Don’t Look Up has been a much discussed movie in climate change circles, a movie that is very obviously about climate change despite not mentioning it. It relies instead on a plot about an inbound meteorite that people are either panicking about or refusing to acknowlege. It’s a good satire and I enjoyed it, and it was interesting to hear director Adam McKay talk about it. He says that he feels the urgency of climate change “in my bones”, and that he can’t imagine making movies in future that don’t relate in some way to the climate crisis.
But while we wait for more from Mister McKay, what other movies are there that do something similar?
I’m not talking about climate documentaries, of which there are many and of varying quality. And I’m not talking about disaster epics such as The Day After Tomorrow, or the more recent Geostorm, either. I’m interested in movies that have something to say, that raise good questions, that wrestle with the climate conundrum. Here are a handful:
Woman at War – I’ll start with one of my favourite films of recent years, a somewhat unlikely Icelandic comedy thriller about eco-terrorism. It’s hard to pigeon-hole this film, but it neatly contrasts its scenes of subterfuge and sabotage with ordinary life and moments of surreal humour. It asks what we owe future generations, and how we can best make a difference. As a foreign language indie film, it’s not been as widely seen as some things on this list, but you won’t regret tracking it down.
Downsizing – what if we could shrink ourselves in order to literally reduce our environmental footprint? That’s what motivates Matt Damon’s character to minaturise himself in this slightly strange movie, though other characters shrink themselves so that their money goes further and they can live like kings. Not a movie that lives us to its premise, in my opinion, and it’s better at the beginning than the end. Nonetheless, it’s a unique idea that takes in ideas about social justice, environmentalism, and how opinions about them differ within relationships.
Beasts of the Southern Wild – Downsizing takes middle class eco-guilt as a starting point, and Beasts of the Southern Wild is a useful counterpoint to that climate privilege. This is a movie from the wrong side of the levee, in a place that will cease to exist as sea levels rise, shot with first-time actors and in collaboration with the community it portrays. It’s also joyful, fantastical, and features one of the most extraordinary child actor performances ever captured on film.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind – another film that centers those most affected by climate change, in this case the true story of a farming family in rural Malawi. Climate change provides an unnamed backdrop as the family struggle with drought, famine, and the impossible decisions it brings about which meal to forego, or who gets to go to school. Hope comes in the form of a home-made wind turbine, built against the odds by a 12 year old boy with a book on renewable energy from the school library. When its blades turn for the first time, and the water runs into his DIY irrigation system and out to the dusty fields, I cried. Not a sad movie overall though, and my kids love it too.
Noah – a lot of people took this as a Biblical epic in the Hollywood tradition and then didn’t know what to make of the movie. But it’s Darren Aronofsky, who made Black Swan and The Fountain – it was never going to be Sunday School. The movie takes the Great Flood mythology as a jumping off point to reflect on consumption vs stewardship of nature, and how we respond to the threat of apocalypse. It asks whether the coming disaster is deserved, whether we are all complicit, where the balance of mercy and justice might lie, and rolls it all into a visually ambitious mess of a movie that I rather like.
Snowpiercer – The ark is a train and not a boat, but Snowpiercer is also a Noah story in its own way. It’s now a series on Netflix that I haven’t seen, but first it was a movie from Korean director Bong Joon Ho – and before that a French graphic novel. Violent, claustrophobic and moving at breakneck speed, it explores how disaster divides along class lines, and how environmental justice and social justice are intertwined.
Mother! – Darren Aronofsky again, with a far darker film than Noah. It’s also a Bible story of sorts, with prototypical Adam and Eve figures disturbing the peace of a mother nature character and her poet husband in their remote country mansion. There’s an allegory here for the neglect and abuse of the earth, disguised in a movie that is part marital drama, part psychotic horror. This is film-making that intends to shock and unsettle, so this is very much not for everyone. It’s also rather undermined by its pretentiousness. Nevertheless, as an artistic statement on the cosmic violence of extractivist capitalism, it deserves a place on this list.
First Reformed – Finally, one for those with the patience for a slow-burning character-driven drama. First Reformed follows a priest who is disturbed by the eco-anxiety of an activist who he is called to help, leading him to question his own faith in a world that seems God-forsaken in its divisions and disasters. It’s a film with a strict visual formality that is interrupted by both incidents of violence and self-destruction, and moments of transcendent grace.
I’m sure there are more. What have I missed? Drop your recommendations in the comments below.