Hollywood Movies Rarely Reflect Climate Change Crisis. These Researchers Want to Change That

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Aquaman might not mind if the oceans rise, but moviegoers might.

That’s one of the takeaways from a new study conducted by researchers who set out to determine if today’s Hollywood blockbusters are reflective of the current climate crisis. The vast majority of movies failed the “climate reality check” proposed by the authors, who surveyed 250 movies 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, “Hey, I don’t mind if the oceans rise” to Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne.

But most movies fell short — fewer than 10% of the 250 films passed, and climate change was mentioned in two or more scenes of fewer than 4% of the films. That’s out of touch with a moviegoing public that wants “to see their reality reflected on screen,” said Colby College English professor Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, lead researcher on the study.

“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 said. “They are portraying a world that is now history or fantasy — a world in which climate change is not happening.”

This image released by Netflix shows Leonardo DiCaprio as Dr. Randall Mindy and Jennifer Lawrence as Kate Dibiasky in a scene from “Don’t Look Up.” (Niko Tavernise/Netflix via AP)

Researchers at Maine’s 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. 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 said.

The 2022 whodunnit Glass Onion 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.

This image released by Netflix shows Leonardo DiCaprio as Dr. Randall Mindy in a scene from “Don’t Look Up.” (Niko Tavernise/Netflix via AP)

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

The study is “valuable for marketing purposes, informational purposes, data accumulation,” said 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 said. “It’s a conversation starter.”

The study authors said they see the climate reality check as a kind of Bechdel-Wallace test for climate change. Alison Bechdel, a cartoonist, is credited with popularizing 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.

This image released by Netflix shows Jessica Henwick, left, Daniel Craig, center, and Janelle Monáe in a scene from “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery.” (John Wilson/Netflix via AP)

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 e-mail to The Associated Press that “for a movie set in the present to ignore this existential threat just doesn’t make sense anymore” 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.”

By PATRICK WHITTLE Associated Press

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