Jon Christensen is the editor of Boom: A Journal of California and
a professor at UCLA where he teaches a course on “Environmental
Communications in the Anthropocene” and is co-teaching a course this
quarter on “BioCities: Urban Ecology and the Cultural Imagination”
with Ursula Heise, an English professor and scholar of eco-criticism
and author of “Sense of Place, Sense of Planet.”
Their course includes a section on climate change and mixes
literature, history, and urban planning and architecture. Christensen
also teaches a course on “Climate Change in California: A History of
the Future.”

In a recent Hollyblog interview, I asked him a few questions about the rise of
the cli fi genre in Hollywood and how this might play out in the

The May 19 issue of TIME magazine ran a news article by staff reporter
Lily Rothman in New York about how ”a surge of summer movies reflects
our environmental anxieties” that carried two headlines, one for the
print edition which read “Nature bites back” and another for the
online website edition ”’Godzilla’, ‘Into the Storm’ and More Summer
‘Cli-Fi’ Thrillers.” The subheadline was the same in both editions.

When I asked Christensen what he thought of the two
different TIME headlines and what they might signify, he said that it
was the subtitle that really matters.

“I think the key is the subtitle, which was the same in both
editions,” he said. “It’s good to see ‘cli-fi’ getting so much
attention. The stories we tell about the future –and the genre of
science fiction, or climate fiction, is the premier genre, of course,
for thinking about the future — are crucial for imagining
alternatives possibilities in the present, and how those choices will
affect the future.”

I asked him if he felt that the TIME story, which went worldwide and
was included in all four global editions of the newsweekly, would have
much of an impact on Hollywood producers and studios heads (and
directors and marketing departments) as they plan for future movies
over the next 10
years or so, he replied:
”The success of these movies — including Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah”
— at the worldwide box office will have a much bigger impact. But
it’s good to see the dots being connected clearly in the media too.”

Some people are already saying that this summer’s new “Godzilla” movie
has an eco-fiction theme and is a ‘cli fi’ movie on a large scale.
Director Gareth Edwards helmed the movie and just 38 years old, told
TIME that he is aiming at an audience made up of his generation to
show how if we do not take of our planet, Nature might strike back. I
asked Professor Christensen if he sees the Godzilla flick as mere
popcorn entertainment or if there might be a serious ‘cli fi’ message
there, too.

“Entertainment is never just ‘mere entertainment,'” he said. ” The
stories that we tell each other, read in books, play out in video
games, and watch on movies are also ways that we think about the world
today, even when they’re about the future or a possible future.
Through “climate fiction” [cli fi novels or movies and other media
platforms] we are thinking with possible futures about our present

Gareth Edwards told TIME that his generation ”didn’t grow up with
World War II or Vietnam or the
JFK assassination, noting: “The images that are seared into our brains and are
part of the nightmares are things like the Asian tsunamis and
Hurricane Katrina. Sci-fi and fantasy have
always reflected the fears of the time.”

Christensen said the ”Godzilla” director was on to something important.

”Edwards is absolutely right. I’ve spent the last 20 years having
these conversations with my daughters, one a recent college graduate,
the other a sophomore in college today,” Christensen said. “They
brought those fears home from schoolroom discussions and the media.
Those fears are in the air. The future has often been portrayed to
them as inevitably bleak. I found myself telling them often, ‘Don’t
let the bastards take the future away from you.’ I tell my students
the same. ‘Climate fiction’ [what has been dubbed by NPR, the New York
Times and now TIME as ‘cli fi’] gives us a way to think about futures
that are not inevitable.”

Can ”cli fi” genre movies be
useful to help raise public awareness of climate change and global
warming issues, while at the
same time making money for Hollywood studios?

Christensen says he sees a sea change coming, noting: “‘Climate
fiction’ is emerging as an important genre for movies as well as
novels, and it will continue to grow in importance, alas, as climate
change is with us to stay for many years to come, even if we do
succeed in turning the tide on greenhouse gas emissions.”

“I think entertainment is never just entertainment,” he added. It is
serious. It’s great to see climate change being treated seriously in
all kinds of genres. All of those forms will help us think through our
current predicaments and possible futures.”

Rothman wrote in her TIME piece that in the “Godzilla” movie, ”nature
doesn’t just bite back, it stomps and smashes too.”

Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who stars in the movie
alongside Bryan Cranston, told TIME: “Gareth definitely wanted this
element that we as mankind should feel
conscious of what we’re doing and almost guilty that we’re polluting
the planet. Nature has a way of fighting back,
represented by Godzilla.”

When I asked Christensen if he sees the movie this way, he
replied: “Godzilla personifies the idea that nature bites back, yes.
Giving agency to nature enables nature to be a character and not just
a setting. Characters are crucial for narratives, of course. I imagine
moviemakers and viewers will continue to be captivated by the
possibilities of making nature an important character at the center of

So can cli fi movies or novels change public opinion and have an
impact on climate skeptics or national leaders around the world?

”Most of the data that I have seen support the idea that there is
very little chance that hardcore deniers will change their minds no
matter the evidence or narratives they encounter,” Christensen said.
“It’s the rest of us that will need to face our current predicament
squarely, imagine possible futures, and do what needs to be done to
limit the damage as much as possible and adapt to the inevitable
changes coming no matter what we do now.”

Another movie that the TIME  article mentioned is the South Korean
movie ”Snowpiercer,” a cli fi movie set in a post-climate-change
world that examines themes such as ,
social class to income inequality. Will the movie, with just a limited
release, hav much of an impact on the younger generations?

”I don’t think the younger generation has any problem talking about
this stuff,” Christensen said. “My daughters and my students are not
only willing to talk about this stuff, they want to talk about it, and
they want to act to limit climate change and adapt to the changes that
are coming even if we are able to curb greenhouse gas emissions.”

Roland Emmerich’s “The Day
After Tomorrow” came out 10 years ago and still carries weight,
despite its rather weird science and its global cooling theme. When
asked if Emmerich’s film helped raise awareness of climate issues
worldwide, Christensen said he felt it did, despite one major

”The science in ‘science fiction’ as well as ‘climate fiction’ is
often going to be proven wrong,” he said. “That’s the nature of
science and fiction. First, science changes. Second, fiction is, well,
fiction. It’s an imaginary possible future. It’s not necessarily a
prediction. But even predictions are a kind of science fiction.
History shows us that things can change. And they often do. So, yes,
‘The Day After Tomorrow’ helped set the stage for “cli fi,” even
though the science in the movie’s science fiction was wrong.”

Final question: I asked Christensen if the
world needs a new climate-themed novel with the impact of say, Nevil
Shute’s 1957 blockbuster (and subsequent movie) “On The Beach,” which
raised public awareness of nuclear war and nuclear winter.

“I think the current wave of ‘climate fiction’ in novels like Paolo
Bacigalupi’s ‘The Wind-Up Girl’ as well as in movies like ‘Noah’ and
‘Godzilla’ could be even more powerful than ‘On the Beach’ in
affecting how we confront a global problem globally,” he told me.

”Godzilla” director Edwards believes movies like his will help remind
people not to get too
complacent, telling TIME that ”we should really try and fix some of
these things
that we’ve done before it’s too late.”

So is ”cli fi” in the air in Hollywood, after the big
TIME summer movies preview package in May? Christensen said he senses
it, noting:
”Despite the hardcore minority of deniers, we have reached a
watershed moment where climate change is recognized globally. It is
seen as happening now, not just in the future. And it is seen as
shaping our future no matter what we do now. It is no surprise that
this is reflected in movies, books, and the media. That is what
culture does. It enables us to think through our past, present, and
possible futures in creative ways.”

TIME magazine link:
May 19, 2014 issue:

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