Climate change is a notoriously unclickable topic, yet it undeniably captures our imagination, given how often it shows up as a central plot point in films. From Waterworld to the charming animated feature Ice Age, it just keeps coming back.
Climate fiction, or cli-fi, is a growing genre of films where changing climate drives the plot. The visual dramatics can be a rapid resurfacing of the planet in ice, resetting us to a high-contrast Holocene. Or it might be drying out in a desiccated desert dystopia. It can even be something halfway realistic. Sometimes the change is the key plot throwing our heroes into upheaval, while other times it’s an established background element creating an unsetting alien-yet-familiar take on our current world.
Good, bad, original, blatant rip-offs, serious films and mockeries, these are eight movies that help define the cli-fi genre.
It’s rising sea levels amped up to extremes with Waterworld. The ice caps have all melted, and instead of rising just a few meters, the oceans are high enough to engulf entire continents, so that humans find themselves scrounging for a living while adrift at sea. The religious equivalent Noah almost makes more sense by relying on an wrathful god as the source of improbable water. The movie is terrible in so many ways, yet it’s a cli-fi classic in terms of visualizing our soggy, waterlogged future.
A climatologist discoveries that a shift in the Earth’s poles immediately flipped the planet into an ice age over the course of a single day in the past, and that it’s about to do it again tomorrow. No one believes him, then it happens anyway. That’s it. Absolute Zero is a made-for-TV rip-off of The Day After Tomorrow with orbital dynamics instead of climate change.
Magic, science, who cares what the cause is? The kingdom of Arendelle is thrown into an abrupt ice age that can only be mitigated through humans working together. Consider Frozen’s villains as nations and corporations struggling with uncertain conditions, and you’ve got a fantastical analogy for our current climate uncertainty, but with a catchier soundtrack.
In the action spy comedy Kingsman: The Secret Service, the megalomaniacal bad guy is a determined to address climate change by killing off most of humanity. It’s an oddly more practical motivation than most Bond villains, making it kind of a weird meta-parody.
An attempt at using geological engineering to address climate change goes horribly off the rails, throwing the world into an ice age instead. After establishing the setting, no one in Snowpiercer cares all that much about the environment outside their train. That’s understandable, given how full of chaos and death it is.
Why do we have a hurricane full of sharks in Sharknado? Climate change. No, really. This made-for-TV movie was an instant cli-fi camp classic when it first aired on the SyFy channel in 2013, spawning two sequels (and counting).
The adventures of Scrat (and the rest, but you know it’s all about the squirrel) are focused on trying to keep up with a rapidly-changing world. Whether it’s the creeping ice of an impending Ice Age, or an outburst flood during Ice Age 2: The Meltdown doesn’t matter. The message is clear: everyone needs to move and adapt to survive.
No cli-fi list can possibly escape the iconic rapid-onset climate change featuring everything from highly-technical thermohalocline circulation collapse and painfully realistic political troubles, to the downright hilarious attempts to outrun the speed of cold. By dramatically shortening the timescale of climate change, The Day After Tomorrow condensed the consequences of the looming catastrophe into human timeframes. For all its faults, the movie spawned countless imitators of its ice-covered landscapes — for good reason.
What cli-fi classics did we miss? Jump into the comments with your favorite examples of fantastic must-watches or the delightfully horrid films you can’t stop hate-watching.