As eco-disaster films become more prominent amidst Hollywood blockbusters, Jack Richardson investigates how other cinematic genres approach themes relating to the climate crisis. 

Towards the beginning of Roland Emmerich’s 2004 climate disaster blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow, our handsome and charismatic climate scientist Jack Hall (played by Dennis Quaid) is attempting to persuade world leaders of the disastrous consequences of climate inaction. He pleads with them, arguing that short-term expenditure is a drop in the (quickly rising) ocean compared to the calamity awaiting humankind if we do nothing.

It is deeply and traumatically resonant. No, not because of our handsome climate scientist. Neither is it the film’s often tenuous grasp on scientific reality. It is embodied in the response of the US Vice President, a thinly veiled Dick Cheney stand-in. Confronted by the duty to act, to protect our planet, he dismisses it. The economy is too weak. The science is overblown. He has the opportunity to change course, but refuses. He is ignorant and self-interested. The scariest part? He is all too familiar.

"As the threat becomes ever-imminent, filmmakers have sought to tap into our shared anxiety around climate change, turning disaster into spectacle."

After the COP 26 conference in Glasgow, it has become even clearer that the window of opportunity we have to avert climate disaster is almost closed. And yet, world leaders and fossil fuel executives continue to prevaricate, hiding behind the economy as if consumer capitalism could exist in a world of environmental collapse. As the threat becomes ever-imminent, filmmakers have sought to tap into our shared anxiety around climate change, turning disaster into spectacle. As eco-disaster films become an unlikely Hollywood stalwart, blockbusters like Dean Devlin’s 2017 disaster film Geostorm use the spectre of apocalyptic weather scenarios to get audiences’ blood pumping.

Perhaps no other figure is as influential in the history of this genre than Roland Emmerich. While he did not invent the climate blockbuster, he has directed some of the highest-grossing examples of the genre, such as apocalyptic disaster film 2012, serving as the template for others. The Day After Tomorrow is arguably the exemplar for this genre. Eschewing global warming for a rapidly ensuing ice age caused by humanity’s disregard for the environment, it was a commercial triumph on release, with a box office of over $500 million. This provoked a storm of controversy, with climate change deniers accusing the film of being alarmist and unrealistic, while scientists both supported its general message and criticised its scientific inaccuracy.

Ice age in New York in The Day After Tomorrow
The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

What makes The Day After Tomorrow so fascinating is how it embodies the tension built into the eco disaster film. Are they cynical, exploiting serious issues for entertainment? Is it more important to be accurate or provocative? Ultimately, what difference - if any - do these films make in raising awareness of climate change and encouraging the public to take action?

Certainly, you could argue the film treats catastrophic climate change like Godzilla, a stampeding force of nature terrorizing humanity, but that seems unfair. The film goes to great lengths to remind the audience that climate inaction from our leaders and corporations is to blame for the freezing Earth. It is not a freak event, nor a malevolent force. It is the result of centuries of emitting carbon, polluting our atmosphere and destroying our ecosystem. Of course, the science is largely ludicrous.

"By showing us a hypothetical doomsday result of our current actions, [The Day After Tomorrow] motivates us to organise for climate justice, taking necessary steps to avert catastrophe."

While our scientific understanding is constantly improving, it is pretty safe to say the Earth is not going to enter a barely habitable ice age overnight. Nevertheless, what it lacks in scientific rigour, it makes up for in the response it provokes. By showing us a hypothetical doomsday result of our current actions, it motivates us to organise for climate justice, taking necessary steps to avert catastrophe. The Day After Tomorrow might be implausible and occasionally over the top, but it affects how we think about climate change, and in that sense, it succeeds.

More contemporary climate blockbusters have pushed the genre forward in its scope. In the 2013 science fiction film Snowpiercer, directed by Bong Joon-Ho, the last vestiges of humanity live on a constantly moving train, ploughing through the desolate and cold remnants of Earth. While it might appear superficially similar to The Day After Tomorrow in exploring global cooling, it is a very different movie. It cleverly uses the fantastical tale to depict social inequality and its intersections with climate change.

The rich passengers live a relatively comfortable life, insulated from the bleak outside world, while the majority barely survive in harsh and crowded conditions. While climate change might affect all of us, it is no equaliser. BIPOC communities, immigrants and working-class people will bear the brunt of the consequences of climate inaction. Unlike The Day After Tomorrow, Snowpiercer is not attempting to depict anything remotely scientifically plausible. And yet, in its grim depiction of climate injustice, it is viscerally relevant.

While many climate films are live-action blockbusters, animated films have provided some of the most moving and optimistic artistic responses to the climate crisis. Hayao Miyazaki’s 1997 classic Princess Mononoke might not spring to mind as an eco disaster film. Alas, the film is a stunning story of humankind and nature; how we forgot our place is within, and not outside, nature. It is a deeply empathetic movie, both to the polluted climate and the ignorant humans, and imparts a sense of hope needed in preventing climate disaster.

WALL-E drifts through space holding his arm up to touch a sparkly ice-like substance in the air above him
WALL-E (2008)

When examining climate change in film, however, there is no endeavour quite as hopeful as Andrew Stanton’s 2008 masterpiece WALL-E. This might not seem apparent at first; the Earth appears devastated and uninhabitable, and humanity have long since fled to the stars. Ecological disaster has occurred. Humanity, however, is not hopeless. Through a whimsical and optimistic robot, they rediscover their connection to Earth, and forge a difficult yet necessary path to redemption. WALL-E might be depressing at first, but as the film unfolds it is motivating and inspiring. To be alive during the climate crisis is an oppressive and bleak experience. WALL-E is the warm beacon of light that tells us we can be better than we are now, and it has never been so vital.

Find out more and book tickets for EIFF Youth Eco Weekender at Filmhouse, with captioned screenings of The Day After Tomorrow and Geostorm! Tickets cost only £2.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of Filmhouse/CMI.