Truly great films about the climate crisis are tough to come by. Allusions to environmental destruction are very familiar in the futuristic dystopias Hollywood churns out like clockwork, but they rarely get the science right—or they abandon it entirely in favor of skipping straight to some post-apocalyptic CGI extravaganza.
Those of us with a little knowledge of the climate crisis bristle at this kind of doom-and-gloom bombast—because we know better. But that doesn't mean a few thoughtful films haven't been able to cut through the noise.
Below are six of our favorites. We decided to spice it up by mixing narrative films with documentaries—and while our changing climate understandably casts a long, dark shadow over any future that wrestles with its impacts, we did our best to stay on the right side of the fine line between raucous, factually dubious calamity and thought-provoking "what if" explorations or science-centered spectacle.
Director Christopher Nolan's Interstellar is that rarest of Hollywood anomalies—a wildly complicated, lavishly expensive, wholly original mainstream blockbuster. It doesn't exist in the Marvel or DC cinematic universes; instead, it occupies a not-so-distant-future version of our very own—and things aren't exactly going great.
While the words "climate change" are never explicitly said in the film, the impacts of the crisis are writ large, driving a plot about an attempt to flee a near-future Earth reeling from drastically changing weather patterns and global food shortages for the safety of a new habitable planet.
Featuring one of the most stacked casts in recent memory, including Oscar winners Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine and Ellen Burstyn and nominees Jessica Chastain, Timothée Chalamet and John Lithgow, Interstellar takes on a very real consequence of climate inaction, though it offers up an untenable solution.
After all, there's still no Planet B.
2. Beasts of the Southern Wild
Living in a Louisiana bayou community called "the Bathtub," six-year-old Hush Puppy (youngest-ever Best Actress Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis) can't get the prehistoric aurochs her teacher tells her will be released from melting ice caps off her mind—even as the world in front of her crumbles and cowers, the victim of powerful storms, failing levees and familial health problems.
While the film's setting is technically fictional, it was inspired by several very real fishing villages in Southern Louisiana's Terrebonne Parish. These small, isolated wetland communities are threatened by climate-driven erosion, extreme weather and rising sea levels. Most notable among them is the rapidly disappearing Isle de Jean Charles, former home of "the first American climate refugees."
3. Chasing Coral
That coral reefs are existentially threatened by the climate crisis is a truth near-universally acknowledged. But filmmaker Jeff Orlowski doesn't simply telegraph a report on this impending ecological catastrophe.
Instead, Orlowski infuses his film with such empathy and ardor for our world's oceans and their vibrant ecosystems—as well as those working hard to save what's left—that it's impossible to not walk away pumped up and ready to join the fight.
Like we already mentioned, we try to avoid cynical, despondent hot takes on the climate crisis. But we're fans of director Bong Joon Ho's Snowpiercer for two big reasons: First, it's a very, very good, wildly underseen film, and second, because it confronts head-on the dangers of a "we'll deal with this later" approach to climate action.
The film is set in a future where a failed geoengineering experiment to counteract climate change plunges the planet into a new ice age, killing all life except for those lucky enough (a phrase we're using loosely here) to have boarded the titular train. This train now circles the globe on a constant loop and a tyrannical class system has taken hold onboard.
It's an important cautionary tale: While we should investigate any and all scientific developments to stop the climate crisis, dangerous gambles like geoengineering—or for that matter, fleeing our planet for an imagined oasis somewhere deep in the universe—could come with unintended consequences. So, why risk it when we know for sure that quickly transitioning from fossil fuels to renewables can and will work?
There's even an important philosophical principle – one at work in another great, underappreciated sci-fi film, 1997's Contact—to back this one up. Attributed to fourteenth century logician and Franciscan friar William of Ockham, Ockham's Razor states … well, Jodie Foster's Dr. Ellie Arroway put it best: "All things being equal, the simplest answer is usually the right one."
Note: For all its incredible imagination, Snowpiercer definitely has some moments of real violence and isn't one for younger audiences.
5. An Inconvenient Truth / An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power
Now, of course, the film that started a movement—and the follow-up that propelled it to new heights.
After seeing former U.S. Vice President Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, people worldwide finally understood the reality of the climate crisis devastating our planet. For many, it was the moment they knew they personally had to do something about it. The film's impact continues to be felt more than a decade after it won the 2007 Academy Award for Best Documentary and took its place among the highest-grossing documentaries ever.
Last year's follow-up, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, took that story further, showcasing both the amazing progress that's been made as well as how much further we still have to go to solve the climate crisis.
Both documentaries present the science and stakes of the crisis and ask viewers if they're ready to fight like our world depends on it (because it does).
Are You Ready to Fight?
Just like you saw others do in An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, you too can work with Vice President Gore himself along with a host of field-leading experts and activists to learn the facts of the climate crisis and how we can solve it together. Apply today to attend our Climate Reality Leadership Corps training in Los Angeles, California, from August 28-30, and join an incredible network of dedicated activists devoted to solving the greatest challenge of our time.
You know our climate is changing. You know renewable energy is the answer. And you want to make a difference. We'll show you how.
Americans do love their denim, so much so that the average consumer buys four pairs of jeans a year. In China's Xintang province, a hub for denim, 300 million pairs are made annually. Just as staggering is the brew of toxic chemicals and hundreds of gallons of water it takes to dye and finish one pair of jeans. The resulting environmental damage to rivers, ecosystems and communities in China, Bangladesh and India is the subject of a new documentary called The RiverBlue: Can Fashion Save the Planet?.
It is estimated that 70 percent of Asia's rivers and lakes are contaminated by the 2.5 billion gallons of wastewater produced by that continent's textile industry. In scene after scene in the film, the dark frothy spill off can be seen rushing out of dye facilities while a cadre of scientists and environmental experts detail the public health crisis that has resulted from the largely unregulated manufacturing process.
Co-directed by award-winning documentarians David McIlvride and Roger Williams and produced by Lisa Mazzotta, RiverBlue has won 13 awards globally including Best Documentary at Raindance in London and will be receiving the Green Drop Award from Filmambiente at the World Water council on World Water day, March 22. Three years in the making, the film follows internationally celebrated river conservationist, Mark Angelo, as he paddles the rivers devastated by the chemical waste and the local communities who rely on these rivers for drinking and bathing. These communities suffer from a high incidence of cancers, gastric, skin and related issues afflicting both their residents and factory laborers.
Mark Angelo (left) paddles a river devastated by a toxic brew of chemical waste from the denim and leather industries with Roger Williams (right).RiverBlue
The Chemicals in Your Jeans
What makes the process of making jeans so poisonous to people and planet? Consider just one of the most popular types of jeans today—distressed. To get that "lived in" look, denim is subjected to several chemical-intensive washes. Campaigners from the environmental group Greenpeace, who tested the outflows near dyeing and finishing facilities in the top denim producing towns in Asia, found five heavy metals (cadmium, chromium, mercury, lead and copper) in 17 out of 21 water and sediment samples taken from throughout Xintang one of the locales featured in the project. Toxic campaigners in China also discovered heavy metals like manganese, which can be associated with brain damage, in the rivers.
These chemicals don't stay put. They can also be transported to our North American oceans, atmosphere and food chains and accumulates in places far away from their original source.
Where Should the Change Be?
The question the film poses to viewers: Are brand-name clothing corporations disregarding the environment in their zeal to make their clothes faster and cheaper for the consumer? "Low cost clothing has a high cost attached to it, one to the environment and public health," explains Angelo.
The solution the film's producers unveil is two-fold: through innovation and consumer education there can be change.
Director David McIlvride was determined to find brands making jeans which didn't do damage to the environment. He found the father of distressed jeans: Francois Girbaud who introduced the eponymous stone washed jean decades ago. "It took 40 yrs. before we realized what we made and what we did was wrong," says Girbaud of using permanganate in the 1970s. "If people knew that the spraying of permanganate on your jeans to give you that acid- wash look was killing the guy doing the spraying, would you still want that look? I don't think the customer is aware of what is happening abroad. We have to change the process of making jeans and brands have to be willing to invest because we are destroying the planet," says Girbaud.
A Better Jean Through Technology
In California now, the designer was trying to re-establish himself as manufacturer of good jeans when McIlvride found him. "He led us to the Spanish company, Jeanologia where they distress jeans by engraving images on the fabrics with lasers (light and air) and eliminating water without increasing the cost," says McIlvride. They are now considered a leading industry innovator.
Jeanologia distressed jean.
It was a trip to China in the mid 90s that made Alex Penadés and the other execs at Jeanologia want to change the way they did business. At the time the company was a jeans washing consultancy for finishers researching and investigating industry solutions.
"Once we saw the pollution in the rivers and the workers exposed to the chemicals we knew we had to innovate." Jeanologia now creates technology to treat and finish jeans (giving them a certain feel or aesthetic). "We started searching for ways to make garments in a more sustainable way. We have been dyeing clothes with water since the beginning of time and we faced the reality that even though it had been done this way in the mass consumer world, it was not sustainable," explains Penadés.
Jeanologia began working with Girbaud in 2003 and still does. They developed several technologies using light and air to finish jeans using little water and no chemicals. "It wasn't pretty at first and for designers the look is the most important thing," he says referring to their first prototypes back in 1996. "It took us a while to get better to convince industrial finishers to make that shift," says Penadés who works with brands like Levi Strauss, V.F. Corp (makers of Lee and Wrangler)., PVH Corp. (Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger), Inditex (Zara), H&M, Uniqlo and Marks & Spencer among others. Today, laser technology can give a pair of jeans a worn look instead of sandblasting or hand sanding which can be lethal or detrimental to workers and the environment. Their G2 ozone treatments introduced in 2005, fade down the color of a jean instead of using chemicals like bleach or hypochloryte. In 2011, they unveiled eflow technology that uses air (nanobubbles) instead of water to dye jeans and give them properties like softness and wrinkle repelling. The company is also expanding, working on the technology for knits, wool, cottons and blends.
Using these innovations, an average pair of jeans requires just a glass of water to finish when it used to require 300 liters. "It requires a big capital investment," says Penadés of the technology. Depending on the business model the capital investment is made by the dyeing and finishing facilities or brands. "In the beginning it was like preaching in the desert," he says. "Everyone was comfortable doing things in the same way as always. Why should anyone change their methods of production if they are doing well?"
Jeanologia has Environmental Impact software to measure the footprint of every style and brands know where they are and how they can improve. Penadés has seen the tide started to change. Three years ago, about 16 percent of the jeans in the world were made in a sustainable way he says. Now 35 percent of the jeans are made more sustainably. "About 6 billion pairs of jeans are made a year so that means 2 billion pairs are now being made in a more sustainable way."
Innovation Through Science
While filming the movie, most denim manufacturers barred the filmmakers from shooting inside their facilities. Italdenim, one of three denim manufacturers in Italy, invited them to film at their facility. President Luigi Caccia had been making denim for more than 40 years when he too realized rivers were dying and workers were becoming sick from the chemicals they were exposed to. In 2014, he sought to create a cleaner dyeing process. First his company invested in a machine, the only one of its kind in the world, that takes indigo dye and uses electrochemicals (Co2 and O2) and no water to make the colors for their denim.
They then found a company using chitosan, which comes from the waste of the food industry (it is the natural derivative of chitin which is the exoskeleton of shrimp and crab) and applied it to the yarn after dyeing it. "It creates a shell to protect the color so dyes will not rub off and less dye is needed overall to color the denim. This new process saves chemistry, water and energy and is biodegradable. Because there are no chemicals, the process doesn't create skin problems. "Your skin absorbs 65% of what you put on it, good or bad. We introduce chemicals to our skin with the food we eat, the environment we live in and our clothes. You can choose if you want to smoke or not but no one tells you that your denim may be harmful to your body," says Caccia.
The Cost to Make a More Sustainable Jean
Italdenim sells their denim to 30-40 brands around the world including Joe's Jeans and Mother Jeans in the U.S. "It was important to find solutions that did not increase the cost of the fabric so it would be available to all. If a brand wants to buy a sustainable denim it should cost the same as the alternative. We should be able to produce that or we should find ourselves a new job."
Penadés says brands have a choice to manufacture in a traditional way or a sustainable way. "The water and energy of traditional production is costly and so is pollution. Today, including the capital investment, you can produce the same product at the same price. Brands can do it. If the consumer is aware they have to request these kinds of products today. Consumers must also know what their impact on the environment is because of their acts of consumption. It's all about co-responsibility."
Girbaud agrees. He now hears customers asking where things come from and how clothes are made. "Brands are finally talking about this, too. I just hope I live to see the changes."
Watch the trailer for RiverBlue below:
Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.
Captain Planet is getting the Hollywood treatment by none other than real-life Captain Planet, Leonardo DiCaprio.
Leonardo DiCaprio is working on a "Captain Planet" movie.IMDB
According to The Hollywood Reporter, DiCaprio's Appian Way Productions is teaming up with Paramount for a Captain Planet film adaptation of the 1990s cartoon about an environmental superhero and five teenage Planeteers from across the world who fight against eco-villains. Scream Queens actor Glen Powell and writing partner Jono Matt have been tapped to write the script.
The movie doesn't sound like your typical blockbuster superhero flick. In a grim and gritty twist, the story will take place many years after the show's adventures took place. Captain Planet has fallen from grace and is now a “washed-up has-been who needs the kids more than they need him," The Hollywood Reporter writes.
In the original animated series, which ran from September 1990 to December 1992, five youths and their magical rings use their powers of Earth, Air, Wind, Fire and Heart to summon Captain Planet to fight environmental baddies and take "pollution down to zero."
Unfortunately, it looks like the Oscar-winning actor will not be starring in the film. Even with his vast resume, DiCaprio has never starred in a comic book movie. Maybe he was put off by the captain's green mullet?
If you're looking to get your DiCaprio fix, his latest documentary Before the Flood has the actor and activist traveling around the world and talking to world leaders and scientists about the dangers of climate change and ways to fight against it. You know, real-life planet saving stuff.
The documentary will debut Oct. 30 on the National Geographic Channel. Watch the trailer here: