Popular Movies and Climate Change

These days I find myself taking frequent nature walks where I breathe a little slower and think a little deeper. In a way, I romanticize these walks, imagining which angle will best capture the sunset or which filter will come closest to showing how green the trees truly are. This habit of inserting myself into a film as if I am a character comes from my love for the feelings that movies evoke. Suddenly I remember watching Avatar on the big screen, mesmerized by the natural blues and aquas, the chirping of crickets reverberating in the vibration of speakers. 

From towering tsunamis and cracking glaciers to animate green landscapes and vivacious animals, popular fiction films have given us both subtle and poignant images of our changing environment. It is debatable how far “awareness” of this issue can get us, but for the climate change skeptic, who may be reluctant to watch a documentary about the dying Earth, climate change-related fiction films can instill a sense of respect for our land and help visualize disasters that may otherwise seem abstract. James Cameron, director of Avatar, believes that he can be most effective at a grassroots level (as opposed to the political process) by using his cinematic skills to inspire viewers to connect with nature. “You can’t feel that you are ready to make a sacrifice in your lifestyle to protect something unless you respect and love it.”

We have all been there, sitting in a movie theater, speakers booming through our hearts, witnessing magical blue rivers and getting chills, yearning for an escape to nature. For a moment, we project past the screen and into the realm of computer-generated forests; everything is serene. But how long do these effects last? How long until I forget about my human footprint again and fall back into hopelessly accepting doomsday? A film’s impact depends on how directly it addresses our changing climate and how creatively it helps us visualize our impact on the planet. Movies can range from having environmental themes to being environmentally focused. They can also take many forms from apocalyptic (Snowpiercer, 2012) to lighthearted animation (Wall-E, The Lorax) to visually inspiring (Avatar, Moana). 

In addition to helping us visualize an otherwise abstract future, films reflect how society is thinking about these catastrophes and stretch our imagination of possible solutions. For example, the recurring theme of an “escape to space,” present in movies such as Interstellar and Wall-E, becomes a more realistic prospect as tech billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos invest in space exploration. Other movies, such as 2012, feature a strong male character who saves his family from falling buildings and is left to survive with the remaining one thousand humans. These scenarios suggest a sort of hopelessness and inevitability about the destruction of Earth. I have yet to watch a movie in which governments manage to control carbon emissions to minimize the effects of climate change. That is the biggest issue in climate change film today. People are aware of climate change, and exacerbating the burden of change and desperation on them through film is more likely to drive them away than inspire them. 

Let’s look at Wall-E, an adorable Pixar film about a robot that is compressing garbage on a demolished Earth abandoned by humans, who now inhabit a spaceship. The ship is run by the Buy’N’Large corporation, and epitomizes consumerism; humans sit on moving chairs, drink oversized sodas, and rarely look up from their holographic screens. One of the ship’s human-serving robots, named Eve (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), comes to Earth and takes an olive tree sprout back to the ship while Wall-E follows her in. The movie then plays out as a love story between Wall-E and Eve. Director Andrew Stanton claims that he didn’t “have a political bent or ecological message to push” and that “everything [he] wanted to do was based on the film’s love story.” Climate destruction is almost normalized in the background. The movie not only presents a post-apocalyptic trashed Earth, but it highlights how our increasing consumerism – however unintentional it might be – is inconsiderate of the Earth. 

Of course, many children may not see this movie for its environmental complexities, but even from a young age we internalize subliminal messages about our (typically Western) relationship to the Earth. Effectiveness? Well, the movie itself is not going to create a little army of child activists, but it will communicate the idea that our current extractive relationship to the Earth is unsustainable. Other animated movies have subtler themes: Moana features an indigenous relationship to the land as well as a beautiful Mother Nature-like depiction of Tafiti, and The Lorax even more subtly expresses deforestation. 

It is possible for these movies to unintentionally normalize the destruction of the planet. Learning about deforestation and waste pollution at a young age may convey the idea that this is just how humans are. It may take the urgency of the problem away. In the case of Wall-E, it may suggest that escape from Earth is the only option, that the end of Earth is inevitable. Similarly, Interstellar is about a NASA mission to find another habitable planet after Earth has been consumed by dust storms. The movie opens with a rural farm family whose crops are failing due to the endless dust. Some say this was a sort of “wake-up call” to one of the demographics that most often deny climate change. 

For those who believe climate change is simply part of the Earth’s natural cycle, it is important to emphasize the role that humans play in exacerbating it. In some of the movies mentioned above, the focal point is the destruction of our planet, set in a post-apocalyptic time, and doesn’t show the human behavior that led up to it. Avatar is well-known for its stunning visuals of the moon Pandora, where the extremely intelligent Na’vi beings live in harmony with the land. That is until a military mission sends humans to Pandora with goals of colonization. Not only does this shed light on the military industrial complex and climate change, but it also emphasizes Indigenous relationships to the land as intelligent rather than “primitive.” 

In Western culture, we are commonly taught to look down on “lesser developed” countries. For example, we often believe that advanced technology correlates with increased quality of life, and when we see images depicting lack of air conditioning or cellular devices in other countries, we assume those people need help. In the movie Black Panther, we are shown what could have been if Native land hadn’t been colonized. Wakanda, Black Panther’s fictionalized country, is rich with resources and one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, but it is surrounded by mountains where people herd their sheep and ride on horses. This suggests that it is possible to develop technology that enhances the quality of life in a way that is compatible with the environment – two ideas that are often seen as mutually exclusive. Both Avatar and Black Panther also remind audiences that it is impossible to remove colonization from the story of our changing climate. 

In fact, it is impossible to remove many socio-economic issues from climate change and merely reduce it down to industrialization. Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho is famous for his movies Parasite and Snowpiercer, both of which offer a striking commentary on not just climate change but also the wealth gap. Snowpiecer features a never-stopping train that carries the last humans left on an Earth that has frozen over. At the back of the train are the poorest of the poor, who are fed “protein bars” and live in sickness and gloom. As we move up the train, we reach the elite, where children attend school and people eat real food. The rear of the train orchestrates a revolution with the goal of reaching the front, but many are killed along the way. We later find out this was orchestrated by an insider for population control.  A commentary on how the world’s poorest will be the first affected by climate change, the film also shows how the elite can and do lead common people to their own demise. 

In Parasite, a poor family lies and cheats in order to get employment with an upper class family and take advantage of its resources. At the end of the movie, it starts to rain, and the camera pans from the rich house all the way down to where the poor characters live – a small flat nearly underground – showing the progression down societal class levels. The flat is flooded, again showing how the poor are essentially disposable in this situation. It is difficult to watch these films simply for entertainment, and much of the audience will seek out themes of economic privilege in an increasingly deteriorating world.

This said, it is possible that only a few like me unpack these themes while many others enjoy the movie for what it is. Should climate change artists ditch their creative endeavors and focus on more “actionable” items or can art simply exist to exist? It is undeniable that these films evoke strong emotions and perhaps they are powerful enough to inspire some people into action. But the issue I see repeatedly in these films is the signaling of doom. The climate crisis has gained people’s attention; now it is time to revise the script to include legitimate solutions rather than destruction or escape. If writers and directors reframe the way they think about climate, they will be able to show audiences the change that is already underway and inspire alternative climate futures. Whether the movies end in tears or in joy, they will all embody the same human experience needed to propel us past our changing climate: hope.

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Tulsi Patel is a student at Yale University studying Cognitive Science. Her interests range from linguistics to astrophysics, but the area that she would like to be most impactful in is climate – particularly food waste and education. A polyglot who loves learning languages, she would ultimately like to work in a global context. At Yale, she is part of an Asian spoken word group for which she writes and performs poetry about her experience of the Asian American diaspora and reflections on growth. Ideally, her future career will allow her to channel her passion for creativity into making an impact in sustainability.

3 thoughts on “Popular Movies and Climate Change

  1. Really loved this article. Very astute observations about how climate change is treated in popular film and how that correlates to activism, normalization of destruction narratives and the effectiveness of art as a vehicle for change. As a climate change artist I often question and contemplate how much my work or any work of art changes someone. I certainly have been changed by art MANY times in my life. I believe in the function of art as an entity important to our culture and society and equally as “actionable” as the work of say a scientist. In fact I’ve read recently numerous articles and heard a number of pods with climate change thought leaders discussing the importance of art and storytelling as a vehicle for change. Because clearly being supplied with the Facts isn’t doing the trick. Art has the opportunity to hit people in their emotional core and empathy as opposed to their intellect. I also struggle with the destruction narratives but as a species we are fascinated by destruction. As an artist I am fascinated by that fascination and so much of my work is about destruction, violence and human hubris. I believe that in delving into the darkness we can make our way through to the light but it is such a fine balancing act in a piece of art to show the reality of our climate catastrophe along with the hopeful solutions and actions that are being taken and possible. What is the perfect mix in a piece of art that will inspire people to action and not to apathy?

    • Hello, Ross! Thank you so much for your eloquent comment. I really like what you said about our fascination with destruction. It certainly is a strange human tendency, and I’d love to explore more about why we are so attracted to those narratives. I am glad that you are thinking about the impacts of your art, and I hope that you are able to find that perfect balance between entertainment and inspiration. Educational entertainment is very hard to nail, but if done properly, I think it has massive potential to mobilize audiences into action.

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