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‘Extrapolations’ and the Peril of Climate Cringe

‘Extrapolations’ and the Peril of Climate Cringe

A well-meaning Apple TV+ series is the latest story to struggle with making an environmental wake-up call into good drama.

Forty years ago this November, ABC blew up Kansas City. “The Day After,” the made-for-TV movie dramatizing a nuclear war and its aftermath in the heartland, drew 100 million viewers and started a national conversation.

It’s not as if, decades into the Cold War, Americans had lacked material for that conversation. They had the news; they knew about Hiroshima. But there was a difference between knowing something and seeing it, even in TV-movie form.

Times change, as do existential dangers. Climate change is also a threat to the planet that demands action, but it poses different challenges for a screen drama.

One advantage “The Day After” had was right there in its title: Nuclear destruction is fast. Global warming doesn’t do its damage in a single, telegenic explosion. Speed up the decades-long process of climate change and you get “The Day After Tomorrow,” the 2004 film that unleashed a risible quickie apocalypse onto the screen. So how do you do justice to a slow-burn geocatastrophe while getting a general audience to pay attention?

Maybe with Meryl Streep playing a whale? Would that do the job?

That at least is the offer of “Extrapolations,” an eight-part series currently in the middle of its run on Apple TV+. It isn’t the first program to dramatize environmental issues. (Hands up if you remember “Ark II,” the 1970s kids’ series about a band of scientists, and a chimp, who explored a polluted Earth in a space-age mobile home.) But it’s likely the most ambitious and star-studded.

Judged by its intentions, “Extrapolations” is unimpeachably worthy. Judged by actually watching it, it is at best an adventurous attempt to encircle an immense subject from many angles. At worst, it’s the biggest work of well-meaning celebrity cringe since Gal Gadot’s “Imagine” video.

Meryl Streep appears in the series and also lends her voice to a whale.Apple TV+

If there is someone you would nominate to pull this off, it would be the screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, whose 2011 film “Contagion” was the “Day After” of pandemics — chilling, focused and grounded in science without being buried in it.

As the creator of “Extrapolations,” which covers the years 2037 to 2070, he takes a semi-anthology approach, telling self-contained stories in each episode while working a few characters into a longer arc.

The early episodes take place in a world recognizably like ours, with higher temps and bigger hurricanes. By the back half, we’re in a “Black Mirror” dystopia in which the working class eat kelp and lease out memory space in their brains while the rich guzzle wine and foie gras and upload their consciousnesses to be housed in new bodies in a more temperate future.

There’s a lot to cover, geographically, temporally and scientifically. “Extrapolations” puts the data first — literally, each title sequence gives the global temperature increase by the episode’s date as well as statistics about population displacement or the dollar cost of the climate crisis. But it fails in the character stories, which crumble under the weight of each installment’s syllabus.

In its scope, “Extrapolations” has a lot in common with Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2020 sci-fi novel “The Ministry for the Future,” down to its depiction of deadly heat waves in India and its speculation about cooling the planet by geoengineering the atmosphere. (“Extrapolations” is more skeptical of that solution, with a seeming moral aversion to the idea of humanity trying to have its carbon cake and eat it too.)

Somehow, “Ministry” — which depicts a grim but ultimately hopeful speculative future — manages to be as analytic as a Thomas Piketty tome and as moving as a love story. It’s humane but systems-focused, attentive to the importance of politics and especially markets in both ruining the climate and repairing it.

“Extrapolations” prefers to tell the stories of individuals. In 2046, a marine biologist (Sienna Miller) converses with the world’s last humpback whale, through software that translates cetacean-speak into the voice of her mother (Streep). In 2059, a scientist (Edward Norton) consults the American president (Cherry Jones) on the wisdom of creating the atmospheric equivalent of a volcanic eruption to slow warming. In 2068, a squabbling married couple (Forest Whitaker and Marion Cotillard) give a party for what might be their last New Year’s Eve together.

From left, Forest Whitaker, Eiza González, Tobey Maguire and Marion Cotillard in “Extrapolations.” The episodes feature different stars and tones.Apple TV+

The lurches in tone — family melodrama to political thriller to dinner-table farce — make this feel less like a series than a short-story anthology by mismatched authors riffing on a theme. Sometimes it works; the more successful installments are the more weird and satirical ones, as when Daveed Diggs (“Hamilton”) plays a rabbi trying to save his congregation in perma-flooded Miami.

But in trying to ground its personal stories in hard science, “Extrapolations” turns its characters into didactic sandwich boards. “Twenty-five years ago, we thought crypto was going to be our savior,” a character declares. “Now it is killing us with the carbon footprint.” After news of an earthquake, a random subway passenger says, “Sea-level change. More water, more weight on the tectonic plates.” If everyday people spent this much time giving unnatural expository speeches about climate mechanics, we wouldn’t need an “Extrapolations.”

The show’s biggest flaw may be its choice to rely on Hollywood good guys and bad guys. Climate change is ultimately about populations and systems. Some people have more power and culpability, but in an honest telling, your antagonist is partly your audience.

“Extrapolations” does nod to the broad damage done by human appetites. But it builds its long game around a single tech megacorp, whose dastardly leader (Kit Harington) is a stiff Frankenstein of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. (At one point, he plots the Earth’s fate with a cabal of businessmen — the most cartoonish capitalist heavies since the V.I.P.s in “Squid Game” — in an actual back-room lair.)

Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio were among the stars of “Don’t Look Up,” a climate change parable.Niko Tavernise/Netflix
Emma Thompson, center, in “Years and Years,” a series in which climate change consequences played out in the background of people’s lives.Robert Ludovic/HBO

The series does feel urgent, as if it’s dumping out the writer’s toolbox in search of the one implement that will cut through the noise. This kind of frustration was both spirit and subject of the regrettable parable “Don’t Look Up,” in which astronomers’ warnings about an approaching comet were swallowed in the black hole of 24-hour media. But mistrusting your audience’s complacency is not a great way to launch an engrossing story, though it can be a fantastic way to reach the sub-audience that already agrees with you.

A different way to dramatize the climate emergency is to make it part of the dismal background noise of daily life, as in fact it is. One of the most effective examples I’ve seen is Russell T Davies’s 2019 series “Years and Years,” about a Manchester, England, family in a near future of xenophobia and rising fascism. Calamities unfold in the foreground — the financial system collapses, a family member dies in a border crossing — and in the background the rain, fed by the climate shift, falls and falls and falls for days, weeks, months, threatening the foundation of the family home, a quiet English apocalypse.

Other sci-fi series take climate emergency as a premise. In Syfy’s pulpy “The Ark,” a spacecraft carries human survivors to start again somewhere far away from the ruined Earth. Global warming is the seed — or rather the spore — of HBO’s “The Last of Us,” in which rising temperatures allow the Ophiocordyceps fungus to turn human hosts into zombies. That may not pass the bar as mycology or eco-science, but remember that the pantheon of anti-nuke cinema includes not just “The Day After” but also “Godzilla.”

As for “Extrapolations,” it’s certainly laden with noble ideas, such as “ecocide,” which codifies destroying the environment as a crime akin to mass murder. But allowing your good intentions to smother your story is, at least, its own kind of misdemeanor.

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