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Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Mega-shark vs. climate change

JAMIE CHEN / AGGIE

Why the SyFy channel best represents the dangers of climate change

The Syfy Channel’s creature-features carry an infamous reputation. Filled with washed-up celebrities, laughably bad CGI, buckets of fake blood and ridiculous titles like Mansquito, Piranhaconda and, most famously, Sharknado, they’re not exactly known as a quality source of science fiction. However, these movies offer something beyond cheap entertainment — they offer the best artistic expression of fears about climate change today.

Climate change is one of the biggest problems facing the modern world. With ice melting at record rates in 2017 and global temperatures rising annually, it’s something people are rightfully worried about. The problem isn’t going away anytime soon, either. The Trump administration has denied the existence of climate change and has moved to dismantle the country’s environmental regulations.

Part of the reason more action hasn’t been taken is that climate change can be hard to communicate to a popular audience in the short, digestible forms of media that dominate today’s airwaves. Climate change operates on such a grand and slow scale that it’s hard to capture within traditional literary or film narratives or photographs or paintings that capture specific moments. But its effects are so massive that it’s critical to try and represent the danger it presents.

There’s a lot of precedent in science fiction for representing large-scale destruction. It’s no secret that the original Godzilla is a metaphor for the atomic bomb and the monsters that followed in his wake often dealt indirectly with the prospect of nuclear war in the 50s and 60s. With new fears and challenges, particularly with climate change, science fiction should have adapted, but it surprisingly hasn’t.

Attempts to cover climate change in major sci-fi movies in the last 15 years have been mostly limited to unrealistic disaster films like 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow, which make the issues look as ridiculous as the deniers would have you believe, with giant blizzards and earthquakes destroying Los Angeles and New York in gloriously over-the-top fashion. The modern world also has its fair share of monster movies in Pacific Rim, the Godzilla reboot and Kong: Skull Island, but they seem to be playing off older traditions rather than creating something new and of our time.

As a result, the only original, relevant representation of climate change we have left are Syfy Channel movies. They lack subtlety, but their message about climate is consistently loud and clear. The monster, no matter how ridiculous it may be, is a variation on a known living creature. Godzilla is a giant lizard, but he’s not clearly modeled after a living creature in the way a mega piranha is. This is important because it ties the monster to Earth and natural forces, making it a metaphor for the extension of climate change — something mainstream monster movies fail to do.

It’s through this lens that Syfy Channel tells three different types of stories in their creature features: mankind’s punishment, the consequences of climate change and nature’s revenge. There’s a lot of overlap, but each approach highlights slightly different ways to tackle the implications of climatological destruction.

The first storyline involves a man-made creature that eventually breaks free and turns on its creators. The creature is often created by a well-intentioned scientist working for an evil corporation or the military, as in Sharktopus. This is similar to the man-made pollution and production of greenhouse gases that are threatening the environment. Mankind probably won’t have to face a Sharktopus, but it will have to confront the destruction brought about by tampering with the natural order of the planet.

The second storyline makes climate change the explicit reason the monsters are unleashed on the world. In 2009’s Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus, the two gigantic creatures are frozen mid-battle in a chunk of glacial ice that one day breaks off from the glacier and melts, unleashing the beasts. While mankind’s punishment is the same, the beasts are a direct result of climate change, as opposed to just being a metaphor like in the first narrative.

The third storyline is one of rebellion. Creatures become so fed up with how mankind treats nature that they rebel or mutate and start killing humans. Birdemic: Shock and Terror is a great example of this. The characters eventually realize that the birds are attacking humanity out of revenge for the environment, and the film ends with a conservationist warning.

There’s more to climate change representation than just the creatures in these films. Nearly all creatures in these movies come from watery environments like the ocean or a swamp. Cities like New York, London, Miami, Los Angeles and Honolulu are often threatened or destroyed.

All of these cities lie near water and would be most affected by rising sea levels because of melting sea ice. It’s possible that these coastal cities will flood and their residents will be displaced inland. It makes sense that the monsters would be attacking these cities more than landlocked places like Minneapolis, Dallas or Kansas City. It’s the coastal cities that will bear the brunt of climate change, and it’s not a coincidence that they’re usually the target of whatever creature the minds at Syfy Channel dream up.

It’s because the monsters are tied to the earth’s natural forces, and because of their constant attacks on coastal cities, that they represent the consequences of climate change. Though a piranhaconda can’t capture the massive scale and progression of climate change, it can help us think about the destruction it might cause. In other words, without better fiction to address a difficult issue like climate change, maybe we should just start paying more attention to the message behind the giant killer crocodiles.

 

Written by: Noah Pflueger-Peters — napfluegerpeters@ucdavis.edu

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.

 

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