The first time most people likely remember climate change making a splash at the Academy Awards was 2007, when Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth won not one but two Oscars: Best Feature Documentary and Best Original Song. But it’s far from the only film that tackles the issue—and increasingly, talking about climate change has not been restricted to documentaries.
We looked back across the past four decades of Best Picture nominees and noticed a clear uptick in films that grapple with the climate crisis in one way or another. It seems not only is this theme being increasingly tackled in major films—but doing so creatively and compellingly is an ever-more crucial part of connecting with the experiences audiences are having in their own lives.
The first real moment came with Erin Brockovich, released in 2000—while not strictly about climate change, the film has become an iconic encapsulation of environmental justice and corporate accountability narratives which are central to the climate story.
It was another seven years before the next climate-related movie was nominated for best picture. In 2007, two films were released that tackled issues central to the world’s environmental crises: Michael Clayton was a legal drama about a chemical corporation accused of covering-up knowledge that its weed killer was carcinogenic, and There Will Be Blood was centered on California’s oil boom.
After this though is really when things pick up—and get significantly more blatant about climate change. You’ve got the movies where the audience is invited to imagine a more sustainable type of world: Avatar released in 2009, Black Panther in 2018, and Avatar: The Way of Water last year (and up for best picture this Sunday). Then there are the movies that show us what a climate-ravaged future will look like if we don’t take action. Think Mad Max: Furry Road in 2015 and Dune in 2021. The risks to vulnerable and marginalized communities are laid bare in Beasts of the Southern Wild in 2013 and 2019’s Parasite, which won best picture in 2020. And how could we forget the 2021 Blockbuster Don’t Look Up? That film used satire and an asteroid to unpack our current state of simultaneous urgency and complacency when it comes to addressing the climate challenge.
These films can broadly be grouped into two categories: ones that treat our own experience of climate change as an analogy to the world of imagined realities, like Avatar, and ones where real-world climate impacts and conversations affect realistic characters’ lives, such as in Beasts of the Southern Wild. This second category is in the minority but is where more focus needs to be, says Anna Jane Joyner, founder and CEO of Good Energy, an organization that supports TV and film creators in telling better climate stories.
Analyzing over 37,000 television and movie scripts for a series of key terms, researchers at Good Energy and the University of Southern California last year found that between 2016 and 2020 just 2.8% of these stories mentioned climate change. And to be sure, the vast majority of Best Picture nominees have nothing to do with climate change, let alone the environment—this small subset makes up just 4% of the 271 films nominated since 1980.
“When the vast majority of the television shows and the films that we watch are literally depicting a different world than the world that we actually live in, it perpetuates a false sense of normalcy that’s very dangerous,” says Joyner. “But it’s also not good for the story because you’re creating a disconnect between the audience and the characters. … As the climate continues to get worse, in the next five, certainly 10 years, and you’re telling a story that takes place on this earth in modern times or in the future that doesn’t acknowledge climate change, it’s going to feel divorced from the audience’s lives. You know, kind of like showing flip phones instead of iPhones.”
But Joyner is excited about what lies ahead. “The stories that come out in the next five years are going to be the precedent for how climate change is talked about in narrative film. It’s a very creative moment that we’re in where the stories are very important, and it’s exciting because writers are able to do something that nobody has ever done before.”
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