Climate change is no joke. The absurd ways we try to avoid dealing with it, however, are often quite laughable — providing an opening for climate comedy.
But few makers of fictional films have chosen to work in that space. Over the last decade, I’ve cataloged nearly 100 films or made-for-TV movies (or special series) that addressed climate change in some way. Of that number, just eight stand out as comedies. In the list below, I’ve sorted them into four different categories: campy eco-horror films, animated children’s movies, romantic comedies, and satire.
Sharknado 2: The Second One (2014)
The six “Sharknado” movies, all made for television, are prime examples of the campy eco-horror genre. Climate change is one of the factors setting the series in motion.
In the first movie, “Sharknado: Enough Said!” (2013), a newscaster strains to explain the strange storm about to strike southern California: “Experts are saying global warming is responsible for this unprecedented event.”
Not long thereafter, the protagonists, having retreated from their shark-pelted beach, are battling sharks in the flooded stairwell of a duplex. Such is the plotting in these movies.
In most of the films in the Sharknado series, as in the first, climate change is quickly forgotten. The only nod in the fifth (2017) is in the title — “Sharknado 5: Global Swarming.”
In “Sharknado 2,” however, several scenes link sharknados to meteorological causes and the consequences of climate change. As a major sharknado approaches New York City, TV weather forecasters describe patterns that informed viewers will recognize as the polar vortex and the urban heat island effect. I especially enjoyed how the movie incorporated a “shark front” into the forecasts. Older viewers will also enjoy the cameos by Judd Hirsch, Robert Klein, and virtually the entire cast of NBC’s early morning lineup.
Deep Blue Sea 3 (2020)
A more recent, less campy series also features sharks. In the first “Deep Blue Sea” (1999), sharks are the experimental subjects of neurological experiments; things go wrong. Only in the third movie does the series get around to climate change. “Climate change is making the sharks hyperaggressive toward everything,” one of the marine scientists explains. And, one must admire, without laughing.
Both of these series owe a debt to a much grimmer classic of the eco-horror genre. “Day of the Animals” (1977) was one of the first movies to address second-wave environmental concerns like the ozone layer and climate change. In the first wave, filmmakers created monsters from clearly toxic agents: pollution, atomic blasts, and nuclear waste. In “Day of the Animals,” the monstrous animal attacks result from increased ultraviolet radiation caused by chemicals included in everyday products.
Here’s how the filmmakers introduced this new ecological risk factor:
In June 1974, Drs. F. Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina of the University of California startled the world with their finding that fluorocarbon gases used in aerosol spray cans are seriously damaging the Earth’s protective ozone layer.
Thus, potentially dangerous amounts of ultraviolet rays are reaching the surface of our planet, adversely affecting all living things.
This motion picture dramatizes what COULD happen in the near future IF we continue to do nothing to stop this damage to Nature’s protective shield for life on this planet.
Of course, ultraviolet rays do not stir rabid violence in wild animals. And climate change does not make bull sharks “more aggressive toward everything.” But when the ozone hole or climate change are in the news, that can provide a peg on which to hang a new version of an old horror: violent death in the wild.
Are campy eco-horror movies like these good? No. But they’re bad in fun, and funny, ways.
Arctic Dogs (2019)
Animals play prominent roles in another group of cli-fi movies — with a very different comic sensibility. Several animated children’s movies — think the “Ice Age” and “Happy Feet” franchises — have included small nods to climate change. In “Arctic Dogs,” human-caused climate change, or rather walrus-caused climate change, plays a much bigger role. A small fox, who aspires to join the team of huskies who haul the sleds that deliver the Arctic community’s mail, discovers that a greedy walrus is drilling through the ice to tap deep wells of natural gas that, if released, will so warm the planet that he can rule over a new water world. The plot is foiled, virtues are rewarded, and inclusive family values are affirmed. Warmly humorous.
The American President (1995)
On to the next group of movies in this list: romantic comedies. The first appears surprisingly early in the full list of cli-fi movies but it is still a joy to view today. “The American President” has an environmental/climate subplot. A high-powered lobbyist (Annette Benning) is hired by a national environmental organization to push Congress and the ostensibly friendly Democratic administration to enact stricter mileage standards in order to reduce the pollution that is harming the global environment.
When the lobbyist meets the widowed president (Michael Douglas), a different sort of warming ensues. A deal is struck: If the lobbyist can get two-thirds of the additional Senate votes needed for the stricter standards, the president will get the rest. Political machinations over a feeble gun control bill lead to a crisis in the relationship — which is happily resolved in the end.
Written by Aaron Sorkin, the dialogue in “The American President” crackles. It’s like watching an off-Broadway test run for “The West Wing.”
Long Shot (2019)
“Long Shot” might be described as a raunchy remake of “The American President,” with the roles reversed. A reporter (Seth Rogen) becomes a speech writer for a secretary of state (Charlize Theron) with a strong environmental agenda and even stronger presidential ambitions. Again, environmental policies — including explicitly named “climate” policies — initially lose to political expediency but triumph in the end. Warm, funny, upbeat. Note, however, the “raunchy” in the opening sentence of this blurb. This is not a movie for young children.
The last three films in this list are satires. They come at the problem of climate change from different angles, with the aim of highlighting the human failings that block effective action on climate change.
A Glaring Emission (2010)
This small-budget, independent movie follows the rise and fall of a young man who sells (and resells) shares in phony carbon offset projects. Not willing to do the real work on climate change, the film seems to suggest, we are willing dupes for fraud. Viewers will laugh at the cons the anti-hero plays on his clients, colleagues, and romantic partner, and they will applaud the deserved comeuppance he receives at the end.
In this major theatrical release, a physical therapist (Matt Damon), who is vaguely worried about the planet and more specifically dissatisfied with his life, agrees to be physically shrunk in order to shrink his carbon footprint and, at the same time, upscale his life. If one is just six inches tall, then a good-sized dollhouse can feel like a 30,000-square-foot mansion. But our hero discovers his problems still feel just as big as before. “Downsizing” ruthlessly mocks the consumerism that so easily derails moral character.
As our shrunken hero recovers his bearings, the movie shifts gears; there are not nearly as many laughs in the second half as in the first.
Don’t Look Up (2021)
The last film on this list is also the most recent. A graduate student (Jennifer Lawrence) and her dissertation advisor (Leonardo DiCaprio) discover an asteroid on a collision path with Earth. Their efforts to sound the alarm are initially ignored and then waylaid when the Elon-Musk-like genius bankrolling the president’s reelection campaign decides that the asteroid should not be deflected from its path nor destroyed far out in space. Instead, it should be allowed to get close enough to Earth that it can be mined for its rare-earth metals before it is obliterated — by his state-of-the-art technology. Which fails. All of the roles in this Netflix film are played broadly, for laughs, until Earth’s imminent demise inspires some soulful reflection on the part of the failed heroes.
Ironically, “Don’t Look Up” was released, with much fanfare, shortly after NASA launched a spacecraft to test whether an incoming asteroid could be deflected by a well-timed impact. (Ten months later, we learned that it could.) In short, far from ignoring the imminent risk of an asteroid hurtling toward Earth, humans proactively anticipated the danger and tested a viable solution. Thus, no matter how broadly you play it, a single speeding asteroid is not a good analogy for the slowly compounding risks of global climate change, which is driven by thousands of individual actions we all take every day.
But was “Don’t Look Up” at least a fun film to watch? Did it make viewers laugh? The reviews were mixed.
So as not to end on a sour note, let me offer a palate cleanser from the very sort of people “Don’t Look Up” was designed to defeat: climate deniers. Turns out, they have messaging problems, too. Take a look at this 63-second ad from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which aired in 2006. But don’t take a swig of anything right before you do; it could come out your nose.
Climate change is no joke. But anyone who is still denying it is.