'Before the Flood' Offers Knowledge About and Hope for Stopping Climate Change

Alyssa Rasmus
DiCaprio discusses the importance of taking climate change seriously with President Barack Obama

A film about deadly environmental practices changing our world may also be changing television distribution practices.

Before the Flood

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio
Network: National Geographic Channel
Air date: 2016-10-30

The Garden of Earthly Delights?

Leonardo DiCaprio's latest climate change documentary, airing on the National Geographic Channel, starts out with a detailed and thoughtful account of Bosch's "The Garden of Earthly Delights". The imagery, painted in the late 1400s, depicts a lifetime of humanity, with one panel showcasing the splendor and enjoyment of nature, and the second, the twisted way that humanity evolves and connects with nature. The third panel, however, is a dark and hopeless representation of a world on fire. DiCaprio explains his connection with this painting -- it was above his crib as a child -- and uses the painting and its story as the outline for Before the Flood, placing our current human state within this painting's timeline to see if we've reached a point of no return, or if we still have time to return to the beginning.

DiCaprio was tasked by the United Nations as a messenger of peace, with a special focus on environmentalism. Yet, DiCaprio admits he may not be the right person for the job, and doesn't ignore the fact that some people don't feel his connection to environmental activism is genuine. One of the strengths of the film is that it doesn't ignore the Oscar winner's position in life and society. When a millionaire movie star who owns multiple homes tells you to recycle or change a light bulb, the message is often ignored. By positioning the film around DiCaprio's perspective as an actor and global citizen and not a wannabe scientist, however, it works as a layperson's guide to complicated issues, while also sharing rare personal thoughts on his own lifestyle.

While DiCaprio shares his genuine curiosity and interest in solving the climate change crisis, he does receive some pushback from his interviewees. One memorable moment comes from activist Sunita Narain (of the Centre for Science and Environmentalism, Delhi) forces DiCaprio to explain why the United States feels the need to lead the global community in changing the conversation and taking action on climate change, while simultaneously acting as if it's exempt from the most difficult aspects of this change.

Before the Flood also doesn’t ignore that China and the US are in first and second place for pollution creation; US citizens in particular have larger footprints than most. There's yet to be sweeping policy changes from the US, such as placing large carbon taxes on companies to dissuade them from more environmentally damaging practices. It also suggests that the reason there haven't been substantive changes is because of vocal climate change deniers in Congress, who receive large donations from industries that helped cause these climate problems.

Regardless of what perspective you have going into the film, there's something to learn from DiCaprio's three-year journey in making it. Because of his civilian approach to questioning, the film explains the climate science in an accessible and approachable manner. The film showcases the current impact of climate change, from cities like Miami, Florida, to small island nations that are already talking about migration off their homelands. Big business gets put on the spot for being fossil fuel junkies; the documentary doesn't stint at showing the large spanning oil fields, the carbon bomb that forms when cutting down large forests, and the destruction of the Indonesian landscape to make room for palm oil production, which is in nearly everything we buy.

The documentary even offers a connection to DiCaprio's recent film The Revenant throughout; not only because of The Revenant's narrative focus on the powers of nature, but the fact that the production of the film had to move from Alberta, Canada, to Ushuaia, Argentina because the snow melted far sooner than expected in the Canadian Snowbelt. Perhaps most importantly, Before the Flood strives to answer many of the general public's questions about climate change: What's happening? How bad is it? How do we fix it?

Offering solutions such as carbon taxes, supporting candidates committed to keeping climate change at bay, and doing one's part by changing personal buying habits, the film clearly hopes to appeal to viewers' senses of social responsibility. The irony of his advocacy of these lifestyle-change proposals aren't lost on DiCaprio; he readily admits his own carbon footprint is much larger than most individuals.

Climate Shifts, Distribution Shifts

Before the Flood has been distributed online and on TV, and was briefly released in theaters. With 40 million views and counting, with viewers having access via National Geographic networks, Hulu, Facebook, and YouTube, it's on track to being National Geographic's most viewed documentary, as well as marking an interesting moment in film distribution and the changing landscape of television. Before the Flood could've been ignored at the box office; by placing it online for free and commercial free, this film permits any viewer with Internet access to see it. Although a small group of viewers tuned in for its TV debut, the majority of viewers found the film on their own time, online. With DiCaprio's top billing, it's interesting that a film of this scale wouldn't be interested in drumming up even a small box office return; the focus instead seems to be on reaching a more widespread audience, particularly those aged 18 to 30 years (a vital audience segment in contemporary TV).

For a leading man who's seen large profit returns on his many films, it's clearly that the urgency of the message (and its release close to the 2016 election) permits this type of distribution to be far more impactful than a traditional film release. By having viewers find the film on their own via numerous, freely accessible platforms, said viewers are more likely to be interested and support the film and its messages. By appealing to social media, there may be a better chance of speaking to audience members' sense of social responsibility.

Looking into the future, this could be a format for future documentaries. Television has already become well aware of the impact of always-available, commercial-free content. The question is: can the film industry begin to accept the idea that not all films need to be seen in a theater? Before the Flood is only freely available for a limited time, but to generate this much viewership in such a short amount of time, maybe DiCaprio is on to something.

Is the world already on fire under dark clouds? No, the last panel of Bosch's painting hasn't yet become reality. DiCaprio confidently concludes that we haven't reached that point, and that there are ways we can wind back the clock. He may still feel he's not the greatest choice of spokesperson, but his passion for and commitment to bringing awareness to the problem allows an important message to reach a global audience; a message that, based on the viewing numbers, is reaching an audience finally ready to listen.

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