Dear James Cameron, Darren Aronofsky, Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon:
I have a question for you: Where is cinema's first great climate-change blockbuster? Where is the Titanic of global warming?
You are all on-the-record supporters of action in the climate arena. So where is the movie that will allow tens of millions of otherwise ambivalent citizens to viscerally experience the world we are in the process of creating, the world we are in the process of leaving for our grandchildren? You know as well as I that all hands are needed on deck at this juncture. You know far better than I that, culturally speaking, nothing is able to move so many so quickly as a powerful narrative effectively rendered on the big screen.
I understand, Mr. Aronofsky, that you see Noah as a climate parable (as does Gareth Edwards with Godzilla), yet, with the exception of Day After Tomorrow (which, by the way, grossed almost $600 million in 2004 dollars), not a single major studio production has directly taken on what is, after all, a true-life epic-in-progress. I have some guesses as to why this may be.
Challenge #1 -- Climate change is not time sensitive.
An earthquake, a tornado, a volcano. A nuclear meltdown, an Earth-bound meteor, an alien invasion. A sinking ship! These events unfold over minutes, hours and days. A cast of characters is introduced, pre-disaster. We get to know them, to empathize, to identify.
Then it happens! The earth rumbles and splits, the spaceships appear, the meteor hurtles. Our people must jump into action, no time to lose! Decisions must be made, and they had better be made quickly and well. Heroic acts must be executed, and they had better be executed with precision and courage. Inevitably, sacrifices must be made: Who (of a certain age) can forget Reverend Frank Scott plummeting from the burning valve in The Poseidon Adventure or Jack Dawson voluntarily dying of hypothermia in Titanic?
Time is compressed and so the tension is compressed. The outcome may be in doubt but we know that it will be quickly resolved, for good or for ill.
And then there's Climate Change.
Time Sensitive? Not so much. It unfolds in years, decades and centuries. Of course, scientists warn us in pulling-their-hair-out frustration that the current rate of destabilization is hundreds and thousands times faster than has ever occurred in natural, geologic time. Sorry, scientists...no dice, not when it comes to movie-making. Our reptilian brains remain unimpressed. What are we gonna do -- sit breathless, watching scenes of the Siberian permafrost thaw? Are we supposed to care as our heroes painstakingly measure the acceleration of the Greenland ice melt?
Challenge #2 -- Climate change is not "in-your-face."
It's pretty hard to miss a 90-foot wave, an F-5 tornado or a twenty-foot killer shark. We see it, we get it, we know what it means: "Danger! Run for our lives!" Our dinosaur-aged fight-or-flight brains engage; adrenaline pumps, knuckles whiten. You or I may never need to outmaneuver a torrent of molten lava, but we're on the edge of our seats as our on-screen proxies attempt to do so.
How "in-your-face" is climate change? Well, let's compare. On screen number one we have Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton taking refuge under a bridge as an Oz-worthy tornado approaches in all of its sinuous, cow-tossing menace. On screen number two, Leonardo DiCaprio gazes plaintively skyward, knowing that atmospheric levels of invisible-to-the-naked-eye carbon dioxide have crossed 400 parts per million for the first time in four million years.
I'm a passionate, educated climate change writer and activist for goodness sake, but I gotta go with Bill and Helen under the bridge.
So...hmmm. On the one hand we have a rapidly developing real-life existential threat to civilization that sure could use a blockbuster movie or two to motivate the masses and -- hey, why not -- let's double that Day After Tomorrow box-office while we're at it. On the other hand, we have a subject matter that has, until now, been a tough nut to crack big-screen-translation-wise.
Geeze, wouldn't it be nice if somebody, somewhere would come up with a screenplay that could solve this cinematic koan?
Well, as luck would have it, I happen to know a climate writer and activist who has crafted just such a screenplay; rife with compressed tension and imagery guaranteed to engage our reptilian brains. (Geo-engineering! Collapsing sea-walls! Jellyfish -- lots of jellyfish!) Just now, he happens to be busy finishing up an article about the challenges of making a climate blockbuster, but he should be free quite momentarily.