We Need Better Climate Stories Than ‘Extrapolations’
Sadly, the new Apple TV+ show is terrible.
In the future, we can speak to whales, and they sound like Meryl Streep.
This is the vision of Scott Z. Burns, a filmmaker frequently renowned for his prescience: He produced An Inconvenient Truth in 2006 and wrote the screenplay for Contagion, the 2011 Stephen Soderberg film that anticipated the COVID-19 pandemic down to “social distancing” and Dr. Sanjay Gupta discussing preventative measures on TV. Burns’ latest project, Extrapolations, aims to do the same narratively as Contagion, but for climate change, following our trajectory to its most terrifying conclusions.
This is a worthy pursuit! There’s no denying that the climate crisis is also a crisis of storytelling, both on a political level — see: the fossil fuel industry’s decades-long attempt to question the science — and on a cultural one. We need better climate stories — ones that go beyond preaching to already-convinced audiences, imagine complex and hopeful futures, dispense with cliches about humanity as a blight, center on characters outside the Global North, and forgo unhelpful platitudes about the future being “up to us!”
But Extrapolations is not that.
What Extrapolations is: An eight-episode anthology that spans from 2037 to 2070 (the first three episodes, “2037,” “2046,” and “2047,” premiere on Friday on Apple TV+ and are the focus of this review). The show stars what feels like every working A-lister, and it clearly cost roughly a gazillion dollars to make. It is also ridiculous (see: Meryl Streep voicing a whale) and terrible (see: Meryl Streep voicing a whale).
After a scene-setting pilot that begins with a “climate change is bad” montage featuring footage of smokestacks, landfills, and hurricanes — visual cliches even in the Obama era — the subsequent episodes of Extrapolations each focus on a different measurement of our destruction: animal extinctions, sea level rise, heat deaths, the financial cost of climate change, and population growth. Tying the stories together is the ubiquitous presence of billionaire tech founder Nick Bilton (no, not that one), the show’s stand-in for techno-optimists like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. He’s played by Kit Harington, and he reads stock exchange numbers projected onto his lap pool because that’s what rich people do.
Other recurring characters include a rabbi named Marshall (Daveed Diggs), who works in the third episode to save his Miami synagogue from flooding and has an inexplicable dream sequence that seems to exist just so he can dance and sing, and Rebecca (Sienna Miller), who specializes in conversing with last-of-their-kind animals, like the philosophizing humpback whale that speaks in the voice of her dead mother (Streep). Alas, a ghoulishly evil Matthew Rhys doesn’t make it past the first episode because he gets mauled to death by a walrus. Nature strikes back!
If that all seems, well, cringe, it’s not even the worst of it. This is a show where every dinner conversation revolves around climate change, where bad guys predictively cackle “we’ll be dead!” when discussing how their short-term gains will doom the future of the planet, and where random strangers pop up out of the woodwork to inform you that the blockchain is making the sea levels rise. Rarely do characters seem like anything other than mouthpieces for ideas. In the first episode, set in July 2037, someone mentions the 2018 self-immolation of climate activist David Buckel, only to offer the superficial analysis that “it showed that the world is in pain and needs change.” In another scene, Rhys’ character shouts, with bizarre specificity, about a 2019 speech by then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, evidently just to prove the show’s reference to U.S.-Chinese tensions in the Arctic has real-world antecedents.
This kind of overreliance on exposition is a tic of Burns’ that actually worked fine in Contagion — back in 2011, the vocabulary and experience of a pandemic were foreign to most viewers, and things like R0 and herd immunity were fascinating to hear explained. That isn’t the case for the basics of climate change anymore. A majority of Americans have believed in human-caused global warming since at least 2001, and that number has only grown in the 20-plus years since — not to mention, anyone who still need convincing is probably not watching Extrapolations in the first place.
Instead, the show feels at times like a vehicle for celebrity activism, a way to phone in an “important” and “urgent” performance for accolades. That sense is only compounded by the fact that most of Extrapolations’ episodes focus on the global well-off and are set in major cities like London, Miami, and Tel Aviv. Charitably, these locations were picked so the show can be relatable to its likeliest audiences; in actuality, it is out-of-touch, centering more on inconveniences to the world’s wealthy than those who will actually bear the worst of the brunt. The whale episode, set in Colombia, features almost no actual Colombian characters; an Indigenous character in the pilot episode who exists just to comfort Rebecca, played by actress Cara Gee, doesn't even get a name.
There is certainly little enjoyable entertainment value here; the messaging is the entire point. But as the show’s title suggests, Extrapolations lacks the ability to imagine anything other than a circa-2016 fatalist projection of a coming calamity. This results in the narrative propulsion being hand-wringing doom and gloom, even if the truth is that there is actually much promise ahead of us. That doesn’t mean the hard work is done or that there aren’t more minds to change, but it does mean catastrophizing is losing its usefulness as the central force of climate narratives; in the worst cases, it’s actively detrimental. Extrapolations isn’t entirely devoid of optimism (trials for corporate ecocide are also a plot point), but as climate scientist Michael Mann has previously written, while there is always a danger of understating climate change, “there is also a danger in overstating the science in a way that presents the problem as unsolvable, and feeds a sense of doom, inevitability, and hopelessness.”
Alarmism is an easy, familiar story. But there are better ones out there. They’re just still waiting to be told.