Truly great films about the climate crisis are tough to come by. Allusions to environmental destruction are very familiar in the futuristic dystopias Hollywood churns out like clockwork, but they rarely get the science right – or they abandon it entirely in favor of skipping straight to some post-apocalyptic CGI extravaganza.
Those of us with a little knowledge of the climate crisis bristle at this kind of doom-and-gloom bombast – because we know better. But that doesn’t mean a few thoughtful films haven’t been able to cut through the noise.
Below are six of our favorites. We decided to spice it up by mixing narrative films with documentaries – and while our changing climate understandably casts a long, dark shadow over any future that wrestles with its impacts, we did our best to stay on the right side of the fine line between raucous, factually dubious calamity and thought-provoking “what if” explorations or science-centered spectacle.
Director Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is that rarest of Hollywood anomalies – a wildly complicated, lavishly expensive, wholly original mainstream blockbuster. It doesn’t exist in the Marvel or DC cinematic universes; instead, it occupies a not-so-distant-future version of our very own – and things aren’t exactly going great.
While the words “climate change” are never explicitly said in the film, the impacts of the crisis are writ large, driving a plot about an attempt to flee a near-future Earth reeling from drastically changing weather patterns and global food shortages for the safety of a new habitable planet.
Featuring one of the most stacked casts in recent memory, including Oscar winners Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, and Ellen Burstyn and nominees Jessica Chastain, Timothée Chalamet, and John Lithgow, Interstellar takes on a very real consequence of climate inaction, though it offers up an untenable solution.
After all, there’s still no Planet B.
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BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD
Living in a Louisiana bayou community called “the Bathtub,” six-year-old Hush Puppy (youngest-ever Best Actress Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis) can’t get the prehistoric aurochs her teacher tells her will be released from melting ice caps off her mind – even as the world in front of her crumbles and cowers, the victim of powerful storms, failing levees, and familial health problems.
While the film’s setting is technically fictional, it was inspired by several very real fishing villages in Southern Louisiana's Terrebonne Parish. These small, isolated wetland communities are threatened by climate-driven erosion, extreme weather, and rising sea levels. Most notable among them is the rapidly disappearing Isle de Jean Charles, former home of “the first American climate refugees.”
>> Read more: On the Move: When Climate Changes Communities in the US <<
That coral reefs are existentially threatened by the climate crisis is a truth near-universally acknowledged. But filmmaker Jeff Orlowski doesn’t simply telegraph a report on this impending ecological catastrophe.
Instead, Orlowski infuses his film with such empathy and ardor for our world’s oceans and their vibrant ecosystems – as well as those working hard to save what’s left – that it’s impossible to not walk away pumped up and ready to join the fight.
Like we already mentioned, we try to avoid cynical, despondent hot takes on the climate crisis. But we’re fans of director Bong Joon Ho’s Snowpiercer for two big reasons: First, it’s a very, very good, wildly underseen film, and second, because it confronts head-on the dangers of a “we’ll deal with this later” approach to climate action.
The film is set in a future where a failed geoengineering experiment to counteract climate change plunges the planet into a new ice age, killing all life except for those lucky enough (a phrase we’re using loosely here) to have boarded the titular train. This train now circles the globe on a constant loop and a tyrannical class system has taken hold onboard.
It’s an important cautionary tale: While we should investigate any and all scientific developments to stop the climate crisis, dangerous gambles like geoengineering – or for that matter, fleeing our planet for an imagined oasis somewhere deep in the universe – could come with unintended consequences. So, why risk it when we know for sure that quickly transitioning from fossil fuels to renewables can and will work?
There’s even an important philosophical principle – one at work in another great, underappreciated sci-fi film, 1997’s Contact – to back this one up. Attributed to fourteenth century logician and Franciscan friar William of Ockham, Ockham's Razor states… well, Jodie Foster’s Dr. Ellie Arroway put it best: “All things being equal, the simplest answer is usually the right one.”
Note: For all its incredible imagination, Snowpiercer definitely has some moments of real violence and isn’t one for younger audiences.
AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH/AN INCONVENIENT SEQUEL: TRUTH TO POWER
Now, of course, the film that started a movement – and the follow-up that propelled it to new heights.
After seeing former US Vice President Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, people worldwide finally understood the reality of the climate crisis devastating our planet. For many, it was the moment they knew they personally had to do something about it. The film’s impact continues to be felt more than a decade after it won the 2007 Academy Award for Best Documentary and took its place among the highest-grossing documentaries ever.
Last year’s follow-up, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, took that story further, showcasing both the amazing progress that’s been made as well as how much further we still have to go to solve the climate crisis.
Both documentaries present the science and stakes of the crisis and ask viewers if they’re ready to fight like our world depends on it (because it does).
ARE YOU READY TO FIGHT?
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