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Can a New Genre of Eco-Thrillers Inspire Climate Action?

IN THE FORTHCOMING film “Mother Nature,” co-written by the actress Jamie Lee Curtis, several women in Catch Creek, N.M., fight back against Cobalt, an oil extraction company that’s overtaken their fictional town. Among them is Nova, who, as a child, watched her father get crushed by an oil derrick. Now in her 20s, she’s devoted her life to sabotaging the firm as it promotes a dubious water-cleaning technology. On Aug. 8, Titan Comics published a graphic novel adaptation in which one character resembles Curtis; in addition to directing the film, the actress, 64, plans to eventually play Cynthia Butterfield, the Cobalt heir.

The project grew from a vision Curtis had at 19: After a piece of gravel hit her car’s windshield, she pictured a body being pummeled with tiny rocks during a wind storm; she imagined a mountain had been blown apart to create a tunnel, and that the wounding of the land would incite a series of natural disasters “until you rectified the situation,” she says, “until you stopped and repaired.”

The cover and a page from the graphic novel “Mother Nature” by Jamie Lee Curtis, Karl Stevens and Russell Goldman. Curtis intends to direct and star in the film version.Credit…Mother Nature © Blumhouse Productions, LLC

The time for such repair is, of course, short. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change wrote in March, “There is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a livable and sustainable future for all.” (In the United States, carbon emissions rose last year.) We’ve heard it before: Unless we change course imminently, we — and countless other species — will die.

Impending doom lends itself to suspenseful onscreen narratives yet, when it comes to environmental disaster, such stories have typically created distance between the viewer and the catastrophes depicted: Think of Adam McKay’s “Don’t Look Up” (2022), a satire in which an asteroid hurtling toward Earth becomes a metaphor for the climate crisis, leaving audiences about as apathetic as the majority of its characters. We’ve seen lots of fictional fallout after ecological calamity, from the second coming of the Ice Age in “The Day After Tomorrow” (2004) to the fungus-spurred zombie chaos of “The Last of Us” (2023) — both dystopias too exaggerated to imagine as our own. Other quieter dramas use a small town to represent a larger problem, notably “Erin Brockovich” (2000) but, more recently, “Promised Land” (2012), about fracking in rural Pennsylvania and “Dark Waters” (2019), based on the real-life lawyer who exposed DuPont’s toxic waste dumping in West Virginia. Situations like these regularly occur, and yet these films make them seem like stories happening elsewhere, ones that can only be rectified by a hometown hero.

From left: Dakota Fanning, Jesse Eisenberg and Peter Sarsgaard in the 2013 film “Night Moves,” directed by Kelly Reichardt.Credit…Tipping Point Productions

It’s a tough brief: making an eco-focused movie that people want to watch, while also inspiring engagement with an issue that feels too intractable to face. Yet a new genre is emerging — the environmental action film, or eco-thriller — that addresses the conundrum of climate anxiety by applying the tropes of a heist flick to the mission of curbing the consumption of earth’s resources. Such works bring us to the edge of our seats, making us wonder: Can these people succeed in securing our future? And then, perhaps, can we?

IN “HOW TO Blow Up a Pipeline” (2022), a group of 20-somethings assemble in West Texas to do what the title says. As we watch them build bombs, we learn how their lives have been destroyed by the fossil-fuel industry (Xochitl’s mother died in a freak heat wave; Dwayne and his family were forced to move after an oil company claimed eminent domain). The film’s writers, Ariela Barer, Daniel Goldhaber and Jordan Sjol, based their script on the Swedish human-ecology researcher Andreas Malm’s 2021 book of the same name. They were also influenced by “If a Tree Falls” (2011), a documentary about the environmentalist group Earth Liberation Front and, less expected, “Ocean’s 11” (2001), starring Brad Pitt and George Clooney as casino robbers.

The film “How to Blow up a Pipeline” is based on Andreas Malm’s 2021 book.Credit…Verso Books

This time, however, our protagonists aren’t flashy or even talented, just fed up. In the Icelandic film “Woman at War” (2018), Halla, a 50-year-old choir teacher played by Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir, spends her off hours pulling down power lines that fuel a nearby aluminum smelter. (Jodie Foster plans to direct and star in an upcoming English-language adaptation, set in the American West.) Another forerunner in which ordinary people take on Big Pollution is Kelly Reichardt’s “Night Moves” (2013), featuring a trio of beleaguered Oregonians — a spa worker (Dakota Fanning), a farmer (Jesse Eisenberg) and an ex-Marine (Peter Sarsgaard) — who team up to explode a hydroelectric dam. In each of these movies, the villain isn’t some evil mastermind but an industrial force going about business as usual.

Despite following big-budget formulas — the tension rises as the characters race to execute their plans — these are women-centered independent films in which tactical logistics are interwoven with imagery of the landscape that’s at risk: Halla hides between dripping glaciers; the “Pipeline” characters are tiny against the broad, brown desert. In contrast to eco-horror films of the past that pit humans against the mysterious, malevolent force of nature (like M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Happening” [2008] or Alex Garland’s “Annihilation” [2018]), here it’s the familiarity that’s ominous. “Everything I’ve written — black ice, hurricanes, tornadoes, hailstorms — it’s happening,” Curtis says. “You can amplify the visuals in a movie but it’s all [there], all the time now.”

In the 2018 film “Woman at War,” the protagonist evades surveillance by hiding in glacial caves and sheep carcasses.Credit…Magnolia Pictures

We know now that the climate crisis can’t be fixed by measuring our personal carbon footprints or planting trees to compensate for our commutes. But we still crave being part of a collective human solution to what we’ve wrought. Barer and her co-writers started working on their movie during the pandemic, feeling “totally disempowered,” says the 24-year-old actress, who also stars in it. When the group decided to adapt Malm’s book, “Suddenly it felt like there was something we could do, rather than sitting around with our hands tied waiting for an industry to reform.” That’s the real thrill of watching these films: not whether the protagonists are taking the right approach, nor whether they succeed, but the satisfaction that comes with seeing them try something, anything, as the world burns.

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