“But Deb, it’s got 52 percent on Rotten Tomatoes! That’s right in your sweet spot!”
This was husband Ron, years ago, trying to convince me to watch the 2015 what-if-there’s-an-earthquake flick, San Andreas. Ron knew I loved cheesy disaster movies, which are not exactly critically acclaimed, and he was right: I did love San Andreas. Critics and audiences scoff at such confections, and I get it: the disaster movie is an acquired taste.
My fondness for cheesy disaster movies may explain why I also love the new limited series streaming on AppleTV, Extrapolations. The series “extrapolates” what life might be like between 2037 and 2070, presuming we fail to act now, in the 2020s, to avert the worst impacts of climate change. Each episode jumps further into the future (episodes 4 and 5 both take place in 2059, though). The episodes are short-story-style vignettes, introducing mostly new characters, different climate-related scenarios, and a tangled web of ethical dilemmas.
Is it a little cheesy? Sure. One critic described it as “pathos porn.” Another called it “sprawling.” Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 44% critic score and a 60% audience score (still in my sweet spot!). But never mind. I have found Extrapolations thought-provoking, inventive, and just cheeky enough to excuse its more ham-handed moments. Plus there’s an all-star cast, featuring Meryl Streep, Daveed Diggs, David Schwimmer, Tobey Maguire, Forest Whitaker, and many more. I mean, AppleTV isn’t stupid.
Neither are the producers behind the show, chiefly Scott Z. Burns, who also produced An Inconvenient Truth (2006) and wrote Contagion (2011). Burns is known for his obsessive research and compelling story-telling. Dorothy Fortenberry, also among the producers for Extrapolations, was a writer for the Emmy juggernaut The Handmaid’s Tale.
So what is Extrapolations’ imagined future like? Not fun. The first episode, taking place in 2037, covers familiar, even somewhat cliché territory: an ultra-billionaire called Nicholas Bilton (Kit Harington) quietly absorbs more and more control over patented technology, mining rights, even the negotiations at COP42, which he puppeteers to his own advantage. In a connected plot thread, we enjoy hating on a cartoonishly vile developer scheming to build a casino in Greenland—now that the glaciers are gone. At one point he defends his absolute indifference to anything but his own wealth and luxury by sneering, “It will all go to shit by the end of the century. We’ll be dead!”
In this portrait of 2037—against the backdrop of 20 million acres burning in wildfires, severe water shortages, massive and desperate youth protests—we are confronted with the cynicism and greed of a few power brokers. In this world, protests and international negotiations are ultimately impotent when placed against the power of those determined to make as much money as possible on the way down. Apocalypse, after all, can be good for business.*
Fortunately, the writers give us one moment of sweet revenge in this episode, perpetrated by, of all things, a mama walrus. There’s that cheekiness I mentioned. Silly, but satisfying.
Episode 2 focuses on species extinction. Is it ridiculous to imagine that by 2046, scientists have figured out how to capture whale sounds and, in real time, translate them into English, and then translate English back to the whale? Yes. Yes it is. But this is where you have to understand the deal that any speculative fiction makes with the reader/viewer: “Just go with me on this one crazy thing—and then let me tell a story.”
If you can accept that deal, then you can experience, along with the characters, what the very last humpback whale on earth might say to us. What would it feel like to explain to your nine-year-old kid that there used to be tigers, and that now we’re down to the last whale? Fortenberry remarked in an interview that one of their goals in creating the show was to help people imagine what it might feel like to live in an increasingly climate-stressed world. In this episode, we are invited to live into overwhelming, pervasive grief.
Episode 3 turns to explicitly religious questions. Daveed Diggs plays Marshall Zucker, a good-hearted rabbi in Miami, trying to serve his community with integrity even though he’s been manipulated by his morally corrupt father into his position at an ultra-wealthy temple. Rabbi Zucker’s dilemma: to what lengths will he go to save the temple when Miami is increasingly unlivable? The temple sanctuary is so flooded already that worshipers have to turn up in their rain boots. The flooding is no ridiculous scenario, even if worshiping in rain boots might be. But once again: go with it, and let it lead us to the main question this episode asks: Where is God in all this?
Brilliantly, that question gets asked by a thirteen-year-old bat mitzvah candidate, Alana. In a stunning performance by Neska Rose, Alana misses nothing, including the immoral shenanigans of her slimy father (David Schwimmer). So she insists, with the penetrating and urgent sobriety only a thirteen-year-old can muster, that her rabbi answer her question. “Why is God doing this to us?” she wants to know, as Miami succumbs to flooding, hurricanes, mosquito-borne diseases—as she watches the world slide into disaster.
Part of her longs for a vindictive God, because she wants people to pay for what they’ve done to the earth and to each other—she relishes her Torah portion, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah—but she’s also terrified. How can the poor, bewildered Rabbi Zucker respond to a kid who sees the existential question of her time more clearly than any adult in the room?
The episode places ancient questions of theodicy in the context of climate apocalypse, humanizing the theological quandaries within a tender relationship between a rabbi and his young congregant. I thought the writers asked all the right questions in this episode and respectfully refrained from over-answering. How do we understand the mystery of God’s actions in the world, whether punitive or redemptive? How do we accept responsibility both for our sins and failures and for the need to perform acts of love even amid disaster?
Scott Burns is agnostic, but producer Dorothy Fortenberry is an observant Catholic, and the writers also consulted rabbinical experts for this episode, which I think helps explain how they got so much right. A bonus: we get to see Diggs and Rose perform a little homage to “Singin’ in the Rain,” and who would say no to that?
In the remaining episodes, we explore what happens when a rogue actor manages to perpetrate a kind of terrorist geo-engineering plot. We spend a whole episode—my second favorite after the theodicy ep—with a couple of smugglers in India, trying to survive in a world so hot and polluted people are only supposed go out at night and they need to take frequent swigs from oxygen masks. The smugglers’ black-market operation involves precious seed, stolen from the seed bank in Svalbard. The next episode has a Black Mirror vibe, purporting that memories can be preserved, bought, and sold as commodities. This one explores identity, memory, and loss. The most recent episode—the clunkiest and preachiest, I’m afraid—reads like a dinner party stage drama, but at least we get to marvel over how deliciously terrible people can be. The final episode airs next week.
Burns’s obsession with research shows in the not-so-far-fetched plausibility of the premises. We really are facing rapid species extinction. Miami really is dealing with increased flooding and the possible need for “strategic retreat.” We really are experiencing more “wet bulb” days. Pollution really does threaten the health of mothers and their unborn babies, resulting in long-term health effects. The show’s strategy is to start with actual facts on the ground today, then offer a few choice flights of fancy to create a future world and see what a bunch of characters will do in it. One of the most haunting motifs of the whole series is how Bilton’s company, Alpha—combine Google, Amazon, Apple, etc.—seems to own more and more of everything as the episodes progress, from the patents for de-salination technology to extinct animal DNA to drone surveillance to drought-resistant seeds to the ability (supposedly) to upload one’s consciousness and bide your time in cyberspace while you wait for the earth to “heal itself.”
Some of the critical responses, I’ll concede, strike me as entirely valid. Aaron Bady of the Los Angeles Review of Books, for example, complains that the fossil fuel industry seems insufficiently blamed as the main driver of climate change. Fair. Bady also complains about a severe lack of good-faith characters. Where are the people effectively working to build community, reform business practice, achieve policy change? Also a fair critique.
However, other complaints, about lack of character development, tonal shifts across episodes—these seem to me to be missing the point. Burns suggested in an interview that the producers deliberately wanted to explore different genres and tones—that’s part of the creative challenge as well as an opportunity for hidden references and subtle humor.
Moreover, in the same interview, producer Michael Ellenberg pointed out that the show is “an extrapolation,” not “the extrapolation.” This is a crucial point. Because fictions and entertainments based on climate change are only now reaching the mainstream, it’s easy to wish that each instance checks all the boxes—covers every fact and facet and informs and convinces in all the right ways. But that’s too much to ask. Instead, we need many stories, many kinds of stories. Fiction is one of the ways we process our realities, one critical tool we have to imagine our way into and out of possibilities. We have a lot of processing to do.
If there’s anything missing right now in our fictions—and I’m not the only one to say this—it’s more stories in which we imagine a better way. We need positive future visions to dream toward—rather the way that Gene Roddenberry originally conceived of Star Trek as a way to imagine an optimistic future. We need to imagine the positive scenarios we might produce if we do the right things right now. In the realm of climate fiction, Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel Ministry for the Future is one oft-cited gesture in that direction, not Pollyanna-ish, but still ultimately optimistic. We need more such visions.
Meanwhile, portraits of disastrous futures have their purpose, too—they might scare us and thus motivate us to act in the present. In fact, if anything, Extrapolations might underestimate the suffering we’ll face by 2070 if we don’t act now. Even so, I must say, despite all the reading I do on the climate crisis and all the information I know, seeing on screen a smog-choked Mumbai or a filthy, flooded Miami or a trashed and decaying San Francisco and watching characters try to navigate these physical and emotional landscapes—all this helped me feel with a depth that no charts and graphs can evoke. Fortenberry is right about that.
Sometimes we need to feel something in order even to pay attention. Extrapolations is flawed, for sure, but it’s a worthy effort with some great moments. I say we need more shows like this if only to wake us up, and if we have to put up with a little cheesiness along the way, well then, let’s enjoy it.
*Consider a comparison to what Rex Tillerson, former Exxon CEO and Trump’s Secretary of State, offers as an excuse for his actions, when Exxon has long known what fossil fuels have done and will do to the planet. Said Tillerson: “My philosophy is to make money. If I can drill and make money, then that’s what I want to do.”