Climate fiction (cli-fi) movies run the gamut from deliciously cheesy to heartbreaking. But are these films actually offering a glimpse of our future? Here’s a list of cli-fi films worth watching, along with some expert insight into what they get right—and wrong— about our climate change emergency.
1. Soylent Green // 1973
Soylent Green is set New York City in 2022. Earth is overpopulated and cities are overflowing, with 40 million people living in the five boroughs. Police detective Thorn (Charlton Heston) and his colleague, former professor and police analyst Sol (Edward G. Robinson), are working on solving the murder of a bigwig at the Soylent corporation. Soylent provides most of the world’s food in the form of protein replacement bars in three flavors—red, yellow, and green. After acidification of the ocean started killing the world’s plankton, the basis of Soylent green, the corporation needs to find a new main ingredient—which is (spoiler alert!) people.
In the film, human-caused changes to Earth have destroyed the food supply. Temperatures have spiked and farmable land has become scarce, due to soil erosion. Older characters dream of real meals. “When I was a kid, food was food—eggs they had, real butter. How can anything survive in a climate like this … everything is burning up,” Sol laments.
Soil scientist Jo Handelsman called the film “so clairvoyant” on NPR’s Science Friday. “We’re losing soil about 10 to 100 times faster than we’re producing soil,” she said, “and so that puts us in a near crisis.”
Not everything about Soylent Green is progressive, however; the film’s environmental insights come with a side of 1970s-era misogyny.
2. Waterworld // 1995
Earth has been flooded by the melting of the polar ice caps in Waterworld. Dirt is a commodity and entire cities are submerged, slowly crumbling into the sea floor. The plot of the movie revolves around saving a young girl who has an alleged map to dry land tattooed on her back. No one on the quest really believes they will find a mythical remnant of the former Earth. “It’s funny. I always thought that dry land floated,” one of the characters muses. “That it drifted with the wind and that’s why we couldn’t find it.”
Waterworld’s reality is a possibility, according to a 2015 study in the journal Science. “If humans burn all of the known reserves of coal, oil, and natural gas, virtually all the ice on the planet will melt, inundating the land with up to 200 feet of sea level rise,” Mother Jones reported. The upside is that the process would take a few thousand years. The downside: ice sheets don’t need to melt completely to create catastrophic climate change or even sea level rise. Both are already happening.
3. AI Artificial Intelligence // 2001
After the polar ice caps melt in AI, some nations survive the ensuing economic collapse by imposing limits on childbearing and requiring a license to have a baby. Robots, called Mecha, fill the void of the missing humans in this Steven Spielberg-directed flick. (Originally, Stanley Kubrick was spearheading the film, but it languished in development because he felt the technology wasn't up to executing his vision. He passed it on to Spielberg in the mid-1990s.)
Mecha become housekeepers, nannies, valets, and gigolos. Eventually, scientists create a child robot prototype called David (Haley Joel Osment), which imprints on its parents and feels the unbreakable bond that human children experience. The movie asks a classic cli-fi question: What is our responsibility for the things we create? Humans in AI ultimately don’t take any responsibility; David’s human mother, for instance, makes the wrenching decision to abandon him in the woods.
It’s what dooms the movie’s human characters, and what might doom us as well. “The seeds of this future have already bloomed in our present,” argues Joshua Rivera at The Verge. Earth is collapsing, and rather than addressing the core problems, he suggests that we’re continuing to tinker at the edges. AI is pointing out our fatal flaw, Rivera writes: “Humanity doesn’t even love itself enough to ensure its own survival.”
4. The Day After Tomorrow // 2004
The Gulf Stream shuts down in The Day After Tomorrow, causing a climate catastrophe overnight. The northern United States is frozen and people in the southern states are told to evacuate, inundating the Mexican border. Though the climate change was almost instant, it wasn’t unexpected. Paleoclimatologist Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) tried to warn UN officials and the U.S. vice president that the change was coming. No one listened, and when the worst happens, Jack has to hike through the frozen waste of the northern states to rescue his son, Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal), from New York. The city floods and freezes in rapid succession, and Sam and his friends take refuge in the main branch of the New York Public Library.
As many scientists have pointed out over the years, a change in the Gulf Stream causing an instant ice age is a very unlikely scenario. “There's strong scientific evidence for global warming, but you won’t see any of it in the film because the filmmakers evidently think you’re too stupid or easily bored to be bothered with the scientific details,” Keay Davidson grumbled in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2004.
5. WALL-E // 2008
Earth has become a literal dump, abandoned by humans, and beset by violent storms in WALL-E. The eponymous trash-compacting robot is left behind on clean-up duty while humanity decamps to space to continue indulging the habits that destroyed their home planet. They slurp meal replacements, zip around on flying chairs instead of walking, and buy things. Many, many things; things that have no discernible value. Ultimately, WALL-E is a film about the disastrous impact of overconsumption on humans and Earth.
Bloomberg’s Alex Webb argued that the film is prescient. “There are eerie similarities to much of our current reality, with extreme weather events rising in frequency, obesity rates soaring, Zoom calls taking over our lives, and the rise of meal replacement firms such as Soylent and Huel,” he writes. (Yes, there is now a real company called Soylent.)
Alvaro Castano Garcia, a Ph.D. student at the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research at Sheffield Hallam University, told Popular Science, “The things we buy and the activities we do contribute to greenhouse gas emissions … the higher the consumption, the higher the emissions associated with our lifestyles that aggravate other environmental issues.”
6. Beasts of the Southern Wild // 2012
The Gulf states are cut off from the rest of the U.S. by a levy in Beasts of the Southern Wild. Some residents have chosen to stay on the flooded side of the levy, including those in the area named the Bathtub, an island where 6-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis, who earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination at the age of 9 for her role in the film—making her the youngest-ever actor to earn that honor) lives with her father, Wink. They’re on the brink of economic and environmental disaster, as one character explains: “One day the storm’s gonna blow, the land is gonna sink, and the water’s gonna rise up so high, and there ain’t gonna be no Bathtub, just a whole buncha water.”
When the storm does strike, many of the Bathtub residents flee while others insist on staying, including Wink’s father, even as the water rises. They’re ignored by the state until Wink blows a hole in the levy to drain the Bathtub, which catches the attention of the government. Soldiers come to “rescue” them, a fate even worse than life in the flood zone. “It didn’t matter that the water was gone,” Hushpuppy reflects. “Sometimes you can break things so bad that it can’t be put back together.”
The story is partly fantasy—Hushpuppy imagines that ice age beasts are released from the melting polar caps, for instance—but the post-apocalypse landscape, with factories spewing smoke into the air, is not unlike present-day New Orleans. The Bathtub isn’t just reminiscent of the southern city, post-Katrina; it also calls to mind the many storm-induced disasters that have happened since 2005. “Climate change is raising flood risks in neighborhoods across the U.S. much faster than many people realize. Over the next three decades, the cost of flood damage is on pace to rise 26 percent due to climate change alone,” University of Bristol research fellow Oliver Wing and colleagues explained in The Conversation earlier this year.
7. Snowpiercer // 2013
The world sees climate change disaster approaching and tries to stop it in Snowpiercer. A chemical called CW7 is dispersed through the upper layers of the atmosphere by 79 countries in an attempt to reverse global warming trends. Instead, the world freezes and all life becomes extinct except for a group of people living on the train dubbed “Snowpiercer.” The occupants are divided into castes, an inequality that leads to a rebellion that derails the train, seemingly leaving only two people alive to fight for humanity’s continued survival.
The film has a “scientifically credible premise,” according to climate scientist Jonathan Overpeck, dean of the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability. The “potential for geoengineering the planet’s climate, complete with inherent likelihood of mistakes, is already moving from science fiction to reality,” Overpeck told CNN. “But, most climate scientists feel it would make more sense, and be safer, to just move beyond fossil fuel burning, and create a more sustainable planet.”
8. Interstellar // 2014
The world has turned into a giant dust storm in Interstellar, slowly suffocating and starving people in the year 2063. In response, NASA sends four scientists through a wormhole to find a new habitable planet. The movie only gets trippier from there, with a plot that hinges on a black hole, future humans existing in five dimensions, and communication by gravity across vast distances of time and space. The movie’s astrophysics-based plot twists make it a unique entry in the cli-fi genre.
Yet Interstellar is based on a question that crops up often in cli-fi: if we destroy Earth beyond the point of repair, will we be able to find a new home? If that new home is a new planet, we might be able to find it—eventually. The problem is that it would take about 100,000 years without the wormhole used by the astronauts in the movie, explains Marcelo Gleiser, a theoretical physicist at Dartmouth College, in an op-ed for NPR. But, he adds, “if wormholes exist, if they have wide mouths, and if they can be kept open—three big but not impossible ‘ifs’—then it’s conceivable that we could travel through them to far-away spots in the universe.”
9. Mad Max Fury Road // 2015
The Earth is a dust cloud again in the desert landscape of Fury Road. A warlord, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), controls the water supply. His minions capture Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy), the former detective haunted by the people he couldn’t save when the world fell to pieces. During his escape, he is reluctantly caught up in a scheme led by the warrior Furiosa (Charlize Theron) to free Immortan Joe’s concubines. An extended chase ensues, as the warlord fights to get his wives back, while Furiosa and Max search for the “green place,” which sounds mythical to Max but is actually Furiosa’s birthplace.
The movie is a bit over the top, but not entirely wrong, according to Jay Famigletti, NASA's chief water expert. For example, he told KPCC, the deserts in the Southwest could expand as drought continues, and dust storms could become commonplace. “It's scary,” Famigletti said.
10. Geostorm // 2017
“Everyone was warned, but no one listened,” intones a somber voiceover in the opening scene of Geostorm. Extreme weather on an unprecedented scale hits Earth in 2019. Floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, and droughts come together to form a geostorm that threatens the planet’s existence. The crisis prompts scientists from 17 nations to collaborate on a scheme that tasks satellites with nebulous weather-regulating activities that are never fully explained in the film. All goes well until the rough-around-the-edges scientist who invented the system, Jake (Gerard Butler), is fired after telling off a senator during a hearing. Three years later, the space station controlling the satellites starts to fail, unleashing catastrophic weather on Earth and threatening another devastating geostorm. Jake returns to figure out why the satellite is malfunctioning so that he can save Earth.
The film builds on a real field of study, geoengineering research, that investigates how weather modification might slow climate change. But don’t expect geoengineers to solve our climate change problems, as they do in the movie. Techniques like cloud seeding might help lessen the severity of drought, for instance, but they won’t prevent droughts from occurring in the first place.
11. Don’t Look Up // 2021
Graduate student Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) is thrilled when she discovers an asteroid—until her Ph.D. advisor, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), runs a few numbers and sees that the asteroid is poised to destroy Earth. They immediately sound the alarm, even scoring a meeting with the president (Meryl Streep) and launching a press tour to urge apathetic leaders into action. A tech titan (Mark Rylance) then discovers the deadly asteroid is made of a rare mineral. Eventually, a mission to stop the collision without destroying the asteroid fails, dooming Earth.
Of course, Don’t Look Up is really about global warming and the forces that lack the will to avert climate disaster. The movie satirizes some disheartening facts: maintaining the status quo is profitable for politicians and businesses alike; people are more than happy to divert their attention from an impending apocalypse; and the entertainment industry builds its revenue models on viewers’ need for distraction.
Don’t Look Up is “the most accurate film about society’s terrifying non-response to climate breakdown I’ve seen,” climate scientist Peter Kalmus wrote in The Guardian. “Humanity needs stories that highlight the many absurdities that arise from collectively knowing what’s coming while collectively failing to act.”
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