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The Climate Crisis in a Theatre (and Town) Near You
by Massimo Paciotto Biggers
James Cameron’s long-awaited sequel to his first film, Avatar: The Way of Water, has hit the theatres. Movie goers have been transported to the planet of Pandora in a battle over environmental protection and greed, and the fallout of climate change. For Gen Z viewers like me, it’s not like climate crisis has been missing in full view on the screen—or in real life.
Avatar opened in 2009, and since then, CO2 emissions have hit record numbers. Years of historic levels of drought, flooding and displacement have wrecked every part of the planet. UN chief Antonio Guterres recently reminded the world we are on a “highway to climate hell.” Iowa is no exception. Three quarters of the state has suffered the worst drought in a decade.
It shouldn’t take a blockbuster like Avatar–or a handful of films that have taken on climate change directly, like Don’t Look Up, Woman at War and Interstellar–for us to recognize the growing crisis and act on it.
We don’t need “climate change” films to address the reality around us.
Filmmakers have been giving us the heads up for years. Charlton Heston slogged through the apocalyptic streets of New York in Soylent Green in 1973. Spike Lee’s characters complained about the heat waves in Do the Right Thing in 1989–a year after NASA climate scientist James Hansen testified in front of Congress that “ global warming has begun.”
Alex Garland's feature film Annihilation, came out in 2018. Author of The Beach, Garland is one of the defining voices of Gen X. The film’s main theme is self-destruction. Biologist and Army veteran, Lena (Natalie Portman) experiences her husband’s return from a Special Forces mission. Convulsing in a seizure, he’s rushed by government forces to a secret compound. A psychologist explains to Lena that her husband went on a mission in a mysterious zone they call the “Shimmer.” He was the only person to return.
The film follows Lena on an expedition into the “Shimmer.” Lena is bent on finding what is wrong with her husband. The second she steps into the “Shimmer,” the screen goes black. The film cuts to her waking up with no memory of her journey, even though she realizes she had been traveling for several days.
Farther into the “Shimmer,” Lena experiences attacks from almost alien-like animals. She encounters a crocodile with shark teeth and a bear that has almost human vocal cords. Lena tests her own DNA, and realizes that she, too, is mutating.
The mutation of the DNA in this film could be a metaphor of our own climate crisis. With loss of habitat, drought, and animal movement into new territorial zones, we’ve experienced increasing dangers of vector-borne diseases. Iowans understand this well. The epidemic of Lyme disease has been linked to disease-carrying deer ticks driven south from rising temperatures and humidity.
At the conclusion of Annihilation, Lena survives, attacking and killing an alien, and finally returning home. The “Shimmer” disappears and Lena reappears, but is it the real Lena? Lena’s aggression towards the alien stands as a metaphor for humanity destroying itself.
We are aware of the climate crisis today. We know that clean energy is cheaper and more efficient, but in a lounge of self-destruction, we still continue to burn fossil fuels and allow widespread deforestation, mining and drilling. As a leader in wind energy, parts of Iowa present a picture of a more hopeful future. Sadly, institutions like the University of Iowa, among others, still needlessly use coal and natural gas, burning the future of their students in the process.
Hollywood science fiction movies are not alone in holding up a mirror to the crises of our times.
Thirty years ago, French director Jean-Pier Jeunet released his film, Delicatessen, a black comedy that depicts a world where food is in short supply and grain and corn are used as currency. Jeunet portrays a decaying world with brick buildings engulfed in fog. Deeper into the movie you witness a community that lives in the sewers. The movie revolves around an unemployed circus clown, Luoison, moving to a new apartment building.
A farce, the film focuses on the butcher shop, where people pay with sacks of grain for small amounts of mysterious meat. Louison has no idea what is happening in the butcher shop or building, nor his own role in it. The tenants don’t care about the lives of anyone as long as they can get their meat. Quirky, awkward characters fill your screen and you find yourself surprised at how much they resemble, despite their absurd personalities, people in our own times.
Delicatessen adds comedy to a situation of despair and apocalypse, while Annihilation shows the terrifying results of messing with nature.
In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Cameron said “we skipped from complete denial [of climate change] to fatalistic acceptance,” since the last Avatar. He added that the filmmaker’s role is not to “make it all gloom and doom anymore but to offer constructive solutions.”
The same is true for filmgoers.
Massimo Paciotto Biggers is a senior at City High School in Iowa City, who plans to study Film and Music. As the leader of the Climate Strike in Iowa City, he was selected by the Press Citizen as the “Citizen of the Year” in 2019.
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