Beyond Imagination, But Not Beyond Reality: 10 Must-Watch Climate Fiction Films | Savoir Flair
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Beyond Imagination, But Not Beyond Reality: 10 Must-Watch Climate Fiction Films
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by Sarah Haddad 5-minute read May 8, 2024

You know it's serious when we create a whole movie genre about it. Meet "cli-f  i."

Documentaries remain a vital tool in educating us on climate change, providing in-depth insights into the realities of what is happening and the actions we can take. However, the power of narrative films, or "cli-fi," should not be underestimated. These fictional representations weave critical environmental themes into engaging stories, making the abstract and often overwhelming issue of climate change more urgent. Through these disaster flicks and their dramatic depictions of future dystopias and planetary catastrophes, cli-fi films complement documentaries by reaching a broader audience, sparking imagination, and, crucially, motivating action. For instance, research conducted by Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication – taken before and after the release of the film The Day After Tomorrowfound that viewers of the film showed increased concern about climate change and a heightened interest in taking political action around the issue, highlighting the film's impactful message. 

Below, we share our favorite climate fiction films and TV shows – all a must-watch for their powerful portrayals of potential futures for our planet and what that means for humanity today.

Okja (2017), directed by Bong Joon-ho of Parasite (2019) and Snowpiercer (2013), explores the tale of a young girl, Mija, and her genetically modified super-pig, Okja, with potent commentary on sustainability, the ethics of consumption, and the horrors of industrial farming. The film critiques the practices of a corporation reminiscent of real-life agrochemical giants, which, under the guise of environmental friendliness, produces these super-pigs for mass consumption. Through Mija's journey to save Okja from slaughter, the film explores themes of "carnism" – the ideology that conditions people to eat certain animals – a term coined by Melanie Joy in her 2011 book, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows. Okja's narrative challenges the unsustainable practices of the livestock industry, emphasizing its significant impact on deforestation, biodiversity loss, and pollution.

Pixar's Wall-E (2008), everyone’s favorite on-screen robot, is set in the year 2805, 781 years in the future. According to NASA, this is a very generous year to set the film since some parts of the Earth could become uninhabitable by as soon as 2050 if current trends continue. In this animated film, directed by Andrew Stanton, Earth is a desolate wasteland overwhelmed by trash and abandoned by humans who have fled to space, providing a stark commentary on sustainability and consumerism. Through the love story of Wall-E, a waste-collecting robot, and Eve, a reconnaissance robot, the film explores the dire consequences of ecological disregard as well as unchecked consumer habits and addiction to technology.

The gripping Netflix series Snowpiercer (2020–2025) portrays a desolate world plunged into an ice age after a disastrous attempt to mitigate global warming with climate-altering chemicals. Based on the 1982 French graphic novel Le Transperceneige and the 2013 film directed by Bong Joon-Ho, the series unfolds on a grand, perpetually moving train that houses humanity's last survivors. The train, Snowpiercer, segregates its 3,000 passengers by class, creating a stark microcosm of societal inequality. The wealthy enjoy luxury in the front cars, while the so-called "Tailies" suffer in squalor at the train's rear. This dystopian tale is a chilling warning about environmental tampering and explores deep social divides, making Snowpiercer a compelling reflection on survival and justice in a frozen world.

Don't Look Up (2021) turns the foreboding concept of a comet hurtling toward Earth into a sharp metaphor for climate change, wrapping its message in layers of satire and dark comedy. Directed by Adam McKay, this film broke Netflix records for its viewership and sparked conversations about how society and politics handle looming ecological disasters. Despite never mentioning climate change explicitly, Don't Look Up skillfully satirizes the political inertia and societal apathy that often greet scientific evidence of environmental crises. The film critiques the values underpinning late-stage capitalism, such as speculative techno-fixes and celebrity-driven commodity culture, revealing how these contribute to global climate inaction. 

The Day After Tomorrow (2004) is a staple of the climate fiction genre and a film many of us have watched repeatedly in school classrooms (I know I did). The film spurred significant public discussion about climate change, pushing viewers to reflect on their environmental impact and to take action, and as a box office success, its cultural impact is undeniable. This movie exemplifies how pop culture can be a potent tool for influencing public opinion and provoking responses to pressing global issues. It showcases the power of cli-fi movies to shift perceptions and prioritize urgent global concerns like climate change, demonstrating that such films can indeed inspire personal, social, and political action. After each day, the extreme weather scenarios portrayed in the film seem increasingly plausible, given the record highs and lows we are experiencing at the present moment.

Another classroom favorite, Geostorm (2017), is a disaster flick set in a future where humans have developed technology to control Earth's climate and taps into the fantasy of mastering nature's wildest elements. The film features a network of satellites called the "Dutch Boy Program," equipped with geoengineering technologies aimed at preventing natural disasters – a timely concept following the record-breaking temperatures we are currently experiencing. You could even argue that we are now seeing elements of the film's climate control concepts in real-world practices like cloud-seeding, used to artificially create rainstorms to combat extreme heat. While Geostorm may lean heavily in the realm of fantasy, beneath its dramatic surface lies a pertinent message about the promises and perils of trying to manage planetary conditions. The film underscores the complexity and potential dangers of geoengineering, reflecting ongoing debates about human intervention in natural systems. Despite the allure of controlling the weather, the reality, as the film suggests, is that such power can lead to unintended, possibly irreversible, consequences.

Downsizing (2017) stars Matt Damon, a prominent figure in Hollywood's climate movement and Co-Founder of water.org. It offers a satirical take on combating climate change through an innovative concept: shrinking people to reduce their environmental impact. This film stands out in the climate fiction genre by focusing on climate change mitigation rather than just the aftermath of disasters or adaptation strategies. With its blend of comedy and drama, Downsizing explores the ethical and social implications of using radical science to address ecological crises. It challenges viewers to consider the potential consequences and ethical dilemmas of extreme solutions to climate change. 

James Cameron's Avatar (2009), set in the year 2154, presents a future where Earth is depleted of its natural resources, prompting humanity to extract resources from the alien world of Pandora. The film artfully weaves themes of imperialism and ecological exploitation, capturing the devastating impact of colonizing Pandora for its rich resources. Pivotal scenes like the destruction of Hometree and the obliteration of Na'vi habitats highlight the importance of preserving natural habitats and sustainable resource use. These moments draw stark parallels to real-world issues such as deforestation, biodiversity loss, and ecosystem degradation. 

Avatar delves deep into environmental philosophy, embodying the concept of "Ecotopia" – a vision of living harmoniously with nature rather than exploiting it, as defined by author and lecturer Lisa Garforth. This ecocentric approach challenges the conventional anthropocentric perspective, urging a radical shift in how we value and interact with our environment.

Although Christopher Nolan's Interstellar (2014) does not directly mention climate change, its setting is deeply influenced by a post-climate change world, where humanity must look to the stars for a new beginning.  It envisions a future where Earth, now a giant dust bowl with barren soil and unbreathable air, pushes humanity to embrace its nomadic nature. This grim portrait depicts a world ravaged by environmental crises, where remaining crops are wiped out by blight and dust storms threaten the primary food source, corn. Governments, facing food shortages, resort to assigning farming careers to children by age 15, underscoring the desperation of a society struggling to survive. Inspired by films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Nolan explores a scenario in which the battle to save the Earth is presumed lost, and survival now depends on finding new habitable worlds. While not a direct call to arms to preserve our planet, the film powerfully illustrates the potential consequences of environmental neglect and the drastic measures that might become necessary if we fail to address climate change now.

The Lorax (2012), adapted from Dr. Seuss's 1971 children's book, delivers a vibrant yet cautionary tale about environmental preservation. The film is set in Thneedville, a synthetic city devoid of natural flora, where the protagonist, Ted, discovers the grim reality outside the city's confines – a barren landscape ravaged by pollution and industrial greed. This discovery comes through his encounter with the Once-ler, who recounts the sad tale of the Lorax, the guardian of the forest, and how his own actions led to environmental devastation for the sake of profit from his invention, the Thneed. By speaking for the trees, the Lorax character has become an emblematic figure in environmental education, inspiring generations to advocate for sustainability and respect for nature.

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