Hollywood Movies

Can Hollywood films pass the ‘climate reality check’? Justice League, Glass Onion do. San Andreas, The Meg do not

May 30, 20244 Mins Read

Aquaman might not mind if the oceans rise, but film-goers might.

That is one of the takeaways from research that set out to determine if today’s Hollywood blockbusters are reflective of the climate crisis. The vast majority of films failed the “climate reality check” proposed by the authors, who surveyed 250 films from 2013 to 2022.

The test is simple – the authors looked to see if a movie presented a story in which climate change exists, and whether a character knows it does.

One film that passed the test was the 2017 superhero movie Justice League, in which Jason Momoa’s Aquaman character says to Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne: “Hey, I don’t mind if the oceans rise.”

But most films fell short – fewer than 10 per cent of the 250 films passed, and climate change was mentioned in two or more scenes in than 4 per cent of the films.

Jason Momoa in a still from Aquaman, which passed the “climate reality check”. Photo: Warner Bros Pictures

That puts them out of touch with a moviegoing public that wants “to see their reality reflected on screen”, says Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, lead researcher on the study and English professor at Colby College in the US state of Maine.

“The top line is just that the vast majority of films, popular films produced over the last 10 years in the United States, are not portraying the world as it is,” Schneider-Mayerson says. “They are portraying a world that is now history or fantasy – a world in which climate change is not happening.”

Researchers at Colby College published the study in April along with Good Energy, a Los Angeles-based environmental consultancy. The results were peer reviewed, and the authors are seeking publication in scientific journals.

The researchers view the test as a way for audience members, writers and filmmakers to evaluate the representation of climate change on screen.

Some results were surprising. Movies that at first glance appear to have little overlap with climate or the environment passed the test.

Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson in a still from Marriage Story, which passed the “climate reality check”.

Marriage Story, Noah Baumbach’s emotive 2019 drama about the collapse of a relationship, passed the test in part because Adam Driver’s character is described as “energy conscious”, Schneider-Mayerson says.

The 2022 whodunnit Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery and the 2019 folk horror movie Midsommar were others to pass the test. Some that were more explicitly about climate change, such as the 2021 satire Don’t Look Up, also passed.

But San Andreas, a 2015 movie about a West Coast earthquake disaster, and The Meg, a 2018 action movie set in the ocean, did not.

Injecting an awareness of our communal plight into the stories we ingest seems like a no-brainer

Alison Bechdel, cartoonist who popularised the Bechdel-Wallace test of gender representation in film

The authors narrowed the selection of films by excluding those not set on Earth or set before 2006 or after 2100. They found streaming services had a higher percentage of films that included climate change than the major studios did.

The study is “valuable for marketing purposes, informational purposes, data accumulation”, says Harry Winer, director of sustainability at the Kanbar Institute of Film and Television at the New York University Tisch School of the Arts.

Winer, who was not involved in the study, said it could also help serve as an incentive to connect audiences with climate stories.

“The audience will be more open to hearing a dialogue about what is right and what is wrong,” Winer says. “It’s a conversation starter.”

Action thriller San Andreas did not pass the “climate reality check”.

The study authors say they see the climate reality check as a kind of Bechdel-Wallace test for climate change.

Alison Bechdel, a cartoonist, is credited with popularising that test in the 1980s by incorporating her friend Liz Wallace’s test about gender representation in film into a comic strip.

The test asks if a movie includes at least two female characters who have a conversation about something other than a man.

Bechdel herself spoke highly of the study’s climate test, which she described as “long overdue” in a social media post during this year’s Academy Awards season.

Bechdel said in an email that “for a movie set in the present to ignore this existential threat just doesn’t make sense any more” in the age of climate change.

“I do worry that screenwriters might do it in a kind of rote way, which could be counterproductive, just like rote ‘strong female characters’ are,” Bechdel said. “But injecting an awareness of our communal plight into the stories we ingest seems like a no-brainer.”

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