It’s Oscar season, and Hollywood is abuzz with chatter about the year’s best flicks, which include films about poverty, racism and war. Not mentioned by prognosticators is 2017’s one big movie about climate change, Geostorm, a sci-fi thriller so thin on story, drama and spectacle, it earned a rating of just 13 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.
It’s hard to make a good movie, but it seems especially hard to make a good movie about climate change. There are plenty of great documentaries about the carbon crisis — Chasing Coral, The Age of Consequences, An Inconvenient Sequel, to name three released in just the last year — but Hollywood has yet to produce a top-rate drama that is explicitly about global warming. That’s at least partly because climate change doesn’t fit into the blockbuster mold. To understand why, take a look at Star Wars.
For all its dazzling special effects, the first Star Wars movie was as much a triumph of storytelling as a groundbreaking feat of technical wizardry. Roger Ebert wrote in his 1977 review of the film, the story “is only dramatized by the special effects; the movie’s heart is in its endearingly human (and non-human) people.”
George Lucas famously was inspired by Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which argues the many stories humans tell are each a variation on a single tale, the Hero’s Journey. In it, the hero goes on a adventure, finds a mentor, faces challenges, overcomes evil, and returns transformed. After Star Wars broke box office records, the Hero’s Journey became the template for the modern blockbuster.
As cultural commentator John Higgs explained in his book Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century: “Studio script-readers used it to analyze submitted scripts and determine whether or not they should be rejected. Screenwriting theorists and professionals internalized it, until they were unable to produce stories that differed from its basic structure. Readers and writers alike all knew at exactly which point in the script the hero needed their inciting incident, their reversal into their darkest hour and their third-act resolution.”
The Hero’s Journey is the basis for a number of popular films, from Toy Story to The Matrix to The Lion King to The Lord of the Rings. Not every movie using this structure has been your typical summer blockbuster. Some films cast in this mold have tackled difficult issues like poverty (The Pursuit of Happyness), corporate greed (Erin Brockovich) or slavery (Django Unchained).
In Django Unchained, the hero (a formerly enslaved man played by Jamie Foxx) goes on a journey with his mentor (a bounty hunter played by Christophe Waltz), overcomes evil (slaying a cruel plantation owner to rescue his wife from slavery), and returns transformed (having a newfound sense of power and freedom). Like Star Wars, The Matrix and other films that deploy this formula, Django Unchained is morally unambiguous, which is part of what makes it so satisfying.
Unfortunately, not every issue translates so well to this template. Climate change, while arguably the most urgent issue of our time, makes for a poor villain. It is impersonal. There is no masked villain lurking behind the rise in temperature — we are all, to varying degrees, part of the problem. Climate change is also slow, driving up the temperature by a couple of tenths of a degree each decade. There is no Death Star waiting to vaporize our planet at the push of a button. Lastly, while climate change is a profoundly moral issue, it does not stir moral outrage like a legion of space Nazis bent on galactic domination.
Fictional movies about climate change deal with this problem by tweaking the issue. Climate change unfolds rapidly (The Day After Tomorrow), perhaps at the behest of an irredeemable villain (Geostorm). This neither produces a good film nor gives the audience any real insight into the issue. Some movies succeed but only allude to the issue. In Interstellar and Mad Max, climate change lingers in the background, but it has little bearing on the direction of either story. Movies like Children of Men and Mother! work as allegories for environmental catastrophe, but neither deals with climate change head on.
“The reality is that this is a vexing, complicated and difficult challenge,” said Max Boykoff, director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “It is critically important to reach beyond mere ‘news’ reporting on climate change,” he said, adding, “I do think there are many compelling ways to portray climate change in film and it can be used to drive a story for sure. More of a challenge is to do so while accurately representing the science of climate change.”
Perhaps it is possible to make a compelling, scientifically accurate film about climate change, but no one has yet managed to do so. Richard Walter, chair of UCLA’s screenwriting program, thinks no subject is too ponderous or slow to make into a great movie.
“How slow is the notion of a stutterer working with a speech therapist in order to delver a public address? That sounds lame, but it won the Oscar for best picture and best screenplay only a few years ago,” Walter said, referring to The King’s Speech. “You have to invent a compelling story. It’s all about story,” he said. “No worthy cause was ever helped by a boring movie.”
Asked what he would do if a student told him she wanted to write a film about climate change, Walter said, “I would say, ‘Don’t do it!’ Make a movie about somebody, a person, a woman or a man who is affected by climate change one way or another.” He added, “If you sit down to write a movie about an issue, you will fall on your face. It’s doomed from the get-go. You’re being intellectual. You’re working out of your head. You’re trying to make a point rather than tell a story.” Walter believes that climate change could inform the setting or inspire the conflict.
For a sense of what that might look like, Harvard science historian Naomi Oreskes and NASA historian Erik M. Conway wrote The Collapse of Western Civilization. The story takes place in the year 2923. In it, a Chinese scholar offers an account of how unchecked climate change brought about the end of Western civilization.
As the book makes clear, climate change lies at the root of many future conflicts, each of which could be fertile ground for a Hero’s Journey. Rising seas will slowly swallow coastlines, leading to a mass exodus from seaside cities. Imagine 10 million New Yorkers relocating to the Midwest, an inversion of the Dust Bowl migration depicted in The Grapes of Wrath. Lasting drought will trigger crop failures, hunger and war. Imagine neighboring countries fighting for control of a freshwater stream, the setting for a war film like Platoon or Deer Hunter. But, as Walter noted, any film about climate would, first and foremost, have to be about people.
“You can have climate change in a movie, but it has got to be about human beings involved in the struggle of being human trying to identify themselves,” Walter said. Asked about films that explicitly tackle social issues, like Get Out, he said the successful ones are primarily about characters. “I think Get Out is the best picture I saw last year. It’s just brilliant,” he said. “Second of all, it’s about racism, but first of all, it’s about identity.”
One approach to finding great, character-driven stories would be to portray events already covered in the news. In 2015, for example, it was revealed that ExxonMobil continued to fund efforts to sow doubt about climate change despite internal research showing that carbon pollution was cooking the planet. Walter said the scandal could make for a decent movie, but he cautioned against turning Exxon into a cartoon villain. “I don’t think really good narratives need clear villains,” he said. “It’s much better if the villain is actually humane and somehow connects with the audience.”
Whatever approach filmmakers take, the time to tell these stories is now. As David Wallace-Wells wrote in his bracing piece on the future of climate change, “Over the past decades, our culture has gone apocalyptic with zombie movies and Mad Max dystopias, perhaps the collective result of displaced climate anxiety, and yet when it comes to contemplating real-world warming dangers, we suffer from an incredible failure of imagination.” Put simply, we desperately need storytellers to tell stories about climate change.
The fact is that Americans don’t talk about the issue nearly enough. Climate change is what social scientists call a “quiet crisis.” While the steady rise in temperature drives history-making heat waves, storms and wildfires, news outlets consistently fail to connect those events to climate change. As a result, the issue insufficiently penetrates the public consciousness. That needs to change.
The problem isn’t that it is politicized, or that it isn’t a priority,” David Karpf, professor of communications at George Washington University, told Nexus Media. “If there were some set of events that acted as a drumbeat and pushed us to either pay attention to climate change or actively ignore it, then I think we’d see a lot more public conversation about climate.”
Phillip Pullman, author of The Golden Compass, once said, “After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” A climate hawk might go one step further. If we want to continue to have nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are more necessary than ever.