Film Review: Avatar, Interstellar, and the climate crisis

Updated: Aug 1



By: Alberto Sclaverano


In recent times, Hollywood blockbusters have been centered on the theme of climate change, both directly and indirectly. It is interesting to have a wider look at some of them and show how this topic has become a more common narrative tool, especially in science fiction movies. Until the 90s, climate change was sidelined in mainstream cinema. Things changed, and big-budget spectacles with the climate crisis at the center of the plot started to appear. The Day After Tomorrow is a perfect example. But there is a second, less explicit way in which modern entertainment approaches this topic.


In the highest-grossing film in movie history, James Cameron's Avatar (2009), humankind is searching for resources on another planet because they have exhausted the natural resources on Earth. They visit the beautiful Pandora, a Paradise-like planet where nature, animals, and the local intelligent life forms called Na’vi live in perfect symbiosis. But marines and scientists come with their machines and weapons to plunder the most valuable mineral resource and use violence to take it when the Na’vi object.


After Avatar was released, Cameron visited his home country, Canada, where he met with First Nations people, government officials, and representatives of energy corporations. He drew parallels between what was happening to the Na'vi in Pandora and the First Nations people of Fort Chipewyan. For decades, the indigenous community members living around the Athabasca River in Alberta have had their water polluted because of the oil sands operations of greedy energy corporations. The number of people in these communities with different forms of cancer and other terminal illnesses is much higher than the national average.


Another example is Christopher Nolan’s critically acclaimed sci-fi epic Interstellar (2014) released in collaboration with American theoretical physicist Kip Thorne. I do not want to analyze the incredible outer space concepts explored in the movie, like the theory of wormholes. Instead, I would like to point out that the main characters need to leave Earth and board themselves on a dangerous mission because our planet is dying.

If they do not find another home for humankind, our species will go extinct in a generation. This is the premise of Interstellar.


While most of the film's scientific aspects are explained with great attention, little information is given to the audience about the cause of Earth’s sudden deterioration. There is a mysterious catastrophe referred to at the beginning of the film, known as "The Blight", which spins out of control because it is not addressed properly. It is consuming all of Earth’s resources, particularly vegetables, and thus is making human life unsustainable due to the absence of food. Animals are dying, and cultivating plants is becoming almost impossible. Massive sandstorms seem to ravage the planet. Just like in Avatar, while the climate crisis is never directly mentioned, it is pretty clear that this is what "The Blight" is.


Mr. Cameron and Mr. Nolan are among today’s most visionary filmmakers, and they are known to work with high budgets and often explore complex concepts related to science and technology. Both of them seem to consider the climate crisis a possible source of a global catastrophe that will consume Earth’s resources. I talked about two very well-known films, but dozens of other blockbusters or horror movies have a similar premise.


What does this mean? Perhaps for the first time, climate change is not only perceived as a threat but also as a scientific fact whose authenticity cannot be put in doubt (at least by filmmakers, because some policymakers continue to promote climate change denial). I think that it is important that mainstream entertainment continues to deal with climate change. This is not just a narrative gimmick. When a movie is watched by several millions of people around the world, it can spark debates, discussions, and curiosity about a topic. Everything that can help improve people’s knowledge about climate change, especially considering the slowness of the political response, must be celebrated.