Science Fiction Will Save the World
SciFi films allow us to grapple with the myriad futures that might await us. Legendary Pictures has a powerful (and profitable) card to play in the global climate change conversation.
Science fiction can save the world.
As a SciFi junkie, I believe wholeheartedly that Hollywood film studios have both a duty and a profitable opportunity to produce more science fiction films that deal with climate change. More specifically, they have the opportunity to explore the bleak future that awaits our species if we don’t change our behavior.
One of the most fascinating idiosyncrasies of the climate change debate is that, despite overwhelming scientific evidence to support the many dark realities of our changing climate, there is still immense debate as to whether climate change is real and if human behavior is to blame. Indeed, only 50% of US adults believe that climate change is mostly due to human activity, compared to 87% of AAAS scientists.
Bringing this debate more into the forefront of society is the first goal we need to achieve if we are going to change the behavior that is destroying our environment and heating the globe.
I firmly believe that climate change is the largest threat to the survival of the human species that we will face over the next few hundred years. For science fiction film studios such as Legendary Pictures looking for the next big dystopian plot for a summer block buster, look no further than the melting ice caps.
Science fiction films are a medium through which our society anticipates and processes the realities of technological and political futures that have not yet come to be. When anxiety grew about our increasingly technological lives and the humdrum mundaneness of modern life, the film industry produced The Matrix. To great profit and great public benefit, the film allowed us to grapple with a future not yet to come but with roots in the present.
Increasing the prevalence of climate change themes in science fiction will be a win for the film studios as well as a win for the human species. People crave to see films that resonate with their inner fears and deal with the tensions of society. By grappling with these issues in the film and showing dark potential futures if we do not modify our behavior, the studios will be able to communicate the risks of climate change to the average citizen in a way that scientific publications and moralizing from the intellectual elite is clearly failing to do.
We can see examples of this working in the past. James Cameron’s Avatar is among the highest grossing films ever made, earning over $3.0 billion in revenue worldwide. At the core of Cameron’s film is an unabashed environmentalist theme that addressed many of the cultural and political conversations that were occurring at the time of the film’s release. The idea that cutting down a tree, while providing short term financial gain, could ultimately lead to our species’ destruction was a message being mulled over and debated in the public psyche and which Cameron was able to both clearly articulate and profitably appropriate for the film.
Indeed, we are seeing examples of this play out already. Climate Fiction, or Cli-Fi, is a growing subgenre of science fiction. Snowpiercer, a 2014 dystopian indie film provides a hyper-exaggerated portrayal of a world in which we do not address climate change via behavioral modification but instead rely on a trick of engineering to combat global warming – an attempt which backfires disastrously. Interstellar, the 2014 blockbuster that earned $675 million at the box office, features a cast of astronauts abandoning the earth in a future in which our natural resources are depleted and human life becomes unsustainable.
I chose Legendary Pictures as the subject of this post for a very specific reason. In early 2016 the film studio was acquired by Dalian Wanda Group, a Chinese conglomerate, for $3.5 billion in cash. China is currently the largest greenhouse gas emitting country in the world, emitting nearly twice as much carbon dioxide per year than the second largest producer in the world, the United States.
This presents an interesting conundrum for the Chinese company. Do they allow the creation of science fiction films with climate change themes, even if their home economy relies on the release of massive amounts of carbon dioxide to support their economy’s rapid industrialization? Do they allow political biases to impact the pursuit of something that could be both profitable and morally sound? Only time will tell.
Until then, we will have to wait for Avatar 2.
 “Opinion Differences Between Public and Scientists.” PewResearchCenter. N.p., 28 Jan. 2015. Web. 4 Nov. 2016.
 Ragab, Ahmed, and Sophia Roosth. “The Empire Strikes Back: Science Fiction, Religion, and Society.” Harvard Extension School Web.
 Mendelson, Scott. “Box Office: ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ Isn’t Topping ‘Avatar’ Worldwide, and That’s OK.” Forbes. 22 Jan. 2016. Web. 4 Nov. 2016.
 Fritz, Ben, and Laurie Burkitt. “China’s Dalian Wanda Buys Legendary Entertainment for $3.5 Billion.” The Wall Street Journal. N.p., 12 Jan. 2016. Web. 4 Nov. 2016.
 “CO2 Time Series 1990-2014 per Region/country.” Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research Joint Research Centre. Web. 4 Nov. 2016.
Student comments on Science Fiction Will Save the World
I find this post extremely intriguing – how much can the sci-fi media industry influence society’s view about the truth and impending nature of climate change? While I agree with the author that, by showing the dark potential of worlds devastated by climate change, sci-fi movies can influence the public psyche, I do not believe that this (conscious or subconscious) shift in psyche will spur movie viewers into shifting actual behavior. From my perspective, climate change themed movies that may instill fear in the minds of viewers of what our world may become does not necessarily translate into viewers who take it upon themselves to change their daily behaviors to combat climate change. The issue remains that climate change is not a graspable issue in which an individual’s change in actions will be rewarded with a outcome – it depends on all of us to work collectively to reap rewards.
Thoughtprovoking piece, Jordan – thank you. I agree, and I’m also a fan of sci-fi. Dreamers – artists and sci-fi writers – show the rest of us a way forward. However, it’s interesting that sometimes viewers appear to take away the wrong lessons from sci-fi. Some in the Silicon Valley are convinced that we indeed are living in The Matrix and are funding research to prove it. And films such as Interstellar can convince some that leaving this wretched old planet is a great solution and will devote their lives to making that happen (hello SpaceX), whereas perhaps a more sensible takeaway is that we should lal redouble our efforts to not let that happen. I’m not sure I want my grand(grand(grand))children to live on Mars.
Whilst we are on the topic of Sci-fi: highly recommend Black Mirror (out on Netflix).
Very interesting! The entertainment media has a lot to offer and raising awareness of climate change can drive an environmental friendly behavior of consumers and corporates alike.
I would complement the “what if” of sci-fi movies with documentaries that show what is going on right now – there are many interesting movies that are extremely effective in convincing those who are still in denial of humanity’s impact on the environment. Movies such as “Chasing Ice” (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1579361/) offer strong visual evidence for the consequences of our irresponsible behavior.
I completely agree that climate change is an important topic for the film industry to focus on. The creative writers and directors in the industry wield tremendous power in influencing how the public views certain topics. Furthermore, I believe that they do have the power to actually change our behavior. An episode of the Simpsons (where Lisa becomes a vegetarian) has stuck with me for years and influenced my eating habits. More recently, Avatar (as you mentioned) moved me to be much more involved in recycling and buying sustainably produced products.
Great piece Jordan! The title is intriguing enough, and now you thoughtfully mentioned Wanda Group, I have to respond ^_^
First on the role Sci-Fi plays to our society. All social media reflects the value its society hold. Growing up in China and watching Hollywood movies, I learned that the society values freedom and heroes. These movies serve, in a way, as propaganda for US value to the world, and influence how people see the world. To your point, I agree that climate change should play greater role in future pictures.
Back to the acquisition. As you are probably aware, Wanda Group has great government relationship and its owner, Wang Jianlin is the richest guy in China. Earlier this year in China, the government established a strict set of rules to control foreign currency. Almost all of foreign acquisitions were blocked because of this policy. However, Mr. Wang was able to get this deal through because the Chinese government sees greater importance of exporting its government value through media, especially Hollywood. So you’d probably see more of these acquisitions in the years to come. It’s hard to tell if you’d see certain restrictions (probably you will), you’ll definitely see more Chinese actors and marketing. Check out the “Independence Day: Resurgence”.
In 2005, American author Thomas Friedman published what later has become an internationally regarded piece of work: The World is Flat. Starting from globalization, the book narrated the author’s perspective that each country in this world should accept the particular role the global economy has assigned to her. For example, China, as “the world factory”, should accept the “permanent job” of being a third-world manufacturer, utilizing its low-cost labor and industrial resources. However, what Friedman forgot to point out to our readers explicitly was that the root cause for third-world countries’ cheap labor and resources is due to their lacks of intellectual and technological prowess to battle social issues including the challenging environment problems. With this premise given, United States, as a country founded on the principle of free capitalism where many of the industrial capitalists have accumulated enormous wealth by transferring polluting manufacturing activities to third-world countries to gain cost advantages, may not want to relieve themselves completely of the global climate change responsibilities.
I raise this argument because I believe the upstream manufacturers in developed economies should be well aware of the reason why they could make the profits their domestic counterparties who insist on local manufacturing are not able to make. It would be logically unfair to gain economic advantages from technologically disadvantaged parties while blaming them later for the consequences. Otherwise, why would a technologically advanced country be providing hardworking human capitals at such a low cost? As a matter of fact, such a country should already become one of the developed economies itself who would be providing labor at a price comparable to that of U.S.
This is an interesting post with a provocative question dropped in the end. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it yet couldn’t help pushing back your point as I discussed above. China, having a populating 4 times as big as U.S.’, yet “emitting nearly twice as much carbon dioxide per year than the second largest producer in the world, the United States”, is apparently not the No.1 producer of carbon dioxide per person in this world while nurturing the biggest number of world’s capitalists by being “the world factory”. I have been frequently amazed at how people in developed economies have been holding developing countries solely accountable on a series of environment issues including climate change. In fact, I consider it a solid statement that the developed economies have a joint responsibility to solve the climate issues together with developing countries.
Jordan, what a fascinating article! This really goes to the heart of discussion about whether or not art ought to be a lead or lagging indicator of social norms, i.e. whether studios have a responsibility to communicate the reality of environmental change, or indeed any other key social issue. Should regulators ban a sci-fi film that suggests climate change is a fiction, particularly given the size of its captive audiences? It sounds like the beginning of the slippery slope argument with free speech. All owned media has a social setting agenda either for financial reasons, by virtue of the predisposition of its owners or because it is a lagging indicator of its social context. I believe very strongly that what we term “news”, i.e. media purporting to be fact driven, ought to be more tightly regulated. But when it comes to fiction, and writing as a huge fan of sci-fi, I think the world would a much poorer place if writers were only allowed to express what we know to be concretely true. Where the regulator must play a role in managing fiction and the film industry is in having a feel for the nuance between imagination and propaganda.
Jordan, I slightly disagree with you. I think Avatar 2 can have a negative impact on our environment.
My concern is that sci-fi movies are fully digital and to produce a movie the movie makers use highly innovative technology which often requires a lot of electricity.
When James Cameron started producing the movie Avatar he didn’t have all the technology he needed. He partnered with different technology companies to make the movie come to life. One of the partners was EMC, the company I was working before. The Avatar movie was stored on EMC’s storage. When the team was shooting digital motion they created a huge amount of digital data that needed to be stored (180 terabytes of storage)1. Originally the data was so large that a cinema or Netflix would not be able to play it. With the help of EMC’s technology Cameron’s team was able to compress the pictures and store them in a smaller size with an equally good quality. Compressing the pictures helped to get to movie in front of the viewers but the movie company and the digital effects company stored it in the original size.
In my article “How Dirty is Your Data” I write about the enormous amount of energy that is used to store the big data. Powering the data storage machines requires a lot of electricity (2.5% of global electricity is consumed by the world’s data centers).Therefore, I believe producing sci-fi movies can also have a negative effect on our environment. It would be interesting to compare how much electricity is used on traditional movies versus sci-fi movies.
I totally agree with you, Jordan. Hollywood and the international movie industry have the ability to lever immense power over public opinion, especially when mass-audience films carry a message packaged alongside a compelling mix of story and spectacle. I noticed that you did not directly refer to Centropolis Entertainment’s “The Day After Tomorrow” (2004) or “2012” (2009), even though both films used climate change as the centerpiece of their narratives. While they both did well in the box office, I personally felt these two movies came off a bit shrill; the outrageous portrayal of the disaster scenarios through generous use of special effects actually subtracted from the power of the underlying message, in my view. In contrast, the message in two of the films that you mentioned – Legendary’s “Interstellar” and James Cameron’s “Avatar” – actually resonated far more with me as a moviegoer. The portrayal of a barren and depleted Earth in “Interstellar,” in particular, was a haunting and believable picture of the destination at which we, all of humanity, may one day arrive if we do not change course. It struck a chord in me, and I am sure I am not the only one who was deeply affected in such a way. As long as the perilous world of tomorrow – a planet buckling under environmental change caused by man – serves as a terrific setting for drama, I believe these movies will continue to roll out, even if an increasing number of studios come under Chinese or other foreign ownership.