Our writers review recent ecological films that both do and don't hit the mark. But how will they age? Francis Blagburn revisits environmental blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow to explore how popular culture grasped the climate crisis in the first decades of it reaching public awareness.
Anyone who considers themselves even a little ‘online’ will have spent some time poking around the dimly lit corners of pop culture history. We are inundated by articles about 21 Times ‘Friends’ Was Actually Really Problematic, or how ‘American Pie wouldn’t get made today – according to its director, that’s "probably a good thing"'. We laud it over the inferiorities of yesterday, preferring that to shining a harsh light on the injustices of today – or indeed, preparing for the day after tomorrow.
This will continue so long as the tectonic plates of society shift on crucial axes of race, sexual politics, gender and more. But public concern over nature and environmental issues has been shifting too, so is it time to subject prior portrayals of those topics to the same scrutiny? One night of lockdown three, I decided to find out by re-watching the world’s favourite climate disaster blockbuster: Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow, released in 2004.
The film is based on the 1999 book The Coming Global Superstorm by Art Bell and Whitley Strieber, two writers who were usually more interested in fanciful paranormal goings-on than climate change (Bell started long-running, conspiracy-themed radio program Coast to Coast AM). The book served as wacky and unreliable source material, weaving tales of a future where changes in ocean currents trigger an abrupt climate shift to Ice Age conditions. (There is some legitimacy to the notion that changes in the ocean current system, known as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, can presage changes in climate down the line, but this was not a responsible handling of scientific theory.)
The book served as wacky and unreliable source material, weaving tales of a future where changes in ocean currents trigger an abrupt climate shift to Ice Age conditions
The film follows a paleoclimatologist – Dennis Quaid as Professor Hall – who has collected data from ice cores showing that there was an Ice Age thousands of years ago. He presents this as a warning from prehistory to a UN Conference, telling assembled bigwigs that if action isn’t taken, global heating’s impact on melting ice caps could flood the oceans with freshwater, disrupting the currents responsible for keeping the northern hemisphere temperate, and rapidly establishing Ice Age conditions once more. This could happen in 100 or maybe 1000 years, he predicts. A hawkish US Vice President among the assembled dignitaries is tin-eared, claiming concerns over the economy trump climate and labelling Hall a sensationalist. But then disaster shows up early: lethal hailstones pelt Tokyo, helicopters freeze over Scotland, and tornados blight LA. Storm systems and deadly cold snaps shroud the northern hemisphere, as Hall sets off on a heroic mission to galvanise the politicians into action and save his son from New York, which is rapidly plunging into a deep-freeze.
Watching it in 2021, what struck me was the way that decades of research are so casually erased. Hall is virtually the only person paying any attention to historic climate systems, and has to develop a forecast model from scratch based on his paleontological work. This creates the comforting illusion that the lack of action to prevent catastrophe was due to an absence of scientific understanding, rather than a lack of transparency and political will. The fossil fuel industry doesn’t get so much as a bit-part, for instance. There’s a crude dichotomy drawn between climate and economics at the UN Conference, which sign-posts viewers toward greenhouse gas emissions, and a cursory mention of ‘natural resources’ in the President’s closing monologue. But the film’s bogus timeline ignores the role of oil and gas juggernauts. Real-life analogues to Hall were making presentations in the 1970s and ‘80s or earlier – not 2004. Often their research took place as a constant struggle against the lobbying operations of ExxonMobil and others. To ignore this basic fact sacrifices any claim the film might have to accuracy.
Real-life analogues to Hall were making presentations in the 1970s and ‘80s or earlier... a constant struggle against the lobbying operations of ExxonMobil and others
You might counter, it’s a blockbuster from the director of Godzilla: who said anything about accuracy? But The Day After Tomorrow dresses itself up in the language of legitimate climate science, and has won plaudits for doing so. Yale Climate Communications hailed the film for introducing concepts such as thresholds and the role of ocean currents to a mass audience. It influenced understanding on the topic at a crucial time, which is what makes its dodgy framing of the issue such a wasted opportunity. Other than personalising the opaque web of a neoliberal economic consensus through the stubborn and wrongheaded Veep, governments and societies in the film are depicted as passive agents, largely absented from the duty to change their world for the better. The film’s characters are extras in a crowd scene of the human story, caught unawares at the mercy of gigantic CGI events. From the perspective of 2021, this approach feels curiously disempowering.
Other than personalising the opaque web of a neoliberal economic consensus through the stubborn and wrongheaded Veep, governments and societies in the film are depicted as passive agents
The lack of agency also impacts the human angle: climate justice. This is a term that may not have been familiar to the film’s audience in 2004, but is increasingly widespread now. There is a refugee crisis in the film, but refugees do not leave countries in the global south to travel north to richer countries, as is actually likely to happen – and is arguably happening already. The film plumps for an alternative climate scenario, in which freshwater from melting ice caps disrupts an oceanic current system with impacts exclusive to the global north. The global south is left to graciously welcome refugees from the US and Europe. ‘In our time of need they have taken us in and sheltered us, and I am deeply grateful for their hospitality,’ the President says at the film’s resolution. This encourages viewers in the West to cast themselves as both the heroes and the victims of the climate crisis, congratulating the citizens of other nations for their hospitality as the global disaster magically resolves itself. Presumably, this makes for an easier feat than asking themselves: ‘when the shit hits the fan, will I do the same?’
The film swerves difficult-to-swallow reality in favour of a comforting fable where threat will subside when we learn a vague lesson, the contents of which are largely irrelevant, as the sky clears, the superstorm subsides, the Ice Age is called off, the allegory complete. It is a story that casts Westerners as both passive players and the key engines of change. The Vice President’s conversion toward appreciating the planet has a mystical impact on the situation. Since he has learned his lesson, the internal logic of the script has done its work, and the crisis simply ends without the need for anything so tedious as climate action.
All that said, I found it hard to get too critical of The Day After Tomorrow. At least they tried to make a climate film, and one with its heart roughly in the right place. Emmerich was doing more in the realm of Hollywood schlock for the progression of climate change discourse than much of arthouse cinema or literary fiction were at the time. Yes, the style is kitsch, and the characters talk in absurd Hollywood tropes like leaning down to look at storm data on a computer and waiting for a beat before growling: ‘How big is this thing?’. But I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it.
Plus, watching the film back can help us understand how we got to where we are today. The opening years of the millennium, between the shock of 9/11 and the ravages of Hurricane Katrina, saw the onset of a new kind of paranoia in the USA. The depiction of tornadoes obliterating the Hollywood sign and the US flag freezing solid can be understood in terms of a nation rocked by the disintegration of a previous sense of invincibility; a creeping sense that crises could strike the heart of the US on a scale hitherto unseen. We’ve seen how this sense of fragility has manifested since, with cries of Make America Great Again, the lionising of coal and the suspicion around green energy wrapped up in a desire to return to a simpler time when the dangers of climate change were not widely known, and thus seemed not to exist.
The depiction of tornadoes obliterating the Hollywood sign and the US flag freezing solid can be understood in terms of a nation rocked by the disintegration of a previous sense of invincibility
The climate shift in the film can be seen as an allegory of these changing perceptions of danger. The burning of books in the New York City Public Library, the repeated invocations of threatened Western civilisation, the lauding of the Gutenberg press and the bogus implication that the West is the only cradle of progress capable of defending the written word. It all speaks to a fearful nation beset by feelings of insecurity in the wake of 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq. The early 2000s was a paranoid moment defined by ‘disquiet about the country’s future’, in the words of the writer Ross Douthat. A generalised sense of anxiety permeates the film, and could go some of the way – beyond Hollywood being Hollywood – in explaining its myopic US-centrism.
So does The Day After Tomorrow jar with a modern audience’s environmental sensibilities? Absolutely, but perhaps not so much as we might expect. For one, on-screen portrayals of the climate emergency haven’t progressed enough to draw a particularly sharp contrast. Analysis by BAFTA’s sustainability initiative ‘albert’, conducted by Deloitte, found that climate change was mentioned just 13,613 times on BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, and Sky, between September 2018 and August 2019. For scale, dogs were mentioned 131,822 times.
For one, today's on-screen portrayals of the climate emergency haven’t progressed enough to draw a particularly sharp contrast
As for cinema, the film writer Nicholas Barber has noted that a glut of apocalyptic films released since The Day After Tomorrow, from Sunshine (2007) and Children of Men (2006) to Interstellar (2014) has – just as with Emmerich’s more obviously climate-focused film – responded to climate anxiety without ever actually mentioning carbon emissions. In general, where climate change is explicitly addressed, it usually takes the form of the ‘cli-fi’ genre of which The Day After Tomorrow is a part: science fiction films like Waterworld (1995), Wall-E (2008), or Mad Max Fury Road (2015) that present us with post-apocalyptic visions of a world ruined by climate crisis, and follow characters adapted to live among the wreckage, rather than characters trying to mitigate the catastrophe before it hits. These films play a vital role in warning us of the course we are on in the present, and offer alternative imaginings of the future. But similar narratives were being written in 1962 when JG Ballard wrote The Drowned World. It’s startling how little has changed in our storytelling habits since then.
The writer Amitav Ghosh famously called our era ‘The Great Derangement’ because of the way climate change is concealed from the stories we tell ourselves. This remains so, but there are also some examples of films made since The Day After Tomorrow which demonstrate an alternative approach. Films like Dark Waters (2019), First Reformed (2017) and Woman of War (2018) – and documentaries such as The Age of Consequences (2016) – have managed to locate the environmental story in a world recognisable to us in the present, often zooming in on figures attempting to stem the tide. This feels significant, even if such examples remain niche compared to their blockbuster cousins.
The Day After Tomorrow took a more misleading approach, yes, but these failures themselves can provide us with some useful lessons. It was based on a fanciful climate scenario, but deserves credit for encouraging viewers ‘to engage in personal, political, and social action to address climate change’, in the words of Yale Climate Communications. Its key fault was to remove agency from the climate story, but this can serve as a useful example for Westerners of the dangers of centring ourselves in the climate story while simultaneously abdicating responsibility for it. These lessons may not have been the warning from history that Professor Hall intended, but they are important all the same. So yes, The Day After Tomorrow was actually really problematic. But by considering how and why, we can equip ourselves with the means to tell better stories in the present. Rarely has there been a more urgent task.
It's Freezing in LA! recommends a range of films that do offer a more convincing vision of climate crisis. Take a look at Lilith’s recommendations of environmental films by female and non-binary makers here, or our lockdown 1 list here.