How Disaster Movies Might End Up Actually Killing Us All

We face a certain doom of droughts, fires, floods and food shortages by 2040. Unfortunately, it isn't a problem Dwayne Johnson can yell at.

Independence Day
According to the UN, we face a certain doom of droughts, fires, floods and food shortages by 2040. Unfortunately, it isn’t a problem Dwayne Johnson can yell at. 20th Century Fox

The last time the end of the world made me feel something, it was 1996. Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day arrived that July in the wake of an incredibly effective, six-month marketing campaign, one that made its now-iconic shot of the White House exploding as inescapable as the Budweiser Frogs. Still, it didn’t dilute the impact of actually seeing it happen with THX sound, and as that grand portico splintered beneath an ice-blue laser beam, it was hard not to get a little dumbstruck—maybe even a little giddy.

It’s been more than two decades, yet I still remember the cheers and nervous laughter, followed by one man’s low, that’s-a-shame whistle. (It was Texas.) I was an 18-year-old punk kid at the peak of adolescent jadedness, but witnessing so many landmarks fall to aliens working their way through some intergalactic Rick Steves book, at a level of digital realism that had never been seen before, I actually felt the loss. And by the time Bill Pullman wrapped his tidy little Top Gun speech, rallying us to fight for our independence from being blown to shit, I felt ready to save the world.

Independence Day kicked off a golden age of annihilation as directors anted up to Emmerich’s example, smashing their new CGI toys against the complacency of the Clinton era. It was a cushy few years there between the Cold War and the War on Terror, and without any clear enemies to whale on, the nation channeled its latent rage into getting really into rap-rock, along with such an insatiable desire for disaster that Hollywood had to feed us competing volcano and asteroid movies. That all changed after 9/11—though perhaps not in the way we expected.

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Two weeks after the attacks, New Yorker critic Anthony Lane lamented the way our popcorn devastations—the kind of “indulgence that will always be extended to an epoch blessed with prosperity”—had left us unable to contextualize real-world horrors other than through Michael Bay movies. Lane even proposed that 9/11 should probably spell the end of the disaster movie, now that destruction was no longer just some masochistic fantasy. But really, it only encouraged the movies to amp it up.

In fact, a mere three years later, Emmerich was already laying waste to New York again, though it was well-intentioned. His The Day After Tomorrow took on the growing threat of catastrophic climate change, which here swoops down from the sky as suddenly as alien invaders, engulfing the world in floods, hail storms and tornadoes, while New York flash-freezes in minutes. Any sort of actionable, cautionary message was confined to an early scene where a climatologist, played by Dennis Quaid, warns a Dick Cheney doppelganger about ominous cracks in the ice shelf. And were Emmerich going for realism, the movie might have just ended there, with that guy chuckling his way home to cash his oil lobby checks. Instead, comeuppance arrives before the second reel, and the bulk of the movie is about Quaid snowshoeing across the Mid-Atlantic to rescue Jake Gyllenhaal, who’s been staving off the new Ice Age by burning books, which turns out to be a fairly apt summation of the film’s overall approach to science.

I didn’t feel much of anything watching The Day After Tomorrow or Emmerich’s follow-up, 2012, which only doubled down on the shaky science with its orgy of geological disasters, plus a soupcon of YouTube-kook conspiracy theory. Ditto just about all of the (admittedly awesome-looking) apocalypses our digital effects houses have dreamed up over the past decade-plus, from Armageddon to Avengers: Infinity War. But I’ve definitely been thinking a lot about them lately—along with the cumulative numbing effect of so many hours spent watching the world end—in the wake of the recent report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Their warning, delivered some 14 years after Dennis Quaid’s, is the same old same old: Barring immediate action, we face a certain doom of droughts, fires, floods and food shortages by 2040—a mere 22 years from now, just like the far-off future of 2018 was on that summer afternoon in 1996 I first saw Independence Day.

The Day After Tomorrow
The Day After Tomorrow 20th Century Fox

The devastation the IPCC predicts would certainly measure up to anything in Emmerich’s rubble-strewn imagination. Yet after the initial wave of somber panic and sardonic tweets, the report largely faded back into the everyday din, just another low-frequency hum in the ambient cacophony we’ve all grown inured to lately. A follow-up report—saying that, actually, our oceans are warming even faster than the UN predicted, so maybe shave a few more years off the clock—barely made a dent. Nor did the one released last week, which announced the total collapse of global wildlife populations over the last 40 years—a decline of 60 percent —as “a warning sign that nature is dying.” Of course, some will just shrug all of this off, secure in the belief that climate science is just a Chinese conspiracy. But even us snowflakes who’d prefer not to die over potable water met it with a kind of resigned acceptance.

You can chalk some of it up to the current surfeit of crises, many much more immediate. People are worried about getting through 2020, let alone 2040. But when it comes to climate change, especially, we’re simply ill-equipped to confront its enormity. As with 9/11, most of us can only picture that level of destruction by filtering it through our movie-fed imaginations. And those movies have not only inoculated us against cataclysm through monotonous repetition and a shiny, digital remove, they offer the reassuring delusion that it’s completely out of our hands. Surely we’ll be rescued last-minute by some kind of savior, be it superhero or Jeff Goldblum-y scientist. We’ll use our technological knowhow, or street-smart, American grit. And in our darkest hours, as Bill Pullman so eloquently urged, we will set aside our petty tribal differences. We will come together and survive, because we’re The Humans. We still have several more sequels planned for this franchise.

Or if we don’t, well, despair’s always an option. We could just start picking out cool dystopian costumes for the biker-bar wastelands of Mad Max, the perma-dreary urban blight of Blade Runner, or the, uh, water world of Waterworld. And sure, maybe Earth will become a curdling dust bowl or smog-choked landfill, but we can always escape to outer space, like in Wall-E, Elysium, or Interstellar—if we don’t just sort of ignore it, like in Idiocracy. But if we are stuck here in the ruins, our bleakest post-apocalyptic fantasies like The Road reassure us that, hey, at least we’ll get a lot more quality time with our families. Even The Day After Tomorrow and 2012 suggest climate change might be just the slate-cleaning fresh start we need to really focus on our relationships. Like the Cold War’s rash of nuclear armageddon movies such as Fail-Safe, The Day After and Threads, most of these movies are couched as cautionary tales. But they also take a uniformly fatalistic point of view, one that suggests we’re already well beyond salvation—so why worry about it now?

Can Hollywood Movies About Climate Change Make A Difference?The New York Times’ Melena Ryzik asked last year, posing the question to scientists and filmmakers alike. Everyone agreed that they definitely should, that using pop culture to engage people on climate change was often more effective than dry old science. But they also recognized that such pop culture is rarely any good, because it’s hard to spin impending environmental collapse in a way that’s sufficiently, y’know, grabby. The key, they say, is finding “the sweet spot between jolting and inspiring,” avoiding doom and gloom to offer glimmers of actionable hope—something not even documentaries like An Inconvenient Truth have accomplished. And because it’s so elusive, it’s why Hollywood still largely avoids the subject, or buries it in allegorical abstractions like Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! or Alex Garland’s Annihilation. Or in the case of last year’s Geostorm (directed by Emmerich’s Independence Day partner, Dean Devlin), they continue to treat it as a joke, dumbing climate change down to a problem Gerard Butler can yell at. Still, the Times panel concluded, we need to learn how to tell these kinds of stories better, and we need to do it fast.

The Day After Tomorrow
The Day After Tomorrow 20th Century Fox

Not to embrace despair myself, but I’m not convinced the movies are equipped to do it, at least not in their traditional language of bangs and whimpers. Although the emergent genre of “cli-fi” continues to explore fertile, experimental ground in novel form, the nature of movies (or the nature of selling them, anyway) still depends on the spectacular yet familiar, outsized awe underscored by the reassuring beats of storytelling. We demand that satisfying circle of the hero’s journey: the call to adventure, the confrontation, the transformation and triumphant return. But climate change isn’t an adventure. It’s a slow, creeping sickness—marked by extremes, but largely experienced as an incipient worsening. Confronting it is similarly an incremental, un-cinematic process that involves making difficult and humbling changes, both structural and personal, to our way of life. Even worse, we’re not the heroes. We’re the obstacle. You know, it’s not something you can cast Dwayne Johnson in.

Unfortunately, climate change movies already have made a difference. They’ve conditioned us to think of it solely in the extremes of postapocalyptic badlands and Geostorms. They’ve made catastrophe seem both inevitable and insurmountable—not to mention, kind of inconsequential—which absolves us of the burden of thinking about it at all. We know there’s no deus ex machina coming to save us; if there is a God, surely he’s one pissed-off landlord at this point. We know our own genius scientists are currently devoting their towering intellects to building their brands, in between flame wars and meetings of the mind with Joe Rogan. And as for the fantasy that, when the chips are down, we’ll surely stop our bickering for the common good, take a quick spin through Twitter sometime. (Start with my mentions.) We know better, yet we can’t escape the narcissistic delusion that we’ll somehow endure, nurtured by these stories we love to tell ourselves.

Perhaps the most salient film about climate change I’ve seen lately—possibly the most effective one I’ve ever seen—doesn’t feature the toppling of a single landmark. In Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, Ethan Hawke plays a troubled priest who’s awakened to impending environmental disaster and slowly radicalized, as the film chronicles the corrosive effect it has on what’s left of his faith. It’s a movie that forces us to sit with this unease for long stretches, Hawke’s attempts to maintain a serene façade juxtaposed with late-night Google-holes of melting polar ice caps. Its most haunting scene isn’t of destruction, but a quiet conversation he has with one of his parishioners: an activist who wants his wife to get an abortion, because he can’t bear the thought of bringing a child into a world bent so inexorably on destroying itself. Their dialogue is thorny. The man despondently cites his facts and thermal charts, paralyzed by an all-consuming fugue. Hawke offers bromides about mankind always being tested by the darkness, but avers that the very essence of life is finding hope within despair—to allow both of those competing impulses to coexist within ourselves, and there find the way forward.

It’s the kind of conversation, in all its unsatisfying contradiction and complexity, that too few movies want to have. It remains to be seen whether any of the films currently in the pipeline will find room for that kind of nuance, or forsake those comfortingly familiar tropes—films like Neill Blomkamp’s upcoming Greenland, which purports to be a tale of “one family’s fight for survival in the face of a cataclysmic natural disaster.” (Hiring Captain America himself, Chris Evans, to head that family suggests it probably won’t.) But it’s something the movies of our hastening future might be forced to confront more often, provided we still have the resources to make them.

By then, maybe we’ll have finally had enough of the end of the world—and be ready to talk about how the hell we’re going to live in it. How Disaster Movies Might End Up Actually Killing Us All