Through a mirror polluted: Extrapolations

Remember when Don’t Look Up came out, the 2021 satire by Adam McKay about climate change and the way humanity deals with the crisis? Climate change activists generally praised it, conservatives of all stripes berated it for being propaganda, and film critics by and large disliked it as a film. I was largely in the third of these camps: while I agreed with the underlying sentiments, I found too much of the film smug and happy to preach to the choir, and I simply didn’t see much reason to be smug about a film designed to get those people nodding who were already nodding, while being pretty much guaranteed to put those off who weren’t already among those nodding. To my mind, Don’t Look Up was best where it dropped its lazy, easy-target satire (no matter how deserving that satire might be) and went for anger instead of smugness. (Which isn’t to say that I can’t imagine a better, more successful climate change satire than Don’t Look Up, but that’s a different topic.)

Extrapolations, an anthology series by Apple TV+ mostly forgoes the satire, but like Don’t Look Up I am largely in agreement with the thinking behind it. More than Don’t Look Up, though, it fails as activism as well as storytelling – sometimes disastrously so.

I have to admit, I was expecting more of Extrapolations – or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that I was hoping for more. Its cast is strong (including the likes of Daveed Diggs, Matthew Rhys, Forest Whitaker and Don’t Look Up alumna Meryl Streep), but that in itself doesn’t have to mean anything. What was more relevant to me was that the series was created and largely written by Scott Z. Burns, who’d been responsible for the eerily prescient screenplay of Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, a film that many returned to when the COVID-19 pandemic was at its worst. Contagion had done a good job of telling a facts-based story about a global pandemic that used characters and drama to be engaging and relatable, but these storylines mainly served to strengthen the what-if scenario rather than overpowering it. When I rewatched Contagion a couple of years ago, I was struck by the extent to which the pandemic-ravaged world imagined by Burns and Soderbergh presaged the years 2020 and 2021 especially. (MEV-1, Contagion‘s virus, was more immediately lethal than Coronavirus, but beyond this the film’s pandemic was uncomfortably close to the one we’d experience less than a decade later.)

Whatever magic Burns worked when he wrote Contagion, it failed to materialise with Extrapolations. Like so much narrative fiction that doubles as activism (though in this case of a decidedly Hollywood brand), it falls into the trap of aiming its messages at an audience that’s already likely to subscribe to them. More than that, though, Extrapolations veers between bland (some of the series feels like it was written by an AI trained on Black Mirror and the pamphlets of some Californian climate charity) and unintentionally funny, either by being po-facedly self-important or clunkily melodramatic. It is very much the kind of storytelling where a diverse cast of mostly pretty characters who barely have more than one dimension are sad because their lives are made worse by climate change, while amoral or downright evil people, mostly white and male, are responsible for the horrible things happening to the world – and while most of the latter tend to get punished in the episode they appear in, in one hilarious case at the tusks of a murderous walrus, nothing ever changes. Each individual narrative choice can be justified by pointing at the world we live in, but the way the series does it makes for clunky, preachy storytelling. See here, men like him ruin our world. Look at this example of capitalism screwing things up for everyone, witness the suffering their actions are causing, sad emoji, angry emoji. We might as well be reading Facebook posts, with pictures of Hollywood stars inserted for maximum clickthrough.

Sadly, the episodes that work best are the ones that tell a story set in a world affected by climate change, but the message isn’t constantly broadcast in obvious, loud ways – and there Extrapolations turns into speculative fiction with an environmental slant to such an extent that the theme of climate change becomes secondary until the ending reiterates the points that the series is there to make. One thrilling episode, and arguably the best one, is set in Mumbai, and to my mind it’s the one that succeeds most as a story. Another, in which a man suffering from climate change-induced health issues ends up with his cloud-stored memories being deleted, is reasonably effective as drama, but it feels like material left over from the Black Mirror writers’ room, with climate change taking a backseat to themes of memory and loss.

Perhaps the worst of all the episodes is “2068: The Going Away Party”: again, a Black Mirror-alike, but in this case it’s classic play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? given the ersatz-Charlie Brooker treatment, down to a surprise reveal about the main characters’ procreative issues. In spite of being directed by Nicole Holofcener (who’s done great work on films such as can You Ever Forgive Me?) and featuring acting powerhouses Forest Whitaker and Marion Cotillard as the couple coming to pieces during a New Year’s Eve dinner with friends, the episode is constantly shown up by being so much worse than the material that’s inspired it in every way. If only the series hadn’t insisted on ordering its episodes chronologically by how far they extrapolate into the future, because if “The Going Away Party” had come earlier, I could have given the rest of the series a miss too. (Though, admittedly, I might then have missed the only honest laugh I got out of Extrapolations, the walrus scene in the first episode.)

There are a handful of moments sprinkled throughout Extrapolations where it works in spite of itself. The worldbuilding, when not insisted on by the plot machinations, is impressive in its oppressiveness. The series does a good job of visualising a version of the world we inhabit in which humanity has failed to act, because the majority of people are driven by their own short-term interest and late-stage capitalism thrives on this exact human flaw. There were times when I wondered whether a documentary along the lines of Life After People would’ve done a better job of making the points Extrapolations aims at – because it’s really when the series tries to tell stories that communicate its messages that it falls flat.

In the end, perhaps, it’s too difficult a task to achieve: to tell a story, inform people about facts and incite action of some sort at the same time. Maybe it’s one of those things where you can do one or two of those well but if you attempt all three you end up doing none of them particularly well. Considering the point we’re at, perhaps the genre that climate change fiction needs to embrace isn’t drama or satire or sci-fi: it’s horror. Perhaps we need the likes of Jordan Peele to sit us down and tell us a story about the future we’re running into head-first. While bad storytelling may be unpleasant, it isn’t nearly enough to scare us the way we need to be scared.

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