Are Climate Change Films the New Anti-Iraq War Genre?
Four very different films hit theaters over the past few weeks.
- A sequel to one of the most talked about documentaries in recent memory.
- An artsy horror film featuring an Oscar-winning stunner.
- A B-movie disaster directed by a man who knowns that genre by heart.
- A belated sequel to one of the most iconic science fiction films of all time.
What did they all have in common? Each film showcased a mortal fear of climate change. And guess what they also have in common (now)?
They all tanked at the box office.
“An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power” generated a fraction of the original film’s box office success.
“mother!” divided critics while chasing potential audiences away in droves.
Director Dean Devlin’s “Geostorm” opened over the weekend, sans critics reviews, to an anemic $13 million. The film reportedly cost up to $140 million.
And “Blade Runner 2049,” a film expected to lift Hollywood out of the box office doldrums, is fading fast. The Ryan Gosling/Harrison Ford vehicle won’t hit the $100 million mark without a miracle. It doesn’t help that the studio is yanking it out of theaters earlier than usual.
Even the “Ghostbusters” reboot crossed that financial barrier.
Each tackled climate change in a different fashion. Gore’s film centered on the fear we’re trashing the climate with our energy-guzzling ways. “mother!” employed clunky metaphors, some of which may have been lost on the audience, to send the message home.
That “Blade Runner” sequel used climate change to set the story in motion. Once established, the narrative didn’t go back to it.
“Geostorm” features an effort to control the environment following a series of extreme weather events, according to The Hollywood Reporter review.
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Each movie had its own distinct reasons for crashing and burning with crowds. Documentaries are typically a tough sell for the masses, and Gore’s eco-hypocrisy is better known today than when his 2006 smash “An Inconvenient Truth” hit theaters.
“mother!” features the suddenly divisive Lawrence and an ad campaign that prepped audiences for something more traditionally in the horror vein.
“Geostorm” suffered from bad press, high profile reshoots and a lack of A-list stars. Sorry, Gerard Butler cannot carry a film all by himself.
“Blade Runner 2049” challenged marketers by being nearly 3 hours long and filled with artsy flourishes that aren’t catnip to young movie goers. Plus the original film underwhelmed at the box office, a legacy which may have predicted the sequel’s rocky reception.
Still, the climate change thread connects them all. And, in a sane world, that might send a message to Hollywood studios. Audiences aren’t clamoring to see the theme embedded in their movies in any shape or form.
Hollywood doesn’t always act in a sane manner, though.
Let’s turn the clock back to the 2000s. President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq led to a series of films critical of the effort.
- “In the Valley of Elah”
- “Lions for Lambs”
- “Grace Is Gone”
- “Green Zone”
They all bombed, some in epic fashion. “Redacted” by renowned director Brian De Palma, earned a pathetic $65,000 in theaters.
The reason behind the anti-Iraq war films? Hurt the Bush presidency, plain and simple. It took flop after flop after flop before studio executives stopped greenlighting these projects.
The rationale for including so many climate change narratives into modern films? To convince audiences to elect Democrats willing to reconfigure our economy into one lean green machine.
Yes, when it comes to climate change and storytelling there’s a method to Hollywood’s madness.
Yet, according to a recent New York Times article, the “doom and gloom” storytelling approach is a non-starter.
Copious research shows that this kind of dystopian framing backfires, driving people further into denial and helplessness; instead of acting, they freeze.
The industry wants to change the way you think about the issue. It’s just going about it the wrong way, apparently. And, despite the fact we’ve been talking about climate change for more than a decade across every medium possible, some think it’s still not enough.
Mr. Maibach, the George Mason professor and an expert in polling on climate understanding, said the greatest problem facing climate communicators is that Americans are not talking about climate change enough — in any shape. “We call it the climate silence,” he said, “and it’s pretty profound.”
So, said Mr. Hoffman, the University of Michigan professor, we need “more movies, more TV, more music.”
We’ll get just that shortly with “Downsizing,” a comedy about a technology that shrinks people to a fraction of their original size.
Tiny people consume less natural resources.
It’s another sly spin on the climate change model. Will it be the year’s 5th climate change flop, or will its star power (Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Christoph Waltz) save the day?
One thing is clear. Should it fail, too, it won’t stop the industry from making more climate change stories.
Sometimes messaging is more important than the bottom line.