BY Lewis Gordon in Opinion | 02 JAN 20

The New Normal: How Hollywood Depicted the Decade of Extreme Weather

In the 2010s, cinema grappled with the most tangible effects of the climate crisis 

BY Lewis Gordon in Opinion | 02 JAN 20

Denis Villeneuve, Blade Runner: 2049, 2017. Courtesy: Alcon Entertainment

2017’s Blade Runner: 2049 opens with an airborne vehicle gliding through a stark Californian landscape of unending solar panels and poly-tunnelled fields. Delicate crops grow in strictly controlled environments, shielded from the transformed atmosphere, while a single emaciated tree is roped to the barren earth. As this speculative future unfurls, the screen fills with oppressive immovable rain, choking orange dust and perhaps strangest of all, thick carpets of snow, a far cry from the sunshine-soaked Golden State we know today.

Christopher Nolan, Interstellar, 2014. Courtesy: Paramount Pictures

In January 2019, The New York Times reported that we’re living through ‘the age of weather extremes.’ As of this writing, drought and raging wildfires are scorching Australia and tundra-like cold is gripping the American Midwest. Rocketing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is pushing up temperatures to previously unimaginable levels, causing the heat that leads to wildfires, while sub-zero temperatures in the US might be explained by changes in the Gulf Stream caused by a warming Arctic. ‘Broadly speaking,’ Somini Sengupta continued, ‘a hotter planet makes extreme weather more frequent and more intense.’

Meteorological anxieties hit the mainstream in the 1990s and 2000s with a raft of ‘cli-fi’ (climate fiction) disaster movies including Twister (1996), A Perfect Storm (2000) and The Day After Tomorrow (2004). These big-budget, high-octane popcorn flicks depicted extreme wind, rain and snow as freak events not yet imperilling everyday life. While the 2010s saw more of such schlock with 2017’s woeful Geostorm and the undercooked 2019 monster-disaster hybrid Crawl (in which crocodiles terrorise a Florida town during a massive hurricane), for the most part the decade’s films felt imbued with an almost depressive acceptance, as if extreme weather was simply the new normal. It seems fitting, ten years after the release of An Inconvenient Truth (2006) – which struck the quaintly hopeful note that climate crisis might be avoided altogether if we simply halt our emissions and plant more carbon-sucking vegetation – that Blade Runner: 2049 should opt for such bleak realism.

George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road, 2015. Courtesy: Warner Bros. 

Agrarian anxieties took on greater significance in the 2014 sci-fi drama Interstellar. Dusty earth is starved of rainwater and ravaged by an opaquely referenced blight. The film was criticised for the answers it offered to such environmental questions – essentially an epic Elon Musk-esque space colonisation mission helmed by the tough but sensitive Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) – but it grasped the emotional intensity of a family ripped apart by worsening environmental conditions. In the film’s arguably most affecting scene, Cooper watches years of recorded videos from his family members who have aged quicker than him while back on earth. ‘I guess I’m letting you go,’ says his son (Casey Affleck) across millions of miles, bringing the cosmic mission back down to earth. 

If Interstellar looks to expanding horizons for solutions, Snowpiercer (2013) and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) envision a world contracting as humans band together in the face of upended atmospheric conditions. Extreme weather has the power to make large tracts of land uninhabitable, beginning with coastal areas battered by increasingly frequent, superpowered storms to drought and desertification which could affect a quarter of the world by 2050 if the global temperature rises by two degrees. ‘The earth, for humans, has begun to shrink,’ wrote Bill McKibben in The New Yorker. ‘Under our feet and in our minds.’

Denis Villeneuve, Blade Runner: 2049, 2017. Courtesy: Alcon Entertainment

Mad Max: Fury Road’s apocalyptic wasteland is home to isolated cities warring with one another like medieval fiefdoms (horses swapped for bruising drag racers) while its peasant class subsist on great water drops dispensed by their rulers. Director George Miller’s climatic nightmare imagines a new dark age of drought-inducing heat and ferocious sunlight. In Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, the world has frozen over due to overzealous geoengineering attempts to reverse global warming. What’s left, following all but the total extinction of life, is a railway train brimming with violent class tension as it hurtles through Arctic wilds. The great unwashed occupy the back carriages, eking out an existence on protein blocks made of pulverised insects and sleeping rough in bleakly industrial quarters. The train’s one percent, meanwhile, enjoy a gilded life of freshly caught ‘sustainable’ sushi, schools and even nightclubs.

These newly compressed spaces function not only as bulwarks against bracing weather but microscopes to examine systems entangled within the climate crisis. ‘It’s not humans per se, but capitalism that’s destroying the environment,’ Bong told Gizmodo. ‘If we could control human greed, that would go a long way towards slowing down our ongoing environmental disaster.’ The Korean filmmaker’s views resonated with Naomi Klein’s influential mid-decade polemic This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, as well as a raft of speculative fiction from authors such as Kim Stanley Robinson and Sam J. Miller. In the latter’s Blackfish City (2018), the titular Arctic setting is ruled by mysterious shareholders; even in the harshest conditions, Miller wagered, capitalism finds a means of survival.

Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild, 2012. Courtesy: Fox Searchlight Pictures; photograph: Jess Pinkham

One of the decade’s most perceptive and surprisingly optimistic works – Benh Zeitlin’s 2012 eco-fable Beasts of the Southern Wild – views the climate crisis as an environmental justice issue. Winners survive, thrive and even profit from these disasters while others – usually divided along the lines of class and race – bear the harshest brunt. Unlike the ‘cli-fi’ of the past, its extreme weather didn’t just pose an indiscriminate threat but endangered a particularly marginalised group of Louisiana islanders. Ostracised from dry land – whose polluting factories we catch a glimpse of – its closely knit survivors endure the swirling, blackened skies of a Hurricane Katrina-like storm and even a gang of unruly aurochs (long-extinct bison-like animals released from the melting ice caps). Writers Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar didn’t find meaning in the stars, miserable apocalyptic futures or the shock of extreme weather, but the perspective of a small child fighting for her future. ‘They think we’re all gonna drown here,’ says the six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), unwavering in her resolution and, ultimately, hope. ‘But we ain’t going nowhere.’

Lewis Gordon is a UK-based technology and culture writer. His work appears in outlets such as Vice, The Verge, and The AV Club.