Disney’s “Tomorrowland” may be bombing at the box office, but on the plus side, it could win a Cliffie.
The Cliffie awards go to films that exemplify “cli-fi,” or climate fiction, an emerging genre heating up this year as climate change themes seep from documentaries into big-budget Hollywood features.
That means cli-fi films such as “Tomorrowland,” which has tanked despite an A-list director in Brad Bird and huge star in George Clooney, could be just the tip of the iceberg.
“The narrative for Hollywood is that global warming is a growing crisis, and it’s now set to permeate more and more of the pop culture,” said Marc Morano, publisher of the website Climate Depot, which takes a skeptical view of doomsday climate change scenarios. “I’ve noticed that even in TV shows, there have been mentions of global warming.”
Whether the movie-going public is on board with the messaging is another question. Based on the receipts of “Tomorrowland,” maybe not: The film, which had an estimated $330 million production and marketing budget, has grossed only $178 million worldwide since its May 22 release, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com.
Although the film earned praise for special effects, some critics panned it as “preachy,” “smug” and “proselytizing.” The film scored a low 50 percent “rotten” rating from critics and audiences on Rotten Tomatoes.
“Even when delivered with the best intentions, a lecture is a wretched substitute for wonder,” Variety chief film critic Justin Chang said in his review.
Breitbart reviewer John Nolte wasn’t as kind.
“The truth is that ‘Tomorrowland’ didn’t look like a very good movie, is not a very good movie, has nothing but contempt for customers it obviously sees as inferior, and bases its central premise on a breathtaking lie,” says Mr. Nolte, referring to global warming.
Contrast that with “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” produced by Britain’s Marv Films, which adds a twist to the climate change trend by casting as its villain a billionaire, played by Samuel L. Jackson, bent on eradicating all but a select few from the planet to save it from the “virus” of humankind.
Although “Kingsman” can’t touch “Tomorrowland” in terms of production value, the British product has been a hit, earning $403.7 million worldwide since its December release, five times its $81 million budget, along with a 74 percent “fresh” rating from Rotten Tomatoes.
“Kingsman” apparently drew from author Michael Crichton’s 2004 anti-ecoterrorist novel, “State of Fear,” instead of the pervasive doomsday narrative, but that could reflect the climate change movement’s ever-increasing scope.
“Because it’s a big issue, you’ll also get the occasional ‘Kingsman’ slipped in there that has a skeptical take on the whole thing,” said Mr. Morano, whose pro-skeptic documentary “Climate Hustle” is slated for release this year.
Even though the bad guy in “The Kingsman” is a “climate alarmist/eco-terrorist,” the film is also in the running for a Cli-Fi movie award because it deals with climate fiction, said Dan Bloom, a journalist who started the Cliffies two years ago.
“Climate change issues are just in the air,” said Mr. Bloom. “I think the newspapers every day are filled with climate issues, pro and con. It’s just in the culture, and of course directors and producers are just picking up on this in some way.”
Mr. Bloom traces the evolution of climate change films to the granddaddy of them all, “The Day After Tomorrow” in 2004, followed by a series of cli-fi documentaries such as “An Inconvenient Truth” in 2006, “Gasland” in 2010 and “Chasing Ice” in 2012.
“The first step was documentaries,” Mr. Bloom said. “But documentaries are facts, and because it’s such a contentious issue, people just end up debating pro and con based on ideology.”
On the other hand, “fiction hits people in an emotional way. Maybe documentaries paved the way, but documentaries can’t change the conversation very much because people take sides. Maybe Hollywood directors and screenwriters are thinking, ‘Maybe we can reach people with emotions,’ and maybe that’s what we’re seeing now.”
Mr. Bloom added, “And I think we’re going to see a lot more in the next 10 years.”
This is shaping up to be the biggest cli-fi year yet. Already, “Mad Max: Fury Road,” about a dystopian future, has been embraced by environmentalists as a tale about a globally warmed future, although the original “Mad Max,” released in 1979, preceded climate-change’s prominence as a political issue.
Australian director George Miller agrees that the latest film has “an environmental story, but it’s in the subtext.”
“The sad thing is that it doesn’t really require much exposition for the audience to buy a degraded world, because we already see evidence of it happening all around us,” Mr. Miller said in a Sierra magazine interview titled “Fury Road: All Your Darkest Environmental Nightmares Come True.”
Scheduled for release later this year is “Chloe and Theo,” starring Dakota Johnson as a “young, homeless girl from New York who befriends an Inuit man, Theo Ikummaq (played by himself).”
“Ikummaq has been sent to New York by his elders on a quest to convince leaders at the United Nations that climate change is real before his home literally melts away,” according to an April 16 article from ClimateWire on E&E Publishing.
Although “Chloe and Theo” sounds like a bona fide cli-fi flick, the distinction between cli-fi and sci-fi isn’t always as clear. Debate raged last year over whether “Interstellar,” starring Matthew McConaughey, was a climate change film, with reviewers at many conservative outlets saying no and those at progressive sites saying yes.
Director Christopher Nolan’s response: Not really. “[W]e try not to be didactic in the writing. We try not to give any particular message or sense of things,” he told Reuters in November.
His response frustrated Climate Progress’ Joe Romm. “Yes, why make a big-budget movie about an eco-collapse that looks a lot like worst-case projections for global warming and then bother to give viewers ‘any particular message or sense of things?’” Mr. Romm asked.
Maybe because audiences tend to avoid movies that hit them over the head with a lecture, said conservative columnist and radio talk show host Derek Allan Hunter.
“Nobody wants to walk into a theater and have somebody smack them upside the head with a dead fish,” Mr. Hunter said. “It seems like they come up with a cause and then they try to make a movie around it rather than come up with a good idea for a movie.”
Another 2014 sci-fi film that used climate change as a plot device was “Snowpiercer,” the English-language debut by South Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho and starring Chris Evans from “Captain America.” But the film more resembled the skeptical “Kingsman” by being set in a futuristic dystopian world where an attempt to prevent global warming has frozen the planet and killed all human life except for the few crammed into the titular globe-trotting bullet train.
“Snowpiercer” cost $40 million to make but won critical praise and grossed $85 million worldwide, albeit almost all of it outside the U.S.
There is evidence that climate change movies can sway public opinion. In a 2009 study by Anthony A. Leiserowitz, 49 percent of those surveyed said they were somewhat or much more worried about global warming after seeing “The Day After Tomorrow,” even though the film is set in a massive ice age.
“The Day After Tomorrow had a significant impact on the climate change risk perceptions, conceptual models, behavioral intentions, policy priorities, and even voting intentions of moviegoers,” said his study, which was published in the Yale School of Forestry & Environment publication Environment.
A Pew Research Center poll released last year found that most voters believe climate change is real but don’t see it as much of a threat. Global warming typically ranks at or near the bottom of voters’ concerns, surveys show.
It’s no secret that Hollywood is liberal, and Mr. Morano said he expects to see more movies stoking alarm over climate change in the next 18 months as the presidential election nears.
“Hollywood realizes that if a global warming activist president wins, that means the [Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency] regulations are permanent, that means the U.N. climate treaty is probably going to become permanent in America — two major victories that were achieved by sidestepping the usual democratic process,” Mr. Morano said.
“What they’re trying to do is minimize protest by continuing to indoctrinate the public and make everyone concerned about it,” he said.