Many science fiction directors are tired of exploring the genre’s typical “run from the alien” formula. They’re are now setting their sights on a more silent killer: the environment. The result is climate fiction, or cli-fi movies.
As its name suggests, the genre centers around global warming and climate change. Cli-fi movies, however can also cross into multiple areas—dystopian societies, political thrillers, space travel, and more.
More than a few fall flat, harping on overdone tropes rather than exploring fresh ideas. The best climate fiction movies, on the other hand, raise the standard against which all future films should be measured.
Take Shelter (2011)
Starring: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Shea Whigham, Tova Stewart
Directed by: Jeff Nichols
A man named Curtis LaForche (Shannon) begins having visions of a world-ending storm.
Curtis grapples with his visions, and wonders if he’s suffering from the early stages of mental illness…or if the world really is ending.
Lacking the stereotypical muscle-bound hero or excessive CGI of other cli-fi movies, Take Shelter delivers a refreshing, nuanced portrayal of one man’s fight to contain his fear amidst a town of disbelievers.
Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alexander Skaarsgard, Kiefer Sutherland, John Hurt, and Charlotte Rampling
Directed by: Lars von Trier
The brilliance of Scandinavian cinema can best be described as “visual feasts.” The elegance portrayed in Melancholia certainly explains this moniker. The film’s opening sequence alone is a piece of apocalyptic eye candy.
Justine, the “happy, unassuming, but catatonic” bride whom no one ever seems interested in conversing with—unless it’s to tell her she’s pretty—arrives at the estate of her sister Claire to wed fiance Michael.
Audiences meet a family completely lacking empathy, tethered only to price tags and a warped sense of notoriety.
At the same time, the planet Melancholia begins a dangerous dance with Earth’s gravitational pull.
As the internet flares with doomsday theories, Justine remains indifferent. Claire, meanwhile, is determined to undermine her denial.
After months of speculation and telescopic viewings of Melancholia’s trajectory, Justine pulls herself out of her wanton, coma-like behaviors. Claire has become unraveled, obsessed with constantly tracking the approaching planet.
As much as Melancholia seems built around the constructs of a disaster film, the real disasters on display are the characters themselves. They resolutely cling to their pain, denial, anxiety, selfishness, and anger.
Starring: Michelle Yeoh, Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans, Troy Garity, Rose Byrne
Directed by: Danny Boyle
Despite its limited release and lackluster box office performance, Sunshine is probably one of the most well-crafted cli-fi movies.
The year is 2057. The sun is dimming; the earth grows colder. Icarus I spacecraft has disappeared.
Eight astronauts aboard the Icarus II are on a mission to transport another stellar bomb to launch into the sun, hoping to jumpstart it back to life, when they receive a distress beacon from none other than Icarus I.
While the crew determines the best gameplan to connect with Icarus I, a section of the ship’s solar shields becomes damaged.
Time for a spacewalk! And you guessed it; all hell breaks loose. But, this is a Danny Boyle film, so the hell is pretty cool.
Watching Boyle’s iconic camera placements and surreal sequences, viewers practically feel the heat rise in the room as Icarus II gets closer to the sun.
Starring: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson.
Directed by: Alex Garland
A meteor crashes to Earth, landing inside a lighthouse. A strange rainbow-colored shimmer begins to devour the surrounding landscape. Kane, a Green Beret, is sent on a mission to enter the Shimmer and gain intel. He then disappears for a year.
When he arrives home to his wife, Lena, Kane is unaware of anything that happened.
Lena, also a veteran, is then sent into the Shimmer on her own mission with four other women. The group soon discovers that it’s not what’s in the Shimmer that’s dangerous…but what it does once humans step inside.
Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
Starring: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Levy Easterly
Directed by: Benh Zeitlin
Few cli-fi movies shine a light on real human vulnerabilities and what it takes to survive. This gritty, bittersweet film does just that.
Despite gratuitous CGI, the film’s 6-year old protagonist Hushpuppy and her father Wink glue the narrative together. Touted a “spectacular,” best film of 2012, and a slice of cinematic excellence, Beasts “values imagination over money.”
Hushpuppy and Wink live in a community known as The Bathtub, a carved-out section of a swamp. Despite being urged to evacuate, the residents simply walk to the other side of the levee, reluctant to leave their community even as melted ice caps and a hurricane threaten to destroy their beloved bayou.
Starring: Julianne Moore, Xander Berkeley, Peter Friedman, James LeGros
Directed by: Todd Haynes
In this quiet and unassuming cli-fi film, housewife Carol finds her outwardly idyllic life upended when she suddenly grows allergic to virtually everything around her.
She suffers a nosebleed while getting a perm, as well as a panic-fueled, anaphylactic reaction at a birthday luncheon.
In scene after scene, audiences feel the subtle terror mount as each reaction grows worse than the last. The subtle terror culminates in Carol fainting after exposure to fumigation fumes while shopping.
Director Todd Haynes uses silent, sweeping, wide-angled shots to create tension; Moore plays vapid, frail, and vulnerable to a T—and the combination works like a charm. Throughout the film, you’ll find yourself scratching, your eyes watering, and wonder if your own throat is closing up.
Starring: Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Gael García Bernal
Directed by: Fernando Meirelles
Based on the book of the same name by Portuguese author Jose Saramago, Blindness is the story of societal collapse after a mysterious “white sickness” suddenly blinds people.
The characters—Doctor’s Wife, Doctor, Man with Black Eye Patch, etc.—and the city itself are portrayed with total ambiguity. Even what the white sickness is, is never fully explained.
Thanks to director Fernando Meirelles, audiences experience the terror of immediate blindness with staggering realness. It’s also the perfect metaphor for mankind’s darkest sides: “prejudice, selfishness, violence, and willful indifference.”
Starring: Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, Jaime Bell, Ed Harris
Directed by: Bong-Joon-ho
An attempt to reverse global warming goes awry. So, Chris Evans get Clif-Fi fantastical, along with a cast of motley characters, on a train circling our uninhabitable frozen Earth.
The passengers are separated by a class system: the rich live extravagantly at the front of the train; the poor, in squalor at the back, watched over 24/7 by armed guards. As the power struggle ensues, the doomed train and its inhabitants learn that “only a hard reset can solve society’s woes.”
High Life (2018)
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Mia Goth, Juliette Binoche, Andre Benjamin
Directed by: Claire Denis
This cli-fi film, described as arthouse horror, is something altogether in disguise. It opens in a stark, non-descriptive spacecraft. The passengers are death row convicts, sent to collect energy from a black hole…while also being experimented on by a demented doctor.
In a can’t-look-away performance by Juliette Binoche, the doctor uses a “sex box” to collect sperm from male prisoners, in the hopes of impregnating female prisoners and creating a child.
As tensions run high, everybody onboard shows their real private maniac. Some crave sex or power…or both. The truth of just how cruel humans can be, even while trying to save humanity, comes full circle.
These Final Hours (2014)
Starring: Nathan Phillips, Angourie Rice, Jessica De Gouw, Kathryn Beck
Directed by: Zak Hilditch
While it uses the tried-and-true “meteor forms a deadly tsunami” trope of many cli-fi movies, These Final Hours exceeds many of its predecessors. It’s an engaging and compelling look at the last 12 hours of a man’s life before the total obliteration of Earth after a meteor strike.
In Perth, Australia, James must make amends in his final hours, and come to terms with bad decisions long buried. Along the way, he meets and rescues a girl named Rose. Against all odds, James promises to reunite Rose with her father.
A brilliant script, unforgettable performances, and the bond of two strangers set this unknown end-of-the-world gem apart from blockbusters like Armageddon and Deep Impact.
Cli-fi movies offer the same high-stakes thrills and mounting tension as extraterrestrial films, but with one deeply unsettling change: instead of an alien force that humans downplay or ignore, it’s humanity’s own backyard turned predator.
At its core, that’s the appeal of climate fiction. The terror it evokes hits all too close to home.