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New Films Experiment With How We See Climate Change in Their Portrayals

New Films Experiment With How We See Climate Change in Their Portrayals

A defining scene in Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s startling movie Evil Does Not Exist shows an adversarial meeting between the residents of an idyllic Japanese village and the representatives of an opportunistic Tokyo-based company. The two groups have gathered to discuss plans for the construction of a luxury camping site. To build goodwill for the project, the representatives, a pair of meek city dwellers, deploy banal commercialese to make their case. They use phrases like “optimize” and “invigorate” to describe what the site might bring to the area. They insist it will be “mutually beneficial.”

But these benefits, if they are even to be taken seriously, are one-sided. Life in this pastoral community depends on finely tuned interactions between humans and the environment. Throughout Evil Does Not Exist, Hamaguchi offers elegant glimpses of daily routines as evidence of this carefully navigated relationship. We see Takumi, a central character played with haunting ambiguity by Hitoshi Omika, fetching spring water for a local restaurant, chopping wood and teaching his 8-year-old daughter, Hana (Ryô Nishikawa), how to identify local vegetation. Later, a chef (Hazuki Kikuchi) bathes soba noodles in the water, Takumi throws the wood into a Franklin stove to heat his home and Hana creates a mental map of the forest based on these plants. 

A campsite would disrupt this delicate calibration. The septic tank the company plans to build would pollute all the water downstream. Regardless of the rules, careless patrons will incinerate the woods with their illegal campfires. A proposed fence would obstruct the movement of deer. So when a townsperson eventually tells the corporate representatives, “your actions would turn my world upside down,” she is not speaking entirely metaphorically. And her sentiment is a warning. 

Evil Does Not Exist is one of a handful of recent narrative features folding the realities of climate change into the texture of their stories. In these films, which include Daniel Goldhaber’s How to Blow Up a PipelineChristian Petzold’s Afire and Ramata-Toulaye Sy’s Banel & Adama, the threat of ecological upset looms large. Climate change is seen as a fraught and ongoing negotiation between humans and the environment instead of a single catastrophic event.

Earlier sketches of our unraveling biosphere dealt in the dark, seductive register of doom. Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow (2004), Scott Derrickson’s 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still and even, more recently, Adam McKay’s satirical comedy Don’t Look Up (2021) offer pseudo-nihilistic portrayals of planetary disaster. Relying on broad narrative strokes, these films deliver operatic emotional conclusions wrapped in vague calls to action. They indulge in the most dramatic scenes of ecocide — imposing waves enveloping midtown Manhattan, snow blanketing New Delhi, comets threatening to crater the Earth’s surface — to warn of imminent annihilation and cast the relationship between humans and the planet as callous and abusive. 

These movies rightly scold our selfishness and indifference — and paint with an inevitably bigger, less nuanced brush given their studio/big-streamer origins and aims to conquer the widest possible viewership. There are limits to this approach, whose sameness can stultify the imagination. Why try to change the world if it’s going to end anyway? 

The newer crop of movies are more interested in the details of resistance and the sobering reality of indifference. In Daniel Goldhaber’s eco-thriller How to Blow Up a Pipeline, a group of environmentalists plan to bomb a Texas oil refinery in a last-ditch effort to draw attention to the current crisis. While the film’s archetypal characters and allegorical plotting pull from the playbook of earlier climate movies, How to Blow Up a Pipeline gets specific where it matters. Each person, from the young woman whose compounding health problems can be traced to corporate ecological malfeasance to the Indigenous man fighting greedy developers, reflects a tangible economic or physical reality of climate change. Their experiences underscore capitalism’s role in global indifference and refocus our attention on corporate disruption instead of just individual lifestyle changes. 

Goldhaber’s attentiveness to process aligns How to Blow Up a Pipeline with Kelly Reichardt’s 2014 film Night Moves, another project about radical environmentalists plotting an extreme action. This group — a trio played with haunting understatement by Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard — blows up a dam in the Pacific Northwest. Reichardt pays close attention to how they strategize and enact their plan, as well as the moral issues grappled with by each member. Night Moves rejects the intoxication of apocalyptic imagery and the ease of pat conclusions for a more meditative posture. The film wrestles with realistic questions: How far can and should we go to get people to pay attention? And what does it mean to dedicate your life to waking up sleepwalkers? 

Leon, the protagonist of German auteur Christian Petzold’s stirring chamber drama Afire, is the noctambulist of a radical environmentalist’s nightmare. The petulant writer spends a summer vacation near the Baltic Sea consumed by his failed novel. Soundtracking his muted interactions with his best friend Felix (Langston Uibel) and even pricklier encounters with a third houseguest, Nadja (Paula Beer) are the whirs of helicopters patrolling the forest and the wails of fire trucks as they rush to extinguish flames. The forest fires rage as Leon and his friends uncouple and reconfigure; fight and make up; drink and laugh. Like Reichardt, Petzold isn’t interested in a morality tale. He stages the climate crisis as a tale of loss, first of a kind of existence — a lifestyle — and then of life itself. 

For most of Afire, the fires register as a nuisance to the young people. When Leon and Felix scour for provisions at the grocery store in town, they are told the chances of a mechanic coming to help them fix their car are low. In the next scene, as Felix and Leon lug their groceries through the beachside main street, a public service announcement prohibiting residents and vacationers from barbecuing and smoking near the forest plays through loudspeakers. It’s not until the flames get closer that the writer awakens to his reality. Felix’s unexpected death — a charred body in an eerily still forest — is a blunter, more potent and concrete metaphor for the climate crisis. Ecological disaster will eventually come for us all. 

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That climate change has no borders is most apparent in Ramata-Toulaye Sy’s compelling debut Banel & Adama, which premiered at Cannes in competition last year (in select theaters June 14). Sy deftly swaddles an intoxicating love story around a chilling climate parable set in a rural northern Senegalese village. Banel, a capricious and defiant young woman played by Khady Mane, and her husband, Adama (Mamadou Diallo), are working toward a future away from the strict mores of their village. But an unusually long drought season causes the cattle to start dying off, and men soon begin leaving the village for work in other places. Then people begin dying, which forces Adama, who was next in line to be chief, to preside over a series of funerals. 

More naive than his wife, Adama breaks down under the weight of his guilt; he thinks his rejecting the chiefdom cursed the village and caused the environmental catastrophes. But the latter collapse is less a hex and more an injury. A violent reality of climate change is the disproportionate scale of suffering: The poorest countries often experience the negative impact of ecological damage first, paying steeply for the greed and indifference of wealthier nations. Banel & Adama might take place in a remote area, but the weight of the larger world’s disregard is hard to ignore. 

We are living through an unprecedented time, in which entire species are being destroyed, natural disasters are becoming more frequent and climate researchers are sounding the alarm louder and louder. Aggressive human consumption habits coupled with rising temperatures and erratic weather patterns have led scientists to call this era the age of extinction. We no longer need to imagine a future of climate disaster, because we are living through it. Accordingly, filmmakers no longer need to shout their environmental messages from the rooftops, rather finding subtler and sharper ways to show how — to echo the townsperson’s sentiment in Evil Does Not Exist — we’ve turned our world upside down.  

This story first appeared in the June 2024 Sustainability issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to see the rest of the issue.

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