I would like a very good climate change movie now, please!
I am, you could say, a hungry man. Hungry, of course, for great representations of climate in movie-films! I think there needs to be really rich, engaging and accessible climate storytelling in film, and that most importantly it has to respect and reflect the reality of the fight.
Unfortunately, I’m very rarely met with a hearty meal. It really just seems like there isn’t a whole lot out there. I’ll get to the film that just sprung into your mind a little later, but first, I want to talk to you about the guy who wrote Jurassic Park.
Michael Crichton’s legacy (of being shit)
My copy of Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park from when I was a kid got so tattered the cover fell off. I read that thing a lot, initially not understanding much but completely thrilled each time I did. I remember my English teacher in early high school very gently suggesting that maybe someone my age should be reading something else; perhaps something more meaningful to teenage life. I just kept reading that same damn book.
The catastrophic and thrilling scientific power depicted in Crichton’s obscenely popular book was partly what inspired me to follow science as a career and an obsession when I was younger. Of course, I loved the movie and I’d been into dinosaurs from much younger. I absolutely didn’t get that Crichton was coming at the issue from a ‘scientists are very, very bad’ angle.
I read a bunch of Crichton’s later novels too, like Prey and Next, and his worldview became slowly clearer to me. Some time around 2006-ish, I read “State of Fear”, a shite garbage book in which eco-terrorists fake climate disasters because they want people to be scared of climate change, and they kill people using a cute lil’ blue-ringed octopus in a bag (lol). The book is a huge piece of shit, but back in 2004, was very much aligned with and was helping to boost emerging climate denial and luke-warmism movements.
Recently, looking back on his career, I realised that he essentially had nearly everything exactly wrong. His legacy as a visionary is trash. He is hilariously bad at guessing what we ought to be worried about.
It’s worth noting what an intensely petty man he was, too. He once blatantly fictionalised a New Republic journalist, Michael Crowley, in one of his books as a child rapist, as revenge for a negative review of ‘State of Fear’. Crowley’s review is a fascinating read, mostly because he outlines how Crichton was surprisingly influential in the US in the mid-2000s, in spreading outright climate denial and urging no action on climate. He met with former President Bush and testified at a hearing organised by denialist Senators.
“[Crichton] himself is like an experiment gone wrong—a creation of the publishing industry and Hollywood who has unexpectedly mutated into a menacing figure haunting think tanks, policy forums, hearing rooms, and even the Oval Office”Michael Crowley, The New Republic
Fast forward to 2022, and thanks to two decades of aggressive denialism from the likes of Michael Crichton and friends, we’re left with a significantly steeper, harder and more risky downwards pathway to reduce emissions. If we’d started in 2000, this would be much, much easier. But a whole bunch of people actively and effortfully fought to delay action.
After Crichton’s career of hilariously misdirected hand-wringing, it was people like him that helped solidify an actual catastrophe.
Over the same decades we packed ourselves into an ever-tightening corner on carbon budgets, Jurassic Park’s popularity meant it got fed into Hollywood’s franchise / sequel machine, and a bunch of underwhelming follow-ups to the original 1994 film were released. Most have been sapped of any relevance even to Crichton’s original ‘scientists are all dickheads’ worldview, let alone any bigger or more meaningful message, but the most recent film, Jurassic World: Dominion, surprisingly tries to actually say something.
Jurassic World does not do a good job with climate change stuff
This is supposedly the final film (come on) in the Jurassic Park franchise. I’m on parental leave, so I took my 8 month old baby to watch it, and he cooed appreciatively at some CGI dinosaurs before falling asleep for most of the film. I had low expectations, but there were a couple of bits of the movie I quite liked early on. There’s a bit where a construction crew slowly leads a sweet, big Brachiosaur away, as the music swells. I loved that scene, but I think I’ve been Skinner-boxed into liking it because I watched the original Jurassic Park 7,0000,000 times during the development of my brain.
Some US audiences got a direct climate message head-on, with a United Nations Development program ad on climate change airing before the movie. It features a velociraptor standing before the UN and warning the audience to prevent extinction while it still can. The website frames “excuses” (like “I’m just one person, I can’t make a difference”) as individual asteroids en-route to destroy Earth.
Interestingly enough, Laura Dern was compelled to return to the franchise due to the film’s environmental framing. “The emphasis and the focus was an environmental one and to consider that she would care deeply about climate change science and work in the area of soil science made me really want to be a part of it”, she said.
The plot revolves around genetically engineered locusts released by the Evil Corporation, that specifically eat the crops of the company’s competitors. Laura Dern patiently explains the locust-related stakes to the audience, and to a visibly bored Sam Neill.
“Terrifying right? Started as a few 100. That could be millions by the end of the summer.
If they keep going. There’ll be no grain to feed chickens cattle, the entire food chain would collapse”
That’d starve a few million, Neill points out. “What’s that saying? ‘We’re three meals away from anarchy’. If we don’t stop them, you can pick your last three meals”, Dern replies.
The movie’s packed with little lines like this. Doomsday, apocalypse, seven minutes to midnight. Anarchy, chaos, people eating each other. There’s an icky undertone to this; the idea that during times of supply shortages, people immediately become physically violent towards each other. It’s absolutely not true, but it keeps cropping up in Hollywood depictions of environmental collapse.
“You can see that we made a movie that is imbued with how we were feeling while we were making it. It’s just woven throughout every frame, even smaller characters saying things like “We’re not going to be around much longer, anyway.” There’s a tone there that was a result of making the movie when we did”, the director, Colin Trevorrow, said in an interview. It’s true, glum doomism dominates the non-action sections of this film.
Inexplicably, and ridiculously, the CEO of the evil genetics corporation is a literal replication of Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook. There’s plenty to criticise about Apple, and their environmental failures, but it’s represented in this film as…..them wanting to use evil, big locusts to chomp up all the crops and trigger violent apocalypse. What?? And isn’t this meant to be a climate metaphor, not a tech industry metaphor?
Even more confusingly, climate change does exist in the film’s world. Jeff Goldblum’s Iain Malcolm returns in this film, and has a weird little monologue where he emits a bunch of Crichton-esque finger-wagging about human dominion over nature. Or something? I don’t know what any of this means!
“Human beings have no more right to safety or liberty than any other creature on this planet. We not only lack dominion over nature, we’re subordinate to it. And now here we are, with the opportunity to rewrite life at our fingertips.
Just like nuclear power, nobody knew what to expect with genetic engineering, but they pressed the button and hoped for the best. Just like you are doing now. Yep. You you control the future of our survival on planet Earth.
According to you the solution is genetic power. But that same power could devastate the food supply, create new diseases, alter the climate even further. Unforeseen consequences occur every time every single time. We all act surprised because deep down I don’t think that any of us actually believe that these dangers are real. In order to instigate revolutionary change, we must transform human consciousness”
I mean, sure. Tech companies love getting a Deepak Chopra type to spout randomly combined keywords at their staff. But genetic engineering is going to “alter the climate even further”?
Crichton’s angry insistence that fuckwit scientists were going to theme-park the world into collapse using the atomic-grade power of Genetics is convoluted, silly and severely disconnected from the state of the actual world today. Scriptwriters are trying to shoehorn Crichton’s amusingly off-mark early nineties hang-ups into the early twenties – where the real and catastrophic impacts of fossil fuels and consequent climate change are killing and hurting actual, real people every single day.
Worse than that, really. They’re creating a testament to a prominent and shameless climate denier; someone who actively worsened a real-world catastrophe.
It’d be SO COOL if they could engage directly with this and reverse it, just like ‘Lovecraft Country‘ did in relation to the aggressively demented racism of HP Lovecraft.
A nice, big fat ‘fuck you’ to Michael Crichton, set in the Jurassic Park universe would be great. Would it be too petty to feature an arrogant, hyper-sensitive loser edgelord named Mikhail Crichton in the film? A guy who insists that the warnings are wrong, and that everyone should be wringing their hands about virus nanobot theme parks or whatever instead? No, it would not be too petty.
Do not look up!!!!
It all strikes me as oddly reminiscent of that other climate movie – Don’t Look Up. I thought that film would at least slightly satisfy my hunger but my god, did it frustrate me. The similarities with Jurassic World are striking. It is laden, lead-heavy, with doom, gloom, apocalypse and catastrophe. It too picks a weird and confusing metaphor for climate change. It has a weird hyper-focus on socially awkward tech industry CEOs, despite that having nearly nothing to do with the fossil fuel industry.
At least Jurassic World’s threat is driven by the intentional actions of an evil corporations, whereas the rogue asteroid metaphor in ‘Don’t Look Up’ removes intent from the threat entirely, and in doing so, fundamentally erases any meaningful capacity for metaphorical insight in its art.
Both films can only understand climate through a boring binary. Peace, or apocalypse. The threat is the flipping of the switch, at some point in the near future. But in reality, climate change is immediate, and more of a gradually rising boil rather than a binary on/off apocalypse. There are many, many people in the world already living the terrible impacts of fossil fuels. I guarantee you experienced it today. A news report about rising fossil fuel prices, floods, fires, heatwaves? There will be something, in the past 12 hours of your conscious life. You are in the climate crisis now. There is no switch.
Don’t Look Up is meant to be the climate film, but it badly misrepresents so much about climate. It tries to tackle media misreporting, but ends up placing most of the blame on ditzy morning show hosts rather than false balance, the insidiousness of fossil fuel propaganda, advertising and co-opted newsrooms and the viciously corrupt intent of hyper-conservative outlets like News Corp. It focuses almost entirely on denialism, and ignores the pernicious impacts of delay. Like Jurassic World, it cynically depicts riots, violence and looting as the human response to impending catastrophe. It also places heavy blame on social media and a distracted, childish populous that spends too much time looking at puppy-riding-chicken memes instead of reading IPCC reports and engaging with climate politics.
It has been very, very regularly and positively compared to ‘Idiocracy’, a repulsive film that presents a future in which only “stupid” people breed, resulting in a societal collapse. There’s a sneering, mean-spirited cruelty at the heart of both films, and it’s no accident that both are seen as two peas in a pod.
In Don’t Look Up, the protagonists half-heartedly try to create an activism / protest movement to encourage the government to fire nuclear weapons at the asteroid, to deflect it (this is depicted in the movie as the good option!). They fail, and the asteroid hits Earth, killing everybody. It is ultimately a doomist message; even when you try, the people are too dumb and distracted to care, politicians too corrupt, corporates too greedy. At least Jurassic World has a happy ending, even though it primarily involves B D Wong releasing a fucked up locust into a field of wheat.
Don’t Look Up and Jurassic World, in failing to satisfy, also help me realise exactly what it is that I’m hankering.
I want to watch a film that is true to the climate threat. Its causes, its solutions and the complex but compelling stories that have emerged and will emerge within both. And within that framework, stories about true and substantial resolution of climate threats. Something that details the fact that a human-caused problem can be a human-solved problem. Something that pushes back against the toxic habits of establishment media and Hollywood, where “climate change” is an unstoppable apocalypse that just happens, rather than something people with power decide to cause every single day. I’m hungry for a film that outlines what winning looks like. That might look slow, ugly, patchy and painful. There won’t be any deus ex locusts. But nor will there be total apocalypse.
I’m hungry for a film that has a good heart, and a kind, open attitude towards people. One that knows memes and celebrities aren’t the primary cause of the climate crisis and fossil fuel incumbency, and that knows exactly what it is media are doing wrong on these problems. That saves all of its ire for the people who know exactly what it is they’re doing, and keep doing it anyway.
Why have a metaphor at all? Why not just make a film that’s actually about fossil fuels, and climate change? Why hasn’t this happened already? And what the hell do we need to do, to make it happen? I have no idea. Someone, please help. I’m hungry!
Off the top of my head reaction to your article here, Ketan … well said.
In my reading about fossil fuelled climate change – which includes your own words – I am convinced that climate change as we have it now is all about science AND the executives who run coal, oil and gas interests, and their management of the ferocious burning consumption of “their” products. No story about climate today is anything like complete without this fossil fuel phenomenon. Corrupted politics to the nth degree.
In my extended family is a relative who left a copy of Michael Chrichton’s ‘State of Fear’ in our bedroom at his place when we holidayed with him and family. He never said anything about it and I didn’t ask. Out of curiousity I did browse the book. I recall that I had already been forwarned of Chrichton’s position on climate. Whilst some of us engage in wild and vague conspiracy theories that go absolutely nowhere, yet are repeated ad nauseum, I am tempted to suspect that Chrichton was mightily encouraged in his ‘State of Fear’ to do a job on us … i.e. the whole world, starting with the Anglosphere.