Climate change is the greatest threat to humanity. Here’s how filmmakers have tried to make sense of it all.

Over the past 20 years, directors have increasingly put out movies that help viewers process a crisis of existential proportions

(Matt Chase for The Washington Post)
(Matt Chase for The Washington Post)

A few years after “Independence Day” premiered in theaters, Roland Emmerich faced immense pressure to write and direct a sequel. His sci-fi disaster movie was the highest-grossing film of 1996, raking in more than $300 million at the domestic box office and $800 million worldwide. It set a new standard for Hollywood blockbusters. Naturally, executives wanted another.

But Emmerich’s concerns lay elsewhere. He had recently swung by a bookstore after wrapping production on another project and picked up “The Coming Global Superstorm,” a book that blended fact and fiction while exploring the possibility of unprecedented environmental catastrophe in the near future. The details could seem a bit far-fetched. And yet, deep into pondering potential dangers that were more rooted in reality, Emmerich realized he had no time for alien invasions.

His next disaster movie would be about the one to which humans were contributing.

“My friends thought I was crazy,” he recalls. “Whenever they asked, ‘What is this movie about?’ I would say, ‘Global warming.’ Don’t forget that at that time, in ’99, global warming was some sort of fringe thing. People read about it, but nobody really knew what was going on.”

He wound up co-writing and directing 2004′s “The Day After Tomorrow,” a film marketed with the indelible image of the Statue of Liberty buried under snow. Its scientific accuracy was debated at great length, the central narrative derided as cliched. But its lasting impact on audiences is undeniable. Even now, as the climate crisis figures into more and more conversations throughout the entertainment industry, Emmerich’s film is often among the first to be mentioned.

The subject had been tackled before. But as climate change cements itself as the greatest modern threat to humanity, filmmakers have increasingly varied how they depict its widespread effects. Some still place disasters front and center. Others, such as George Miller, who set “Mad Max: Fury Road” in a decaying environment, explore how societal structures respond to a collapsing world.

Seven in 10 Americans said they were at least “somewhat worried” about global warming in a recent survey conducted by Yale and George Mason University. That includes 35 percent who said they were “very worried,” a record high for the poll; only 9 percent said the same in 2011. These distraught feelings are becoming such a fixture of life on this planet that experts have already started to refer to them as “climate grief.” These emotions demand that we find a way to adapt and move forward.

While some films can exacerbate climate grief, others call for action. The Washington Post spoke with several filmmakers about their decisions to address climate change, how they went about doing so and what role fictional storytelling can play in helping us process a crisis of existential proportions.

“That’s the function of story as it always has been, no doubt — since early man,” Miller says. “We try to make meaning out of what is apparently a chaotic world.”

Depicting a disaster

‘The Day After Tomorrow’

Things fall apart rapidly in “The Day After Tomorrow.” Soon after climate scientist Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) says at a United Nations conference that climate change could lead to an ice age, a storm system develops and threatens to destroy the Northern Hemisphere. Jack’s son Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his friends seek shelter at the New York Public Library, where they burn books for warmth as snow mounts against the building’s outer walls.

Like its peers in the disaster genre, “The Day After Tomorrow” is consumed by the special effects involved in depicting calamity. Emmerich says his critics often forget that “when you make a movie, it has to be dramatic in a certain way.” People bought tickets to be stunned. This was the guy who made “Independence Day,” after all.

The movie ends with sheets of ice stretching over the hemisphere, its events all having taken place within days. Dramatic, yes, but Emmerich insists the science is “solid” even if experts said around the time of the theatrical release that such a phenomenon couldn’t occur over that short a period of time. In a way, it didn’t really matter. Echoing some scientists, former vice president Al Gore told USA Today in 2004 that, while “it’s important we separate fact from fiction,” the movie at least got people talking.

The film directed attention to real problems, down to the culpability of powerful people who doubted the reality of climate change. It isn’t a coincidence the vice president who dismisses Jack’s research bears a resemblance to Richard B. Cheney, nor that he serves under a compliant president.

“We did a press tour all around the world where we educated people about climate change and what it all means,” Emmerich says. “It was interesting, because it was a Hollywood movie.”

Given the public’s familiarity with the climate crisis these days, some argue filmmaking should go further. Earlier this year, science journalist Maddie Stone wrote in Polygon that she wondered whether “Hollywood executives worry that carbon taxes, battery storage technology and Green New Deals aren’t sexy enough topics to drive a compelling story with mainstream appeal.”

Speaking to The Post, Stone, an avid consumer of science fiction, notes that novelists have increasingly explored what filmmakers seem hesitant to try. There’s a push within the climate fiction space to depict possible solutions to our troubles, even if the narrative doesn’t center on them.

“It’s interesting that policymakers and climate activists are starting to world-build that future,” she says, “but we haven’t really seen that yet in mainstream film.”

Animating an allegory

‘WALL-E’

In 2008, Disney released “WALL-E,” a movie with a political bent director Andrew Stanton insisted was unintentional. While promoting the Pixar film in an interview with New York magazine, the director said he had no “ecological message to push.” It was just about a love story between two robots.

The characters in question are WALL-E — a trash-compacting robot in the 29th century who remains on Earth, a garbage-strewn land humans abandoned centuries earlier for inhabitable spacecraft — and EVE, a robot sent to the planet to scan for signs of life. WALL-E accompanies EVE back to a starliner, where humans have become sluggish and dependent on machinery doing everything for them.

Stanton began writing “WALL-E” when he and his wife, whom he now describes in an interview with The Post as an “early adopter” of Amazon, ordered so many packages that the cardboard boxes began to pile up. He says he thought of the practice as “consumerism run amok, where the desire to buy stuff was greater than the ability to deal with all the trash being made for it.” There’s a simple connection to be made between this line of thought and harsher environmental critiques of capitalism, but Stanton wasn’t making it himself.

“I don’t like being preached to when I watch my entertainment,” he says, recalling that he “didn’t want to come across, even accidentally, like I had something greater to tell than the story of WALL-E.”

Still, the premise of the film is inherently political — and seems to grow more relevant with each year that passes. Stanton says he might have been a bit defensive in outright denying messaging beyond the love story. He wasn’t trying to target “big-bucks companies directly,” he adds, “but I was saying … complacency is the enemy. Complacency and trust without verifying who you’re giving all your money to, who you’re giving all your power to.”

“WALL-E” implores its viewers to think twice about how the systems in place operate. It underscores the perils of overvaluing short-term economic interests, represented by the animated humans’ unwillingness to change harmful behaviors that have become convenient to them.

“I actually trust kids to be serious,” Stanton says of his primary audience, adding that he has “no problem with a young kid — or my kids — knowing that the Earth can really go south fast if you don’t do the right things.”

Forecasting the future

‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’

Recent science suggests that today’s children will live through three times as many climate disasters as their grandparents. This fact, compounded by their innocence in the matter, can be especially distressing to process — an emotion palpable throughout Benh Zeitlin’s Oscar-nominated “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which made Quvenzhané Wallis the youngest-ever best actress nominee.

The 2012 film takes place at a Louisiana bayou on an island nicknamed the Bathtub, where 6-year-old Hushpuppy (Wallis) lives with her ailing father, Wink (Dwight Henry). Often left to fend for herself, Hushpuppy is forced to grow up quickly. At school, she learns about prehistoric, bison-like creatures called aurochs, said to have devoured the children of cave men. She is also taught survival tactics as preparation for when her world falls apart; eventually, the Bathtub will be underwater.

“Beasts of the Southern Wild” was adapted from a play by Lucy Alibar, with whom Zeitlin co-wrote the screenplay. The director says that when he first screened it, “a lot of people thought it was about [Hurricane] Katrina and the past. My answer to that was, this is not a film about the past. This is a film about the future.”

Speaking in September from southern Louisiana, where he traveled to help communities recover from Hurricane Ida, Zeitlin says outsiders tend to view the region as a “doomed place in the world” and wonder why its inhabitants stay put. He “really wanted to make a film that answered that question in a way that was … defiant about what a ridiculous question that is.”

“I remember talking to someone down here about the issue, and I remember them saying something to me about feeling like the people from this area are like a plant that can only grow in one place,” he continues. “If you tried to plant it somewhere else, it would die.”

Nearly a decade after the film’s release, Zeitlin encountered people who were uprooted by Ida. Residents of the island where he shot the film once lived “a life of abundance,” he says. “In order for the oil industry to strip the lands here, they have to create narratives that dehumanize the people whose lives they’re destroying.” Fighting back involves accessing the public’s emotions.

In the film, after the Bathtub floods and its residents are instructed to evacuate, Hushpuppy returns and sees aurochs arriving. The climate crisis grounds “Beasts of the Southern Wild” in real life but, according to Zeitlin, its narrative ultimately mirrors that of a Greek myth or story from the Bible.

“What’s happening in nature renders us a speck,” he says. “The only way Hushpuppy could understand the radical way in which her life was changing was through stories that were large, [and by seeing] herself as a character in a story about a species on the verge of extinction.”

Predicting the post-apocalypse

‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

There are some stories we encounter time and time again, according to George Miller.

“Floods and fire and plunder and pestilence are pretty timeless,” he says. “I think they’re intrinsic to the human narrative … it’s just that they’re amplified now. Now the main difference is, we know we can measure it. We can model and predict the trouble ahead.”

The action of 2015′s “Mad Max: Fury Road,” the Tom Hardy-starring fourth installment in the Mad Max franchise, takes place in a desert wasteland following intense warfare over resources. The tyrannical Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) maintains power by seizing control of the water supply. He sends one of his captains, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), to obtain gasoline but realizes a handful of his concubines have fled with her.

Furiosa plans to escape to the Green Place, a fertile land she remembers from her childhood spent with a tribe of women. Then she discovers it has become an uninhabitable swampland.

The future seen in “Fury Road” is bleak. A haunting question arises more than once: “Who killed the world?” Miller describes the cautionary tale as an allegory, noting that it deals “with a more elemental world than the complex modern moment we’re dealing with. It’s a regression to a medieval time.”

The filmmaker’s youth in rural Australia led him to become “acutely aware of the droughts and the floods and the dust storms.” He says most stories set in vast, empty landscapes are bound to engage with their environments to some extent. Such was even true of 2006′s “Happy Feet,” his Oscar-winning animated film about a tap-dancing penguin that also commented on the dangers of overfishing.

“To be a storyteller, you respond to the world that’s around you in all its dimensions,” Miller says. “You can’t help but tell these big, sweeping stories without it becoming part of the story.”

“Fury Road” joins films like Bong Joon-ho’s 2013 thriller “Snowpiercer” in depicting societal ruin as a result of climate change. Experts who advocate for more hopeful views of the future — such as Stone, the science journalist — point to the celebrated science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson as an example of someone from whom Hollywood could seek inspiration.

Many consider Robinson’s work to be optimistic because he writes utopian fiction; in an interview with The Post, the author laughs and says the “bar is very low.” He acknowledges, however, that stories like his resonate because they give people something to believe in.

“With climate, what I wanted to do was fight the dystopia, to be anti-dystopian,” Robinson says. “At this point, given the climate emergency … dystopia is pouring oil on a burning house.”

Stirring the psyche

‘First Reformed’

There is a certain appeal to post-apocalyptic storytelling because the worst has already happened, says actor Ethan Hawke. It can be daunting, on the other hand, to dive head first into a contemporary issue as “depressing and scary and real” as climate change. Who knows what the future holds?

But Hawke did so with “First Reformed,” the 2018 film in which he stars as Ernst Toller, the pastor at a tourist-frequented church who suffers a crisis of faith. It is brought on in part by his interactions with a radical environmentalist named Michael (Philip Ettinger), whose pregnant wife Mary (Amanda Seyfried) seeks guidance from Toller because Michael doesn’t want to bring a child into an unlivable world.

Michael wonders, “Will God forgive us for destroying his creation?” Toller is consumed by the thought, and soon after discovers that the church overseeing his own receives financial support from one of the region’s biggest sources of pollution. The pastor’s crisis deepens.

“Reverend Toller is struggling with his own place in the system,” Hawke says. “In this country, everything is acceptable as long as it’s accumulating more wealth. … He’s finding himself in the middle of a society that’s making [his quest for goodness] near impossible.”

This profound sense of loneliness is a staple of work by writer-director Paul Schrader, who was unavailable for an interview. “First Reformed” ends ambiguously, mirroring Toller’s own search for answers. It could seem disheartening, but Hawke considers the act of provoking such deep thought to be productive in itself. He refers to a scene in which Toller describes wisdom as “holding two contradictory truths in our mind simultaneously: hope and despair.”

“Most of us are pretty comfortable being asleep, and sometimes we need a work of art to wake our mind up to the way we think about these things,” Hawke says. “Why should we not despair? What is hope? What am I doing to follow the hope in my heart? Those kinds of conversations are really valuable in regards to ringing a bell to make people remember they’re alive and participating.”

Reassigning responsibility

‘The Dead Don’t Die’

Jim Jarmusch tries not to be didactic. “I’m not a proselytizer,” he says. “But everything is political.”

That includes “The Dead Don’t Die,” his 2019 comedy in which fracking at the North and South poles sets Earth off its rotational axis, leading to a zombie apocalypse. The undead are a classic metaphor in film, used to highlight any sociopolitical hazard to which we must wake up the sheeple. Jarmusch’s entry to the genre casts a wide net, from an overreliance on technology to monetary greed.

“It’s the fact that we have a broken operating system,” he summarizes. “Capitalism is obviously a suicide machine for life on this planet. Profit and greed are held as rewards.”

“The Dead Don’t Die” is a star-studded satire, featuring Bill Murray, Adam Driver and Chloë Sevigny as small-town police officers who struggle to maintain order amid the chaos. Viewers root for them to succeed. But Jarmusch notes that, since the film’s release, his impression of their enemies has evolved. He sees the zombies even more as victims, as a “consequence of the monsters” rather than monsters themselves.

That shift hints at a central obstacle in writing about climate change. Storytelling often favors clear heroes and villains, the latter responsible for the conflict at hand. But what if the villain is a system, or our established way of life? What level of complicity turns presumed heroes into villains?

“I really resent this being put on [individual] people,” Jarmusch says, “like, ‘You better recycle your plastic,’ and then they just dump it in the ocean.”

Daniel Hinerfeld leads an initiative at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy organization, for which he consults with major companies such as Netflix, Sony and NBCUniversal to encourage artists to harness the “tremendous untapped power in entertainment storytelling to change the way people think and feel and behave around environmental issues.”

Hinerfeld says he has recently witnessed many a lightbulb moment for artists who come to recognize that, as with any crisis, there is meaningful drama to mine in what could initially be perceived as “abstract” or “boring” subject matter. There are struggles to depict, anxieties to work out and, of course, futures to imagine.

“The clock is running down on civilization here, but we just go about our lives as we normally have for decades because we don’t know what to do and we’re terrified,” Hinerfeld says. “The moment you start to unpack that terror a little bit, creative storytellers suddenly realize there’s a whole world of storytelling here.”

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