Red rivers of molten lava scorching through Los Angeles neighborhoods. Giant asteroids hurtling on a seismic collision course with the Earth. Or comets. Or the Big One that threatens to send California out to sea. The great American disaster movie has become such a staple in Hollywood that many consider it a separate genre, or at least a subgenre of the "summer blockbuster." Does such celluloid present an opportunity for the public to learn about and grapple with real-world issues, or is it simply a vehicle to sell more popcorn and soda -- or even worse, a way for spin masters to discredit legitimate fears?
This season's big blockbuster, 20th Century Fox's The Day After Tomorrow, will put this question to the test on a grandiose scale. In the movie, global warming results in the melting of enough polar ice to spawn cataclysmic changes in ocean currents, including the dissolving of the Gulf Stream. Tornadoes then descend on Southern California, a blizzard hits India and hail hammers Japan. Tsunamis bob the Big Apple, which then becomes locked in ice. Of course what may matter most to audiences is what happens to the film's attractive stars, who include Dennis Quaid, Jake Gyllenhaal and Sela Ward -- but that's a given.
Everyone agrees that the scientific facts of the $125 million movie are manipulated -- ostensibly to fit the constraints of contemporary filmmaking. Just as no one in real life can glance at a TV in a bar and immediately see a story dealing personally with them, or never need any change from a cab driver, ocean currents are not likely to change the climate in a matter of days. Canadian environmental luminary David Suzuki has written, "While the movie is based on a real phenomenon... It's a disaster film, and has no more grounding in reality than the director's last big movie, Independence Day, in which aliens invaded the Earth."
Indeed, Roland Emmerich, the film's director, is not known for making movies heavily rooted in rigorous fact. Many are clearly works of science fiction, such as Godzilla, Stargate and Universal Soldier, while his 2000 flick The Patriot drew fierce criticism over historical accuracy and tone. But James Snyder, a spokesperson for the Physicians for Social Responsibility, echoes the thoughts of many when he points out, "The Day After Tomorrow offers an unprecedented hook to discuss something that everybody will be talking about."
The film's producer, Mark Gordon, has been quoted as saying, "part of the reason we made this movie was to raise consciousness about the environment." Harvard paleoclimatologist Dan Schrag says he believes most Americans are "probably smart enough to distinguish between Hollywood and the real world." Schrag and many other scientists are hoping the new movie will ignite some passion in the public to get serious about discussing the very real threats of climate change. Scientist Michael Molitor, who consulted on the movie, told The Independent, "This film could actually do more in helping us move in the right direction than all the scientific work and all the [congressional] testimonies put together."
Other scientists, such as oceanography professor Carl Wunsch of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have criticized the film for what they consider to be taking away from the seriousness of the climate change issue. "The Day After Tomorrow is a great movie and lousy science," argues environmentalist and author George Monbiot. Roy Spencer of the University of Alabama in Huntsville says, "Hollywood should not be the driving force behind the public discussion of global warming." Writing in Grist, environmental journalist Bill McKibben also points out that the movie's dramatic representation may desensitize the public to the more gradual pace of actual events. "If the reason we're supposed to worry about global warming is that it will first send a tidal wave over the Statue of Liberty and then lock it forever in an ice cube, anything less will seem... not so bad."
Despite such concerns, environmental groups are working overtime to highlight their messages on the movie's considerable coattails. The Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) and Environmental Defense both have online action centers devoted to explaining the science behind the movie's ominous predictions and offering practical steps to make a difference, such as signing petitions and writing letters. "We want to supply ingredients for an enlightened discussion, and give people a chance to get involved," says NRDC scientist Daniel Lashof. Web surfers who take action at NRDC's site can even receive a coupon for a free scoop of Ben & Jerry's ice cream.
A number of groups, including the Rainforest Action Network, Global Exchange and Internet powerhouse Moveon.org, are doing what some conservative Christians did during the height of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ: taking it to the streets. These progressive campaigners plan to distribute leaflets as moviegoers exit theaters. Moveon.org even has a meeting scheduled to mirror the film's New York City premier. Luminaries such as the Als (Gore and Franken) are expected to show up to stir the masses. In a statement, Gore has said, "Millions of people will be coming out of theaters on Memorial Day weekend, asking the question, 'Could this really happen?' I think we need to answer that question."
Several environmental groups, as well as the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) network, are using the movie to garner political support for the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act, which outlines a plan to reduce America's production of greenhouse gases. In October 2003, the U.S. Senate voted 55 to 43 against the bill. The close margin encouraged many climate change campaigners, who now hope that the bill will be reintroduced soon, as the sponsors have suggested.
A number of groups have also come out criticizing discussion of any links between The Day After Tomorrow and threats of climate change. The conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute has attacked the science behind the movie as "fiction." Their position surprises few observers, however, since the think tank has long been a staunch denier of global warming and the Kyoto Treaty, calling the latter the "most economically damaging idea ever to come out of the United Nations." In 1997, the group started the Cooler Heads Coalition "to dispel the myths of global warming." This position may explain their list of contributors, which includes: Ford and General Motors, Texaco, the American Petroleum Institute and the Amoco and Arco foundations, among others.
Patrick J. Michaels of the libertarian Cato Institute has blasted The Day After Tomorrow, calling it "propaganda" and "lies cloaked as science." Michaels is well known as one of America's most vocal critics of the idea of global warming. Interestingly, Cato has received grants from ExxonMobil, and in 1995, Michaels testified to receiving $165,000 in funding during the previous five years from fuel companies.
The Bush administration has already suffered a minor scandal as a direct result of the film. And the President certainly has reason to be concerned as his administration has been resistant to taking any action on global warming, most notably reneging on the U.S.'s participation in the Kyoto Treaty (claiming it was too expensive). While Bush has merely ordered more, and largely redundant, studies on climate change, his political rivals Ralph Nader, Dennis Kucinich and even John Kerry have drawn blood over the issue.
In April, an official memo sent to all NASA scientists from the Washington headquarters was leaked to the press. The document advised, "No one from NASA is to do interviews or otherwise comment on anything having to do with ... The Day After Tomorrow." After public embarrassment, the agency retracted the memo. Many pundits have speculated that fear of Bush administration wrath in a hot-wired White House prompted the memo's composition.
In fact, the whole incident sounded all too familiar to many who decry the Bush administration's meager support of environmental protection. Britain's The Observer recently uncovered a February email to the press secretaries of all Republican congressmen advising them what to say when questioned on the environment in the upcoming election cycle. The message acknowledged that Democrats will "hit us hard" on the environment and recommended that campaigners paint a rosy picture of environmental quality and stress that "global warming is not a fact." It concluded, "Republicans can't stress enough that extremists are screaming 'Doomsday!' when the environment is actually seeing a new and better day."
In the face of sagging public opinion polls, torture in Iraqi prisons and continued uncertainty, both in the war on terrorism and on the state of the economy, the last thing President Bush wants come November is a public intent on making global warming a major issue. A recent BBC News report estimated "80% of the people in Washington who are really informed feel dramatic climate change is a major threat." The vast majority of scientists around the world feel the same way; a Pentagon report even predicted the dire consequences of climate change.
MoveOn.org has called The Day After Tomorrow the "movie George Bush doesn't want you to see," and interestingly, critics who have seen the film report that a vice president, bearing an uncanny resemblance to one Dick Cheney, mocks warnings despite the impending doom.
It remains to be seen how the American public will respond to the summer blockbuster. Will it serve as a catalyst for action, the way the early '80s nuclear disaster scenario The Day After did? In any case, it should certainly prove to be more compelling than computer models and hulking reams of data, which frankly have done little to excite the average person about climate change. One thing is for sure: If efforts to connect the film to policy are successful, it could spell trouble for Bush. As the previously mentioned Republican memo warned, "(the environment) is probably the single issue on which Republicans in general -- and President Bush in particular -- are most vulnerable."
Brian Howard is the Managing Editor of E/The Environmental Magazine.