Leonardo DiCaprio’s Before The Flood, which premiered in Europe on October 15th at the London Film Festival, may prove to be the most influential movie detailing the state of our climate since Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth—both in terms of box office draw, and in its hard-hitting urgency and painful illustration of the impacts of runaway climate change.
On stage in London introducing the film DiCaprio said, “The journey for me was to try and make a modern-day film about climate change. I’ve been studying this issue for the past 15 years. I’ve been watching it very closely. What’s incredibly terrifying is that things are happening way ahead of the scientific projections, 15 or 20 years ago…We wanted to create a film that gave people a sense of urgency, that made them understand what particular things are going to solve this problem.”
Director Fisher Stevens places DiCaprio in the first-person role of investigator, and over the course of the film DiCaprio visits experts and people affected by climate change; from U.S. President Barack Obama, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Pope Francis to Tesla founder Elon Musk, Indian farmers and land use experts.
DiCaprio concedes that his own celebrity status is a double-edged sword. It draws attention to the topic but also allows critics to depict him and the climate issue as “fantasy.” He travels the globe, while also cautiously acknowledging his own carbon footprint and examining our fossil-fuel addiction, including emerging powerhouses such as India with huge energy and development needs.
After viewing tar sands in Canada by helicopter—“kinda looks like Mordor”—and narwhal whales in Greenland, DiCaprio says individual actions are now no longer enough. The film moves with alarming speed documenting dead coral, orphaned baby orangutans from burning Sumatran forests and the impact of our diet choices.
Perhaps the most poignant and shocking scene comes towards the end of the 90-minute documentary. Piers Sellers, the British-born astronaut, spent a total of 35 days in orbit in the 1990s on three separate space flights. Back on Earth, he has spent much of his professional life modeling the climate system at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. Diagnosed with terminal cancer, he has “sharpened his thinking on climate change” and talks to DiCaprio in front of a huge screen showing NASA visualizations of the Earth’s climate in motion.
Sellers says, “I realized that, as the science community, we have not done the best job, frankly, of communicating this threat to the public. When you go up there and see it with your own eyes, you see how thin the world’s atmosphere is. You can see the poles melting. People get confused about the issue, but the facts are crystal clear—the ice is melting, the Earth is warming, the sea level is rising—those are facts.”
The film, however, does pivot to answers for a better path forward—emphasizing, of course, the need to enforce the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, and further develop and scale wind and solar power. And, crucially, the film also spotlights that if governments are to reach zero greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century, nature is critical for that transition by storing and reducing carbon emissions in the world’s forests, grasslands and wetlands.
It would be wrong to say that Before The Flood is an enjoyable night out, but it is a memorable and absorbing depiction of the most serious issue facing humanity today. Does it have a Hollywood ending? Well, as DiCaprio says, the story still has a way to go and it’s up to us to choose it.
Before the Flood airs on National Geographic Channel on Sunday, October 30 at 9/8c and can also be streamed for free until November 6 at beforetheflood.com.