they favored a law requiring fallout shelters be built in every community. The Cuban missile crisis arrived in 1962, followed two years later by Dr. Strangelove (and Fail-Safe, another tale of stumbling into apocalypse, for what it’s worth). Then again, Them! and Godzilla were released half a decade before those polls; other movies like 1959’s On The Beach arrived earlier as well; who begat whom?

When it comes to climate change, the last year or two have felt like the public might finally be catching up, at least somewhat, to what the science has been telling us. Gallup found that in 2019, forty-four percent of those polled “worry a great deal about global warming.” This was up from a 2001 to 2014 average of thirty-two percent. For the first time last year, a majority of Americans were classified as “concerned believers,” an annoyingly problematic (“do you ‘believe’ in scientific reality?” is never a question that should be asked in the first place) term that means one is highly worried about climate change and thinks it will cause serious problems in one’s lifetime. In 2018, sixty-two percent of respondents said the government was “doing too little” when it came to the environment.

So maybe this spate of recent movies is reflecting that trend toward “belief” and worry and desire for action. We could also see that as a marker of a sort of complacency, an implicit understanding seeping out from pop culture that we are, in fact, pretty much screwed. Whatever crisis your movie is about stews in the larger, inescapable crisis we have created.

But then again, maybe the infusion of warming into pop culture is what’s pushing the trend in the first place. How many comic book villains trying to “fix” climate change can we watch before we internalize that there might be a real need to fix it?

In a sense, there is hope in either of these options, if you’re trying to avoid apocalypse. They both suggest an increasing understanding and an increasing sense of urgency, whether oozing forth from pop culture or being slowly injected into it. Whether that sense oozes its way into the halls of power that need it to make a dent remains to be seen.

Roger Ebert said, “We live in a box of space and time. Movies are windows in its walls.” If the world is dying outside those windows, it makes sense that movies would reveal it. There will be more of these stories, of First Reformed and The Overstory and even Venom, where the damage we have caused sparks some mildly adjacent plot. It will be fascinating to watch as the world tries, painfully slowly as of now, to arrest that damage, and whether the culture we consume will push that task forward or continue to reflect its failure.

This essay was previously published in Issue 3 April 2020 of Majuscule