Film Industry X Climate Change

Exploring the Positive & Negative Effects of Hollywood Narratives on Audience’s Perception of Climate Change

by Jenica C.

The Show Must Go On

As the 2020 pandemic slowly starts to subside and businesses open up again, audiences will head back to the cinema to be entertained by superheroes, epic fantasy worlds, comedic adventurers, and memorable characters. We will laugh with the sidekick as they play pranks on their friends, we will cry with the heartbroken lover, and we will cheer when the hero vanquishes their enemy and saves the world. Movies can leave a lasting impact on us. They reflect and reinforce our society’s values and traditions (Shah, 2011), but they also provide a space to encounter new perspectives and narratives. As we start to see the effects of climate change and increasing media coverage of the resulting environmental destruction, climate change will take up more space in our society’s narratives. ‘Attention to this issue in mainstream media is likely to grow stronger as the reality of a changing climate comes home.’ (McGreavy and Lindenfeld, 2014). The following report will look into the connections between movies about climate change and how they may shape the audience’s worldview hopefully leading to action that helps mitigate climate change. But first, let’s take a closer look at this climate thing.

(Luhaers, 2018)

“Though films can’t fix the problems, they can start a conversation and most importantly they can educate people. Education and knowledge are the greatest tools in the effort to make our society more sustainable.” Rachel Hampton
Apocalypse Now

In simplest terms, climate change refers to the rapid warming of the planet mainly due to the burning of fossil fuels. This emits greenhouse gases that act like a blanket covering the Earth and trapping heat within the atmosphere (UN Climate Action, n.d.). The tricky bit is that this doesn’t mean the Earth is just getting a little hotter; our Earth is a dynamic, complex system. A change in one pattern, influences changes in another, think of it as the Butterfly Effect. Sometimes the effects are felt in places far away or the consequences of a change are delayed so it’s not always easy to make the connection. The UN’s Climate Action report tells us, “The consequences of climate change now include, among others, intense droughts, water scarcity, severe fires, rising sea levels, flooding, melting polar ice, catastrophic storms and declining biodiversity.” This can make it challenging to communicate to audiences with different knowledge backgrounds and interests. But wait, it gets worse…

Some Like It Hot

As of 2015 human activity has pushed the planetary boundary of climate change beyond the safe operating space and into the zone of uncertainty (Stockholm Resilience Centre, n.d.: Planetary boundaries). The Zone of Uncertainty! It sounds like an old Alfred Hitchcock or a Stanley Kubrick movie. Or, the next fright-nite flick to hit the big screen. However, the truth is much more frightening than that. Our planet is already 1.1°C warmer than it was pre-industrial levels and, ‘We are not on track to meet the Paris Agreement target to keep global temperatures from exceeding 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. That is considered the upper limit to avoid the worst fallout from climate change.’ (UN Climate Action, n.d.). In fact, we are already experiencing the effects of climate change.

CC BY 4.0

Credit: “Azote for Stockholm Resilience Centre, based on analysis in Persson et al 2022 and Steffen et al 2015”

The Perfect Storm

As we have seen, climate change is one of the most pressing issues of our time, but it is also a money-making plot line for Hollywood action movies starring A-list celebrities. In fact, an entire genre has been created around climate change called ‘Cli-fi,’ short for climate fiction. The term has been accredited to journalist Dan Bloom who coined it as a literary sub-genre of science fiction (Chameides, 2013). It describes fiction writing that uses climate change as a major plot device. As we are already seeing the effects of climate change, it ‘is the increasingly pressing context for stories about extreme weather, energy, business, finance, real estate, politics, food, travel, and even the arts.’ (Guenther cited in Widdicombe, 2020). As cli-fi has solidified its legitimacy as a separate genre, many films with themes of climate change now fall into this category. Furthermore, several sources show that ‘the general public gains most of its knowledge about science from the mass media’ (Andi, n.d.). This means we have an unique opportunity to educate, raise awareness and develop our narratives around climate change for a large audience.

Methodology: The methodology for this investigation consists of a literature review of academic and popular sources. The Day After Tomorrow has several papers discussing different aspects of its effects on audience perception around climate change and will constitute the main focus of this analysis. For more recent movies an analysis of popular sources, critical reviews and audience reviews was conducted.

Awards & Nominations
Audience Review

Jack Hall, an American paleoclimatologist stationed in Antarctica,  discovers that a huge ice sheet has broken off. This event will trigger a massive climate shift that will effect the entire Earth. In the meantime, his son Sam attends an event in New York City. The city is experiencing a continuous three day long rain storm while a series of weather-related disasters begin to occur all over the world. It becomes evident the world is seeing a rapid change in climate and is about to enter a new Ice Age. Jack sets off on a daring attempt to rescue his son in New York City as Sam fights to survive a massive wave and killer freezing cold temperatures. (IMDb, n.d.)

Nominated Best Science Fiction Film by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films

Winner of the Environmental Media Award’s Feature Film

(IMDb, n.d.)

8/10 “Definitely not scientifically accurate but I love it anyway.”

At the end of the movie, in the drain, the wind blows in the same direction before and after the eye. After the eye, the direction should be reversed. (IMDb, n.d.)

Climate change threatens to destroy the Earth. In response, the governments of the world unite and create the Dutch Boy Program. The program is a web of interconnected satellites that are armed with geoengineering technologies. After three successful years disrupting natural disasters the program starts to fail. The solution: ‘two estranged brothers are tasked with solving the program’s malfunction before a world wide Geostorm can engulf the planet.’ (IMDb, n.d.)


6/10 “Yes, it is a *bad* movie, but it’s a GOOD bad movie.”

Dubai is threatened by a tsunami. Tsunamis are caused by earthquakes, not the weather. (IMDb, n.d.)

Kate, an astronomy grad student, and her mentor, professor Dr. Randall, discover a comet on a direct collision course with Earth. Kate and Randall set off on a comical media tour that takes them from the office of an indifferent President to the TV set of The Daily Rip, an upbeat morning show. ‘With only six months until the comet makes impact, managing the 24-hour news cycle and gaining the attention of the social media-obsessed public before it’s too late proves shockingly comical – what will it take to get the world to just look up?’ (Netflix, n.d.)

Nominated for Best Motion Picture of the Year and Best Original Screenplay by The Academy Awards

Nominated for Best Film, Best Screenplay, and Best Actor at the BAFTAs

Nominated for Best Motion Picture, Best Screenplay and Best Actor/Actress at the Golden Globes

Nominated for Outstanding Performance by a Cast at the SAG Awards

(IMDb, n.d.)

8/10 “Funny and chillingly accurate, and plausible.”

When Kate Dibiasky sees the comet and is on the phone, she says to look at the North Star and Venus, and it is right there. Venus is never near the North Star. Also, it is visible only on the horizon within a few hours of sunrise or sunset.

(IMDb, n.d.)

Arguably one of the best-known films is The Day After Tomorrow (TDAT), released in 2004 starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Dennis Quaid. Therefore, this movie will be used as a case study. The movie caused heated debate around the accuracy of its portrayal of extreme weather caused by climate change. Many websites were started after the movie was released attempting to dispel the scientific inaccuracies in the movie and to answer viewer questions. Although this sounds like positive attention and engagement with climate change, it also played into the hands of the vocal minority of climate change sceptics. To sceptics, the over-dramatization of climate change in the movie and the uncertainty among scientists about the likelihood of the events depicted in TDAT proves that the issue is purposefully exaggerated to ‘hide failings in climate science.’ Therefore, to the sceptics, more research is needed before being able to say global warming is certain, thus delaying crucial policy action. As Von Burg (2012) ascertains, ‘Dramatics should not mask the larger truth that global warming is a real danger.’ However, the movie did end up making climate scientists’ jobs harder because they now had to choose their words and phrases so carefully when discussing the movie to avoid the onslaught of deniers who regularly hijacked the conversation. 

On the more positive side, researchers were able to demonstrate through a series of surveys that TDAT not only increased the audience’s awareness of climate change, but also the ‘advancement in the individual understanding of the scientific and political complexities, and potential social impacts, associated with future climate change.’ (Lowe et al, 2006) Participants were questioned immediately after watching the movie and again three months later. Although the effects of the movie had faded, they had not entirely vanished. Interesting insights were given as to the potential to inspire action toward the mitigation of climate change among the respondents. Firstly, the source of climate change matters. Viewers understand the necessary exaggeration to make an action/ cli-fi blockbuster, but simultaneously want to understand the real facts of the matter. For this purpose, they described a documentary-style film produced by a reputable source such as the BBC as more trustworthy and believable. The second insight was that ‘the individuals who participated in this study do not feel they have access to information on what action they can take or the opportunity in their daily lives to individually or collectively implement change’ (Lowe et al., 2006). Cli-fi movies seem to be attracting a different audience than climate change documentaries.  

(Source: Lowe et al. 2006, p. 444)

Geostorm, was released in 2017 with less than stellar reviews. Critical reviews ranged from lukewarm to disappointing. Everything from the writing, to the CGI effects to the acting, was criticized (Brameso, 2017; Eggert 2017; Scott, 2017; THR, 2017). One reviewer described it as ‘dumber than a street full of hailstones’ (Bramesco, 2017). Ouch. Some reviews mentioned the portrayal of global warming in the movie, but noted that it got lost in the theatrics of the movie. The Geostorm audience didn’t have anything better to say either. Sifting through reviews revealed hardly a mention of climate change. The majority of moviegoers did not connect the depictions of climate change in the movie to the climate change in reality (IMDb, n.d.; RottenTomatoes, n.d.). Geostorm was considered just an entertaining, albeit poorly executed disaster movie by its audience.

Most recently, Don’t Look Up (DLU) was released on Netflix in December 2021. Although the movie revolves around two astrophysicists discovering a comet on a collision course with Earth and their futile attempts to alert governments and the general public, it is clearly an allegory for how we, as a society, are dealing with climate change. Nonetheless, this makes the movie an interesting subject to try and gauge audience perceptions from critical reviews and viewership data. DLU produced two very different reactions among viewers. When looking at critical reviews DLU received mostly negative reviews and was viciously attacked in the news media (Gewertz, 2022) despite racking up about 360 million viewing hours and becoming Netflix’s second most popular film debut to date (Keck, 2022). There was vocal opposition to its depiction of society’s handling of the climate crisis as exemplified by an opinion piece in The LA Times. Goldberg (2022) rejects the notion that there isn’t enough coverage of climate change in popular media asserting any more would amount to hysteria. To close out his argument the author states climate change does not pose an existential threat. Burke (2022) gave the movie a poor review as well, but this is because ‘This movie reflects far too much of what is happening right now, and so does not offer escapism through art – it just reminds us of our own present failings as a society.’ Unlike Geostorm audiences, DLU audiences definitely made the connection between the movie’s portrayal of how society deals with an existential threat and how our society is currently handling the climate crisis. A few comments popped up here and there explaining the movie was about ‘climate scare tactics, nonsense,’  but most criticisms centered around what reviewers felt was the moralistic nature of how the content was presented and that this was very off-putting (IMDb, n.d.; Rotten Tomatoes, n.d.). 

We Need To Talk About Climate Change

‘Overwhelmingly the stories and narratives around climate change are negative and play off of people’s fears and anxieties’ (Guyathri, 2018). This was already confirmed by Lowe’s (2006) survey in which some participants experienced heightened climate-anxiety after watching TDAT. Although it had an effect on the audience’s perception, it did not translate into profound engagement with climate change mitigation action. Other cli-fi movies had seemingly little effect according to audience reviews. DLU garnered record-making viewership and generated a heated debate, but again it seemingly had little effect on audience perception. Going by Lowe’s survey results for TDAT it seems unlikely it would have. So what seems to be good movie-making practice and good for attracting box office sales, may not be the best strategy for shaping our mindset about climate change. Maybe it’s time for a new story. ‘People are much more likely to act when future scenarios are placed in a positive light, emphasizing terms such as “resilience,” “sustainability,” and “nature-based solutions.’ Maggie Messerschmidt (cited in Vaidyanathan, 2018).

Movies such as Tomorrow, released in 2016 and 2040, released in 2019, have been released that have a positive, hopeful, and solution oriented narrative however, these are documentaries and not fictional narratives. That’s not to say these movies are not impactful or needed, on the contrary, Lowe’s (2006) survey clearly demonstrated that participants wanted to know more about concrete actions they could take to help fight climate change. ‘It’s difficult to know where you are going if you don’t have a clear vision of what that [future] should look like, in particular, a positive vision that you could get excited about and motivated to really make a transformative change’ says Timon McPhearson (cited in Vaidyanathan, 2018). So, there is something to be said about the intangible movie magic of stories that help shape the mindscapes of society; the deep structures of myths and metaphors that act as accelerators of change. And it’s precisely these we desperately need more of. ‘Only a story can beat a story’ (Solitaire, 2018). We must tell the tale of the underdog hero overcoming the climate change monster instead of being overwhelmed by the monster of our own creation. The ‘90s animated series Captain Planet, as well as Marvel’s cinematic universe, come to mind as a blueprint

‘So that solving climate change becomes the greatest story of the 21st century.’ (Solitaire, 2018)

Andi, S. (n.d.). How People Acces News About Climate Change. Digital News Report, accessed 6.19.22

Beattie, Geoffrey & Sale, Laura & Mcguire, Laura. (2011). An inconvenient truth? Can a film really affect psychological mood and our explicit attitudes towards climate change?. Semiotica. 2011. 10.1515/semi.2011.066. 

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Images & Figures:

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