Neel is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Prior to Heatmap, he was a science and climate reporter at Vox, an editorial fellow at Audubon magazine, and an assistant producer at Radiolab, where he helped produce The Other Latif, a series about one detainee's journey to Guantanamo Bay. He is a graduate of the Literary Reportage program at NYU, which helped him turn incoherent scribbles into readable stories, and he grew up (mostly) in Bangalore. He tweets sporadically at @neel_dhan. Read MoreRead More
The New ‘Mission Impossible’ Reveals the Problem with Climate Storytelling
Time to remove all the exposition.
Twenty-ish minutes into the latest Tom Cruise outing, Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One, a roomful of intelligence so-and-sos explain to each other and the audience why they should care about the movie’s big bad, a rogue AI called the Entity. Eventually, we get to the director of the CIA, who wants to bend the AI to his will.
“The next world war isn’t going to be a cold one,” he tells Ethan Hunt (Cruise). “It’s going to be a ballistic war over a rapidly shrinking ecosystem. It’s going to be a war for the last of our dwindling energy, drinkable water, breathable air.”
If that sounds like the setup for a climate movie, you would be wrong; Hunt’s fight is focused solely on the AI. But the Entity is, on the whole, a fairly good stand-in for not just climate change — “An enemy that is anywhere..and nowhere,” one of the intelligence officials says — but also the problems of climate storytelling.
There’s a classic adage that anyone with even a passing interest in narrative has heard at least once in their life: Show, don’t tell. In past Mission: Impossible movies, this was fairly easy. You show the audience a nuclear bomb or a biological weapon, and you don’t have to tell them what the problem is. The other details — who has the bomb, why they want to set it off, how the virus works — are ancillary, like the cars that will inevitably be destroyed during a high-speed chase.
An artificial intelligence that lives in the cloud … well, that’s different. An AI requires explanation, and this movie is full of it. The script is as loaded with exposition as Hunt’s guns are with bullets: Each new character gets their own explanation of the horrors the Entity can unleash, and some lines are repeated just to make sure the audience understands them (at one point Ving Rhames, playing series stalwart Luther Stickell, sagely nods and simply echos the phrase “source code”).
A bodiless AI is such a difficult thing to turn into a villain that Hunt spends much of the movie fighting not it but a human stand-in, the smirking, knife-wielding Gabriel (Esai Morales), who comes into the movie saddled with newfound backstory for Hunt that had never existed in any of the six movies that came before. The Entity is so amorphous, so difficult to explain, that the writers felt the need to give Hunt an entirely different reason to care about the person he was fighting.
Frankly, I get it. So much of what anyone writing about climate change must do is exposition; we clear our throats, explain the stakes, the science, the urgency with which we need solutions. Don’t Look Up, perhaps the most popular recent climate-oriented movie, is still an allegory — and on top of that an allegory about the difficulties of telling climate stories. Climate change has no punchable villains (fossil fuel executives don’t count) or disarmable bombs. What’s a Tom Cruise to do, massacre a few hundred spotted lanternflies?
There are disaster movies, of course, and movies where ecoterrorists are the villains. There are TV shows like Extrapolations, which leaned so far into climate change as a buzzword that it tipped over into the realm of cringe. But overall, as Kendra Pierre-Louis recently wrote in Mother Jones, Hollywood has a climate problem.
Maybe we need to find ways to remove the exposition. In its playbook for screenwriters looking to incorporate climate change into their stories, Good Energy, a nonprofit consultancy, recommends weaving climate change into the backgrounds of shows and movies of all genres. Climate change is a lived reality, the thinking goes, so it doesn’t need explanation when it appears in mundane ways.
The ubiquity of climate change provides a sort of freedom: It doesn’t need to hit us over the head. Take After Yang, a film that The Verge’s Andrew Webster called the “coziest science fiction movie” of 2022. That sense of coziness exists despite clear signs of an unnamed apocalypse that has come and gone. It could have been climate change, or it could not, but either way the world of the film is one in which humans and nature have, seemingly, come to a sort of symbiotic agreement.
In a recent essay for The New Yorker, Parul Sehgal argues that our tendency towards narrative, to believe that stories are the answers to our problems, both saddles the form with expectations it can never live up to and blinds us to other approaches we could look to instead. “What forms of attention does story crowd out?” Sehgal asks.
For a while, filming on Dead Reckoning Part One had to shut down for the pandemic — there’s a famous audio clip of Tom Cruise reaming out crew members who broke COVID-19 guidelines, insinuating that the future of the entire film industry rested on that production — but the world of the film itself is entirely pandemic-free, Hunt and company neatly sidestepping that world-altering force in favor of a fictional one. But climate change will make itself known without trying; all we have to do is give it our attention without trying to narrativize our way around it.
Future productions will, inevitably, feel its impacts one way or another. A disaster could delay filming, or extreme heat might stop Cruise in his tracks as he tries to execute one of his famous runs. If it does, perhaps they should just keep the cameras rolling.