While the perils of inaction on climate change play out politically worldwide, a recent spate of environmental disaster movies have tapped into our continuing abuse of the planet and the possible ramifications of its total collapse. Mankind has long been its own worst enemy, and films that expose our innate fear of what might come if we fail to look after our great blue planet are no new fad.
We take a look at some of the new and not-so-new climate change dystopias, or ‘cli-fi’ films, to see how they’ve have dealt with the many dumb ways to mess with our habitat.
Pollution suffocates the Earth
Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar depicts a dusty world choking to death that can no longer sustain crops. While it owes a huge visual debt to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and does eventually take us into the stars, Nolan’s flick is initially more focused on the desperate race for survival at ground level.
Almost all of Earth’s inhabitants have been forced into farming the land, making do with what they can salvage from increasingly barren soils, while space travel has been officially abandoned. It’s bleak stuff indeed, so no wonder Matthew McConaughey’s former NASA astronaut Cooper high tails it outta there the second he stumbles on a secret space mission, hoping to find a new planet to colonise via a handy wormhole, thereby saving his family.
Blade Runner (1982)
Ridley Scott’s seminal Blade Runner has a fair bit in common with Interstellar, in that industrial pollution on a grand scale has prompted ecological ruin, with those in the money having long since abandoned Earth as droid-like blimps intone: “A new life awaits you in the off-world colonies.”
Who can forget the truly iconic nightmare vision of Los Angeles as a sprawling metropolis laid bare beneath scorched skies, with the constant downpour of polluted rain soaking the dirty ground-level slums of this terrifying future? Harrison Ford has never looked so world-weary, and neither has the world in which he inhabits. While everyone’s trying to get off-world, he’s stuck hunting down killer replicants with a probably fairly well deserved beef with the humans who’ve trashed everything in the first place.
Global warming gone mad
The Rover (2014)
Gradually getting fried to death is a regular cli-fi theme, with David Michôd’s The Rover depicting a badly sunburnt Australia where martial law can barely keep up with the criminal underworld. The economy has collapsed and oil is a rare commodity worth dying for. It’s every man for himself, especially Guy Pearce’s surly driver who really doesn’t appreciate his car getting nicked by US hick import Henry (Scoot McNairy), so he kidnaps Henry’s injured and abandoned brother Rey (Robert Pattinson), sparking an off-beat road movie with vengeance in mind.
Mad Max (1979)
Long before his infamous anti-Semitic road rage rant, Mel Gibson starred in George Miller’s cult classic as the leather-clad Max, a policeman tired of trying to maintain the law in a similarly post-apocalypse outback wracked by marauders. Again, it’s all about protecting what little you have left, with plenty of visceral thrills to be had here, and in its two sequels. Soon to be re-booted with Miller once again at the helm, non-Aussie Tom Hardy claims the Gibson role in next year’s Mad Max: Fury Road.
A Boy And His Dog (1975)
The idea that our polluting ways may lead to mankind becoming sterile is another recurring idea. Adapted from a Harlan Ellison novella, L.Q. Jones’ bizarrely dark tale of a sexually abusive boy, Vince (Don Johnson), and his telepathic hound, Blood (voiced by Tim McIntire), depicts a nuclear-ravaged surface, with most of the planet’s population cowering below surface in domed cities where strict population control is enforced via artificial insemination. No more sex makes survival of the human race hardly seem worth it.
Children of Men (2006)
Far more serious in tone, Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, adapted from the PD James novel, posits a world teetering on the edge thanks to anarchic terrorists and sadistic soldiers, when no more babies being born leads to a bitter fear of dying out. When Clive Owen’s disillusioned Theo stumbles upon the first pregnant woman in years, Claire-Hope Ashitey’s terrified Kee, he sets out on a mission to lead her to safety through the hellhole Britain has become. With hope at its core, despite the bleak outlook, it’s an instant classic.
Technology dooms us all
The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1962)
Our constant technological tampering is another mainstay of doomed world sagas. In The Day the Earth Caught Fire, simultaneous nuclear testing at both Poles jolts the planet out of orbit, causing dramatic weather disturbances and rather alarming global warming as the Earth drifts hopelessly towards the sun. Starring Edward Judd in his breakout role, it’s a sobering tale of the consequences of the machinery of war.
Bong Joon-ho’s first English language film, the maniacally genius Snowpiercer takes a clever twist on the haywire technology theme. A man-made effort to control global warming goes horribly wrong, freezing the planet to the point of human annihilation. The sole survivors, including a wonderfully barmy Tilda Swinton, Cap’n America Chris Evans and sci-fi legend John Hurt, cluster together in super-powered train that’s a class war waiting to go off the rails.
Weather gone mad
The Day After Tomorrow (2004)
Roland Emmerich loves a good (bad) disaster movie, but while 2012’s Mayan curse shtick was a bit flimsy, The Day After Tomorrow goes all out with stormy weather, as climate change ushers in a new Ice Age. Unfortunately, the destruction peaks too soon, then it’s downhill from there as Jake Gyllenhaal, Dennis Quaid and Emmy Rossum struggle to survive the snowy boredom that ensues.
In the grand daddy of all climate disaster movies, violent storms and a portentous solar eclipse herald imminent destruction by way of a series of tsunamis that devastate the Earth. New York is completely destroyed by a massive tidal wave in a truly iconic cinematic moment that Emmerich’s clearly indebted to, and is often cited as the first big screen destruction of The Big Apple. Following the devastation, a rag tag bunch of survivors begin to rebuild civilisation.