Anthropocene Imaginaries: Climate Fiction as Communication Infrastructure

Early reviews for Adam McKay’s new film Don’t Look Up are out, and they are decidedly mixed. This new movie seems to continue McKay’s trend of real-world-oriented comedies that engage with current socio-political events. McKay has transitioned from broad comedies including notable collaborations with Will Ferrell to a series of based-on-a-true-story/ripped-from-the-headlines entertainments. His films adopt a left-adjacent critical stance even though their output is often ideologically specious (the much-lauded The Big Short recapitulates a narrative of outlier exemplars of greed rather than recognizing the contradictory logics inherent to capitalism, and the otherwise impressive Vice contains a baffling scene where Steve Carell’s Donald Rumsfield laughs off the notion of ideology itself). Don’t Look Up is being received as a thinly-veiled climate change fable, which makes it the latest entry in the growing genre of climate fiction.

Writing for the L.A. Review of Books, Katie Yee outlines the language of climate fiction:

The landscape of climate fiction is populated by Greta Thunbergs. It features eerily mature kids, left on their own. While our instinct should be to protect and pacify the children, ironically, in these novels they are forced to be the purveyors of cruel truths as the adults around them are lulled into a state of passivity. The roles are reversed. The alarm here is new, electrifying, contagious. Just as Greta Thunberg speaks directly to you in the ads, these characters invite you into the fold of these stories. They warn us not only with the tragedies they face but with the careful words they use to recount them. Climate fiction is just as much about the tales we spin, the way we talk about our actions.

This past July I watched The Tomorrow War. Attempting to justify my rationale for doing so reminds me of Bill Hicks’ explanation for eating at a Waffle House: “I’m not proud of it, I was hungry.” In my case it was because I was days away from a major move and was eager for distraction as I packed boxes. I had anticipated that the movie would provide some alien invasion schlockery but was surprised when the opening sequence featured the interdimensional arrival of soldiers who announced themselves as “your children and grandchildren.” These soldiers emerged into our present day to deliver a warning of humanity’s imminent destruction. Watching these scenes it was impossible to not think of Greta Thunberg, the climate change activist whose impassioned pleas for her generation’s future have thrust her to the forefront of the climate culture wars. Did The Tomorrow War’s scenes of soldiers interrupting the World Cup to deliver a message of impending doom from the future not evoke a remediated echo of Thunberg’s famous “how dare you” address to the United Nations?

It was an invigorating metaphor for contemporary climate anxiety, and I was interested to see whether the filmmakers would lean in to this angle or if it was an unintentional veneer on this science fiction story. To my surprise, there were persistent allusions to the climate crisis throughout the film. The protagonist, played by Chris Pratt, is an ex-military operative now teaching high school science. When we first see him in his classroom he is trying to engage his students who have lost all interest in their studies in light of the revelations from the future war soldiers. They wonder: why study for exams, or apply to college, or hope for any future at all when they have received confirmation of humanity’s ultimate demise within the next thirty years?

It’s an evocative illustration of climate despair, the pervading melancholia that has particularly affected younger generations who are not only facing the specter of a transformed world, but also reconciling with the associated employment prospects. The scene dramatizes the “eco-anxiety” that may even become a diagnosable condition.

Pratt’s character attempts to counter his students’ existential apathy by arguing that science is more important than ever: it will take scientific ingenuity to meet and hopefully overcome this looming challenge. His speech about the importance of science would seem on-the-nose even if it wasn’t being delivered in front of images of polar bears precariously perched on pint-sized ice floes.

Global warming also plays an integral role in the resolution of The Tomorrow War’s plot. Our heroes ultimately realize (spoiler alert) that the spacecraft carrying the alien invaders is not destined to arrive in Earth’s future but rather crash landed more than a thousand years in the past. Initially submerged in ice, the gradual warming of the planet eventually thawed the aliens out, thus precipitating their attack on humanity.

Many reviewers found The Tomorrow War’s climate change metaphor to be wanting. For some, the metaphor fell flat. Others thought the dull action movie trappings failed to live up to the challenge. The discourse around The Tomorrow War reminded me of the chatter surrounding TENET when it was released last year. A brief exchange of dialogue during that film’s climax suggests that environmental catastrophe is the primary motivation for the temporal war that fuels the plot. Many commentators seized onto this brief bit of backstory as the key to unlocking the labyrinthine narrative, with reviewers referring to the film as a climate change allegory, “Christopher Nolan’s statement on climate change,” and a treatise on intergenerational justice. Like The Tomorrow War, critics also derided the fact that TENET eluded the climate crisis rather than confronting it head on.

These commentators are touching upon the potential for climate fiction to shape political imaginaries, and suggesting that these films can elucidate an agenda for addressing the climate crisis. Manjana Milkoreit has written about the potential for climate fiction to influence societal responses to climate change by depicting imaginaries of the future. Yet the imaginaries depicted in these science fictions seem insufficient for addressing political realities. Returning to The Tomorrow War: this film imagines the climate crisis as an alien invasion, and the solution to the problem is to go kill the aliens with guns and bombs. There is something effective in how the film posits that the “war” cannot be displaced or projected to the future, but rather must be fought in our own time, yet the solution it imagines is overly simplistic and individualistic. As Matt Christman noted in one of his CushVlog entries, The Tomorrow War overlooks the fact that everyone is aware of the threat yet lacks the mechanisms of collective action that would enable them to do anything about it.

Similar critiques are emerging in reviews of Don’t Look Up. One largely negative review ended by asserting that “if the movie helps to do something about climate change, such critical objections are unimportant.” The potential of climate fiction to function as infrastructure for political imaginaries seems like a salient area of inquiry, but perhaps we’re asking too much of our entertainments.

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