In the near future imagined by the Apple TV+ sci-fi drama Extrapolations, humans have discovered how to communicate with humpback whales. One scientist, Sienna Miller’s Rebecca Shearer, even translates a female humpback’s song into English via the sonorous voice of Meryl Streep (who also plays Rebecca’s mother). That’s the good news. The bad news is that the creature is the last of its kind. Rebecca works for a company that is scrambling to preserve the genetic footprint of species that are going extinct due to global warming so that they can be reintroduced when someone figures out how to cool the world.
This juxtaposition of grand-scale catastrophe with glimmers of innovation and hope is typical of Extrapolations, an ambitious look at the potential fallout of climate change from Contagion writer and An Inconvenient Truth producer Scott Z. Burns. Featuring Diane Lane, Daveed Diggs, Edward Norton, Marion Cotillard, Forest Whitaker, Gemma Chan, and many more A-list talents, along with Streep and Miller, the eight-part series follows a rotating cast of characters through interconnected vignettes set between 2037 and 2070. It’s a humane, carefully constructed but often frustrating project—and one that illustrates why insightful art about the climate crisis has proven so elusive.
While Burns seems to understand that viewers have already been inundated, in the news media as well as in fiction, with cold, bleak visions of the future, the series doesn’t entirely escape dystopian tropes. A tech titan to end all tech titans, played by Kit Harington, whose presence haunts every episode, is as mercenary as you’d predict. Complacent, conservative dads disappoint children radicalized by an uncertain future. The weakest story, a cyberpunk thriller with Chan and Tahar Rahim involving uploaded memory and the gig economy, borrows too much from Black Mirror and Blade Runner.
Yet the show mostly avoids lapsing into morbid inertness by moving fluidly between genres. With just a few exceptions, what ties together the disparate episodes is psychologically realistic portraits of complex characters forced to make excruciating choices. Cotillard is stunning in a chamber drama directed by Nicole Holofcener, as a woman whose husband (Whitaker) disrupts a New Year’s Eve dinner party with shocking news. In an episode that applies a spiritual lens to climate change, Diggs plays a Miami rabbi struggling, as rising waters threaten to flood his sanctuary and he contemplates bribing officials to secure government aid, to answer a young congregant’s insistent question: “Why is God doing this to us?”
Extrapolations covers a remarkable amount of ground, traversing the globe from Washington, D.C. to Antarctica to the Middle East and registering the implications of an unprecedented cataclysm on technology, geopolitics, the economy, and human rights. But such a broad scope necessitates some unfortunate choices about what—and whom—to omit. For unknown reasons, political polarization in the U.S. and the rise of authoritarian governments around the world no longer seem to be factors by Burns’ 2030s. With the exception of a tense episode about a Mumbai smuggler (Adarsh Gourav), the main characters are Westerners; most enjoy wealth and influence, unlike the billions on the front lines of environmental collapse, in the Global South.
While the series often works beautifully on the level of individual scripts, characters, and performances, it simply can’t meet the challenge Burns sets up for himself, of extrapolating the next half-century in world events. No TV series could. Which might be why it overindulges in gratuitous set pieces, like a tonally dissonant sequence in which Hamilton breakout Diggs sings and dances to “Singin’ in the Rain,” before finally defaulting to truisms about human nature. “The problem has never been technology,” one wise character concludes. “The problem is us.” If this qualifies as a revelation in 2070, then the planet surely is doomed.
Still, those who think art is as crucial as science to our species’ survival would like to believe no issue is too big for fiction. Extrapolations mistakes realism for insight, but at least it also lays a solid foundation for the many inevitable works on this topic to come. Maybe great art about climate change is only a time jump away.
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