Climate fiction fantasy on the silver screen

doomsday scenarios
Last Updated : 12 January 2015, 15:30 IST
Last Updated : 12 January 2015, 15:30 IST

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The end is near. At least, Hollywood seems to think so. When it comes to the steady unravelling of essential earth systems – ocean health collapsing, biodiversity plummeting and, of course, the fraying of the atmosphere’s stability – much of the political establishment continues to whistle past the graveyard. Filmmakers, meanwhile, are sending out an SOS: We’re doomed.

Is the premise fiction? Only partly. And not in the way you may think. The most fantastical thing about some of these films isn’t their doomsday scenarios. No, the real stretch is the idea that humanity – or at least some privileged slice of it – will be able to remove itself from the disaster.

The latest example is the writer-director Christopher Nolan’s epic sci-fi adventure, “Interstellar.” With Earth on the brink of collapse as crops wither and oxygen in the atmosphere dwindles, a team of astronauts race to distant galaxies in search of a new planet for the human race. Earth’s last survivors won’t starve, we are told. They will suffocate.

Such end-of-the-world scenarios appear so regularly in books and films that they are now their own mini-genre – cli-fi. The threats are not necessarily always climate related; the impending disaster in Interstellar seems to be as much biological as atmospheric.

Cli-fi literature includes Margaret
Atwood’s dark MaddAddam trilogy, Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow and Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit From the Goon Squad, which closes with New Yorkers flocking to the top of a giant sea wall, one of the few spots in the city where you can still glimpse a proper sunset.

Enticing plots
In this time of global warming, cli-fi made an early splash with Waterworld, Kevin Costner’s campy 1995 vision of a future where the polar icecaps have melted and Earth is almost entirely submerged. It took almost a decade for the next major cli-fi blockbuster to arrive: Roland Emmerich’s storm-porn extravaganza, The Day After Tomorrow. While that movie had its fair share of Hollywood cheese (there was a wolf pack chase through Midtown Manhattan), the film at least made an attempt to detail the basic science of anthropogenic climate change. The protagonist, Dennis Quaid, was a climatologist.

Since then, cli-fi films have gotten grimmer. In The Day After Tomorrow, we watched a climate disaster unfold. In others, ecological Armageddon has gone from plot point to scenery, the post-apocalypse being a perfect set for directors to stage their allegories.
So we get movies like Elysium, in which Matt Damon fights to get off a dusty, overcrowded Earth and make it to an Arcadian space station. Pixar’s Wall-E had a similar scenario. In that computer-animated satire, Earth is toast, and what’s left of humanity spends its days slurping supersize drinks and splurge-shopping on a blimplike spaceship. In Avatar, the Marines are on the planet Pandora, because we’ve already strip-mined Earth.

Perhaps the best of this bunch is Snowpiercer, the Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s fable about social injustice and environmental hubris. Snowpiercer imagines that civilisation – in a botched attempt to reverse the effects of global warming via atmospheric geoengineering – has turned Earth into something like the ice world of Hoth from Star Wars.

The survivors are stuck on a train that rattles in an endless circle around the
planet. The folks in first class get spa treatments and dance parties, while the
proletariat in the caboose have to choke down protein bars made of ground-up bugs. Inevitably, the underclass revolts.

Conservative reviewers like to grumble that such films just spread liberal
propaganda. But ecological meltdown makes for a reliable sci-fi setting for the same reason Wall Street tycoons are convenient villains – to the average moviegoer, it’s believable. Serious environmental dislocations (at some scale) are all but inevitable. Many of them are underway. As a movie setup, an eco-dystopia needs no explication.

Movies, of course, are based on the promise of escape. Illusions are fun, until they slide into delusion. A scant 536 people have slipped the surly bonds of Earth. Which means we won’t squish the human race through a wormhole anytime soon, nor establish a colony out among the stars for anyone but a lucky, stranded few.

Escape is not an option, at least not in a time frame relevant to our current
environmental predicament.“It’s a perfect planet,” one of the astronauts says in Interstellar, referring to spaceship Earth. “We’re not going to find another one like it.” The line reminded me of placards I have seen at climate marches: “There Is No Planet B.”

Published 12 January 2015, 15:30 IST

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