loaded question: have apocalyptic movies lulled us into a false sense of security about climate change?

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) today released a terrifying, but hardly unsurprising, new report on the state our collective inaction on global warming, and perhaps The Washington Post’s headline sums it up best: “Humanity has a ‘brief and rapidly closing window’ to avoid a hotter, deadly future, U.N. climate report says.” From the article:

In the hotter and more hellish world humans are creating, parts of the planet could become unbearable in the not-so-distant future, a panel of the world’s foremost scientists warned Monday in an exhaustive report on the escalating toll of climate change….

Drawing on thousands of academic studies from around the globe, the sweeping analysis finds that climate change is already causing “dangerous and widespread disruption” to the natural world, as well as billions of people around the planet. Failure to curb pollution from fossil fuels and other human activities, it says, will condemn the world to a future that is both universally dangerous and deeply unequal….

“I have seen many scientific reports in my time, but nothing like this,” U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said in a statement. Noting the litany of devastating impacts that already are unfolding, he described the document as “an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership.”

(Download that exhaustive report here.)

Last summer — when, to be sure, we already knew how much we’ve fucked up our response to the planet we’ve heated up — Doug Specht and Silvia Angeli, two lecturers in media and communications at the University of Westminster, wrote at the academic-leaning site The Conversation that “apocalyptic films have lulled us into a false sense of security about climate change.” From their essay:

One image [from recent climate disasters] – that of a ferry, carrying evacuees from the Greek Island of Evia, surrounded by fire, helpless and in the middle of crisis – drew comparisons to the ferry scenes in the 2005 remake of War of the Worlds. In the film, people poured onto a vehicle ferry in a desperate attempt to escape the extraterrestrial invasion. [I snatched the image above from this essay.]

In Greece, the ferry made safe landing, and all passengers were accounted for. But in the film, few, bar the protagonists, survived that moment. While War of the Worlds ends happily – with the alien lifeforms that had ravaged the world succumbing to their vulnerability to microbes on Earth – the footage from Greece is just one scene in a story for which the ending is not yet fully written.

It might seem frivolous to compare such moments to films, but these comparisons play an important role in helping us to comprehend and make sense of particular moments in history. Like all works of art, films reveal much about the social and political zeitgeist in which they are conceived and produced, often acting as magnifying lenses for humankind’s hopes and anxieties.

I agree with the authors that it is absolutely not frivolous to compare our real-life looming catastrophes with movies. But I do take some issue with their central thesis here, that

none of these are truly end-of-world narratives. Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic films start with the risk of total destruction, but more often than not, after the cataclysmic event of the story, a form of normality returns –- balance is restored to the world and life can once again move forward.

To a certain degree, what they say is true. Movies like War of the Worlds and others they mention — 2012, Contagion, Deep Impact, and others — do have nominally happy endings… but only in a narrow sphere that encompasses some of the protagonists, not even all of them. These movies do end with the world fundamentally changed in unimaginable ways, with millions, perhaps billions of people dead, just for starters, which would have an enormous impact going forward.

Yet the fact that these movies universally fail to address what human civilization would look like going forward is an overarching problem that I have with this genre as Hollywood typically deploys it. The “end of the world” is where the real story begins, and these movies almost universally fail to confront that.

So, if you look past the endings of these films, I don’t see any false sense of security: I see a very different world looming. But I do acknowledge that perhaps some viewers do not look past the endings of these films and may see a return the normality we’ve previously experienced. And I do acknowledge that there would be tremendous cultural value in narratives that examine a future for humanity that may be somewhat diminished from where we are now.

What do you think? Have apocalyptic movies lulled us into a false sense of security about climate change? Do we need to do better?

ETA 03.03.22: I’ve just discovered that Greenland, the 2020 apocalyptic drama about a comet smashing into Earth in an extinction-level event, is getting a sequel. Greenland: Migration is currently in preproduction. Via Variety:

Ric Roman Waugh is returning to direct the follow-up to “Greenland,” with screenwriter Chris Sparling on board to write the script. [Gerard] Butler is reprising his role alongside co-star Morena Baccarin of “Deadpool” and “Homeland” fame. In the first film, Butler and Baccarin portrayed an estranged couple making a dangerous journey with their young son as a global apocalypse threatens life as they know it. The sequel is a continuation of the original story and sees the Garrity family as they leave the safety of their Greenland bunker and attempt to traverse the decimated frozen wasteland of Europe to find a new home.

Sounds like this will explore precisely what I said has been missing from the genre: examinations of what the world might look like after an apocalypse and how humanity will go forward beyond it.

(You can also discuss this at Substack or Patreon, if you prefer. You don’t need to be a paying subscriber to comment, but you will need to register with either site to do so.)

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