One of the last truly audacious mass-audience disaster films, Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow caused a touch of controversy on its release in 2004. Not because the digital rendering of a flash-frozen New York was subpar; the wolves hunting humans in Manhattan looked about as real as such a thing could be. Apparently, the whole concept seemed problematic. Still being the era of semi-mass media, 2004 was a time when whatever happened in a blockbuster film, no matter how ludicrous, was deemed worthy of discussion. The concept behind The Day After Tomorrow—ocean warming caused by climate change knocks the Gulf Stream out of whack, leading to a near-instantaneous miniature Ice Age and super-blizzards walloping America—was definitely discussed.
Op-eds were pumped out. Environmental activist Bill McKibben had thoughts to share. Even the fossil fuel-centric Bush/Cheney presidential reelection campaign felt they had to weigh in. The film’s distributor, 20th Century Fox, tried to stop any mention of “global warming” (as it was still called) during the promotion campaign, which was like publicizing Stephen Speilberg’s Saving Private Ryan without talking about D-Day. Climate change was still so fraught that just mentioning it set off partisan firefights.
One difference between then and the release of Scott Z. Burns’ eight-episode Apple TV+ climate change anthology series Extrapolations in 2023 is that now the human causes of environmental disaster can be openly discussed in a big-budget science-fiction production. The issue has become less contentious as the potential for catastrophe looms. A broader swath of the public now understands that human activity is heating the planet. Even some diehard denialists have started to acknowledge the fact of sinking coastlines and scorching summers. While such half-hearted converts are often still resolutely opposed to conservation, preferring techno-solutions (cloud seeding, fusion reactors) or reality-detached boosterism (warming temperatures mean farming in Greenland!), this mind-shift is still progress.
Of course, our awareness and acknowledgment of global warming may be a couple of decades too late. Exponentially fewer people will see a narrowcast prestige offering like Extrapolations than a blockbuster release like The Day After Tomorrow. Any message or change in perception that the show could engender is likely limited at best. This is a shame because while the series is dramatically uneven in the way of most anthology shows, its somewhat workaday view of the future is, in its way, far more subversive, unnerving, and ultimately enlightening than an over-the-top horrorshow.
The series ranges from 2037 to 2070. It starts in the Goldilocks zone of speculative fiction, just far enough in the future to give license for imagination and close enough to feel immediate. Early episodes are centered on specific issues and timetables, the kind of red-line moments that activists have been warning about since the first Earth Day. Each episode tumbles into a kind of miniature catastrophe as the more heroic characters are outmaneuvered by less idealistic ones, whose morality ranges from the low end of workaday self-centeredness (a Miami real estate developer getting rich off the crisis) to outright villainy (a billionaire played by Kit Harrington giving up his water desalination patent in exchange for a less stringent carbon cap). As the years tick past, the catastrophes add up.
Extrapolations‘ personal drama, however, tends not to. A few characters connect these mostly standalone episodes. Marshall Zucker (Daveed Diggs) appears in the first episode as a beamingly idealistic rabbi trying to convince his family that he wants to stay in Tel Aviv—where the intervening years produced a seemingly stable Israeli-Palestinian peace deal—rather than follow them back to Miami. More haggard and exhausted two episodes and ten years later, he is back in Miami and working political connections to secure city funding that can rescue his historic synagogue from encroaching floodwaters. Like many others, his mother, Isabel (Leslie Uggams), is taking a government buyout and moving in with her sister in Chicago. A surprised Marshall reminds her that she hates her sister. Isabel sighs, “It’s too hot to hate.”
Those kinds of background details bring specificity to Extrapolations‘ stories that many of the characters do not have. The 2059 episode knots an unnecessary tangle of family drama into a technothriller plot (courtesy of tech skeptic Dave Eggers, who has a decent sideline in social media dystopia novels like The Circle and The Every). For some reason, Extrapolations’ showrunners determined that having a woman (Indira Varma) launch automated air freighters packed with enough calcium chloride to darken the Earth’s skies was not sufficiently dramatic. The episode’s sillier aspects—the woman’s ex-husband (Edward Norton) working with the American president (Cherry Jones) to stop her reckless plan—feel like something Aaron Sorkin might have tossed off while half-asleep.
Like much of Extrapolations, the implications of the plot are all too resonant with the present day. How great a difference lies between the episode’s Silicon Valley-ish disruptor with a savior complex and cool tech fetish making a unilateral geoengineering decision that affects the entire human race and the race toward other little-understood advances, from nuclear fission to artificial intelligence?
Understanding that humanity’s adaptation to climate change is a generational war and not a single battle, Extrapolations does not treat the darkening sky with the finality of a Hollywood eco-apocalypse plot. Later episodes mention the fallout, showing the perpetually rainy skies and noting that temperatures kept rising, but it is not an end. Like the slow drowning of Miami, the humpback whales’ extinction, the melting of the Arctic ice cap, the searing heat waves that wipe out thousands, and the scorching sun that causes the Indian government to institute a daytime curfew, it is just one more crisis that beats and batters the environment into a different configuration.
What the crises in Extrapolations do not do is change people. People change Earth, not the other way around.