May 31, 2004

Flirting with Disaster

The environment community is all abuzz over the first "summer" 2004 blockbuster attempt by Hollywood: "The Day After Tomorrow." The movie depicts a climate run amuck thanks to decades of excessive greenhouse gas emissions by yours truly -- homo sapiens!

So is this really "the movie the White House doesn't want you to see," or will Dick Cheney be handing out free movie passes and popcorn in the Rose Garden?

Environmentalists are hoping the movie will draw positive attention to climate change and in particular to the Bush administration's dismal record on the subject. is rallying the troops, Al Gore is stumping, and Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman have a spring in their step as they look to reintroduce their Climate Stewardship Act in the Senate.

I have to admit that I was pretty hopeful when I first heard about it, but I've come to realize, like many others, that it's just as likely that the movie could hurt the movement. Environmental NGOs and climate experts are acknowledging that the details of the movie are, at best, overwhelmingly implausible. In its unsurprising over-dramatization, the movie could reinforce skeptics' views that the threats of climate change are greatly exaggerated and don't warrant the type of response that many environmentalists advocate. Critics of the Kyoto Protocol have a fresh opportunity to pan the global agreement, with the added convenience of a weak, easily-refutable sci-fi target.

I haven't seen the movie myself yet, but the early reviews aren't exactly pretty. To add insult to injury, the movie's premise opens it up to a wide range of predictably sarcastic puns from movie reviewers.

Mr. Cranky -- bless his caustic e-soul -- was of course in fine form:

There's a disaster hurtling toward Earth, and it's this movie.

How big a disaster? Big enough that Hollywood denizens should dive into their underground bunkers and brace for impact. Big enough that the producers would have been better off taking the $125 million budget and flushing it, dollar-by-dollar, down the toilet. Big enough that by the actual day after tomorrow, the only tornadoes destroying L.A. will be the tornadoes of failure decimating the career of any Hollywood executive who was even seen near this project.

"The Day After Tomorrow" is basically weather porn. The acting, story and dialog are but a flimsy pretext to get us to the money shot of a big storm destroying something. However, director Roland Emmerich can't contain himself and delivers a premature climax in the first half of the movie as Los Angeles and New York are torn asunder.

It's hard to hope for (or fear!) too much from this movie. President Bush is unlikely to sign the Kyoto Protocol tomorrow morning, but at the same time the movie is unlikely to set the environmental movement back 20 years. If all goes well, the movie could result in a "teachable moment," as some have suggested. And in an interview with National Geographic News, Tom Prugh, a senior editor at the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C., offered a pleasantly level-headed comment:

I hope people will come away with the lesson that we need to be more careful with the climate that we're fooling around with -- not that they need to worry about buying property in Mexico because the Northern Hemisphere is going to be locked up in an icebox. [...] One of the key lessons of the film is that this is a very big, very complex system that we don't understand very well. Since we're conducting a giant experiment with this huge, complicated, poorly understood system, weird and unexpected stuff is probably going to happen.

Like wolves running amock on Fifth Avenue, apparently. Pass the popcorn, and keep your fingers crossed for the environment.

Posted by anatole at May 31, 2004 01:38 PM

Mmmm.... weather porn...

Seriously, when has a Hollywood movie ever helped any meaningful cause? I bet there are examples, but I can't think of one right away.

Posted by: Alasdair at May 31, 2004 06:18 PM

A good question. A number of movie names have come up in the reviews of "The Day After Tomorrow" -- Dr. Strangelove (the most frequently mentioned), To Kill a Mockingbird, and China Syndrome, to name just a few.

Of course, measuring the extent to which these films did something specific -- as opposed to contributing broadly but non-distinctly to a social movement -- is very difficult, although I imagine the subject has been studied extensively. Part of the problem is teasing apart cause and effect. The movies were no doubt as much a product of their generations and the issues of the time as they were catalysts for change.

An article in Melbourne's The Age suggests that movies are the "nagging conscience of America," arguing more of a hindsight criticism role for Hollywood (a la "All the President's Men"). It's a simple and fairly one-sided analysis of the role Hollywood plays in film-ifying U.S. history, but you might want to have a look.

Posted by: Anatole at June 3, 2004 02:20 AM