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Climate change at the movies – a history

To mark the start of the global climate conference COP26 in Glasgow, Graeme Virtue takes a look at Hollywood’s recent history of turning eco anxiety into entertainment.

There are lots of things wrong with Highlander II: The Quickening (1991).

Set in an overcast and dystopian 2024, it rides roughshod over the mythology of the original, repositioning its immortal warriors as banished aliens from a planet called Zeist.

Amid all the sci-fi silliness, one plot point stands out: in the fiction of Highlander, humanity burned through the ozone layer in the mid-1990s, necessitating the construction of a vast electromagnetic shield to protect the planet from cosmic radiation.

For audiences in 1991, the concept of a ruined ozone layer probably had an alarming ring of credibility. Global warming – or climate change, as we call it now – had become part of the global conversation.

Films have always reflected the preoccupations of their era. In the 1980s, the nuclear deadlock of the Cold War meant it was easiest to imagine the world ending in a giant mushroom cloud.

The threat of long-range missiles criss-crossing the skies inspired enough movies set in irradiated wastelands to make it a distinct film genre. But as the Cold War thawed and environmental awareness increased it grew clear that even if we avoided nuclear armageddon, the planet was still in peril. By continuing to exploit the earth’s natural resources, humanity was headed toward some sort of existential reckoning.

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From the 1990s onwards, those concerns about climate change seeped into cinema.

In the monster-hunting thriller Split Second (1992), loose-cannon cop Rutger Hauer waded through a flooded future London. In animated adventure FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992), woodland fairies and animals staged a fightback against invasive loggers.

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And in big-budget epic Waterworld (1995), nomadic merman Kevin Costner sailed a scrappy catamaran across an endless sea created by the melting of the polar ice caps.

It is comforting to think a combination of weather beams and Gerard Butler could potentially safeguard the world

Waterworld was a notorious flop but less than a decade later The Day After Tomorrow (2004) became the first real climate change blockbuster, imagining a contemporary world where collapsing ice shelves created the Goldilocks conditions for deadly superstorms and a “flash freeze” capable of turning New York into the new Arctic.

This was an old-fashioned disaster movie updated with very modern environmental concerns, complete with a smart (if unusually square-jawed) scientist in the form of Dennis Quaid raising the alarm to an uninterested legislature.

The speed of The Day After Tomorrow’s lethal cold snap might have been fictional but the reluctance of governments to actually do anything before it happened seemed all too plausible.

Perhaps because we are no closer to solving or even properly mitigating the issues of climate change, it looms over any film or story set in the future.

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The pollution-choked Los Angeles of 2019 of Blade Runner (1982) was introduced via flaming smokestacks belching soot; the sequel Blade Runner 2049 (2017) showed living conditions had not improved after three decades (Las Vegas is cloaked in sandstorms, LA is battered by storm waves and with livestock long extinct, insects are cultivated for protein).

Interstellar (2014) is nominally about deep space travel but it is encroaching desertification and unstoppable crop blight that drives Matthew McConaughey to the stars in search of a solution. The enjoyably daft Geostorm (2017) suggests humanity can halt climate change by inventing a network of weather-controlling satellites (which, inevitably, end up creating havoc).

While it is comforting to think a combination of weather beams and Gerard Butler could potentially safeguard the world, the tech in Geostorm is more fantasy than science fiction.

With no viable solution in sight, there is a sense that some people are resigned to living with the effects of climate change.

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On-screen, it risks becoming less of a plot driver and more of an atmospheric background detail. In the recent near-future mystery Reminiscence (2021), rising sea levels have transformed Miami into a divided metropolis where the poor live in flooded streets while the rich luxuriate behind monolithic sea defences.

With scorching temperatures during the day, the city only comes alive at night: a decadent, hard-partying Venice of pontoons and cabaret bars. Rarely have the possible effects of climate change been rendered so vividly, and so romantically. 

As a corrective, I recommend checking back in with Waterworld. You don’t even have to watch the whole movie, just the tweaked title card where the familiar landmasses on the Universal Studios globe are slowly but irreversibly erased by rising tides. It is the most discomfiting moment in the entire film.

@GraemeVirtue

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