Meeting Climate Change with Art: Downsizing & First Reformed

This post was originally part of a larger post looking critically at how common themes of climate change have been finding their way into popular films. However, that post was getting LONG and I decided to cut these movies out for a part-2 of sorts.

In the original post, I split these common Hollywood narratives into 2 main groups: Apocalyptic Dystopias and Climate Conscious Bad Guys, but in today’s post, I will be exploring 2 films that don’t fit neatly into either category.

If you haven’t read the first post yet, I highly recommend checking it out before you read on. It will give you a better context before we go into these next two films.

They are Downsizing and First Reformed.


If there is one theme that connects these movies it is that they don’t allow climate change to exist in a vacuum. Climate change takes center stage for much of these films, but the inclusion of this looming threat seems to be as part of a broader collection of problems specific to our contemporary psyche.

Mental health, the Second Gulf War, cancer, human rights, and even divorce all make important contributions to these stories.

I think we’ll be seeing a lot more of these movies as climate change begins to take up more and more of our attention, and it’s important that we think critically of how we present themes of climate change in these films as well.

At this point in our lives, you can’t tell a compelling story of our contemporary lives without addressing the giant climate change elephant in the room.


Downsizing

In Downsizing (directed by Alexander Payne), we kick off our story with a last-ditch, hail marry, scientific discovery set to rescue us from the impending disasters of climate change – a Norwegian scientist developed a safe and reliable technique to shrink human beings AND their subsequent carbon footprint.

10 years after this discovery we turn to Paul Safranek (played by Matt Damon) for the main body of this story. Safranek is an occupational therapist loaded with debt and trying to get the house of his wife’s dreams while working for the Omaha Steak factory.

So, following the advice of his recently “downsized” friend, Paul and his wife Audrey (played by Kristen Wiig) decide to “get small” so they can start living large in an upper class “downsized” community.

This change sends Paul on a truly wild ride that I won’t try to spoil, and by the end of the film Paul even comes in to close contact with some Norwegian climate change dooms-dayers prepared to hunker down in a mega-bunker for a few thousand years.


At its core Downsizing is a film about a man searching for meaning in a world full of all the same crazy and difficult things we face every day. Hell, Paul even has to deal with student loans!

As it comes to climate change specifically, I don’t think Downsizing is necessarily a great story for us. For instance, the film actually gives air time to a common and problematic narrative that sustainable practices (represented by “downsizing”) could be “bad” for the economy.

It doesn’t devote much time to this “sustainability vs. economy” idea (and characters claiming “downsizing” is bad for the economy aren’t always painted in the best lighting), but Downsizing doesn’t seem to actively address the fallacy that sustainability and economic prosperity are somehow a zero-sum choice.

In addition, (although the film ends on a generally hopeful note) there doesn’t seem to be any final messages of hope specifically addressed toward climate change.

However, Downsizing hammers in some very important points that need to surround our climate change thinking. Downsizing pulls us into a world where climate change is very real and very bad, but (without minimizing climate change) the story refuses to ignore all the other big things equally deserving of our attention.

At one point, Paul Safranek comes face to face with some characters who have totally given in to climate despair and it includes some worthwhile critique of these characters’ ideology. Paul actually comes close to joining these people on their quest to “save humanity” by walking down into a mega bunker and locking the door, but he eventually comes around to his friend Dusan’s advice, “these people are like a cult”.

In truth, giving up on our planet – and the poor and vulnerable people who inhabit it – to lock ourselves down in a Norwegian bunker is both unproductive and self-righteous. Sure, these Norwegian’s were taking climate change “seriously” in a world full of climate change deniers, but “taking things seriously” shouldn’t be our only judgment criteria.

If there is one thing Downsizing does best, it is communicating how the inequalities of race and class will follow us into every aspect of life. The films “downsized” communities look like perfect upper middle class suburbs, but their wild parties are fueled by poor Asian and Latinx workers living in slums outside of the community’s literal wall. These are the people Paul would have been abandoning if he had given up and walked down into the bunker with the rest of the Norwegians.

In addition, despite the inspirational keynote describing how “downsizing” can save the planet, the primary reason people decide to “get small” has a lot more to do with wealth, debt, careers, status, and even tax credits. Carbon footprints and “saving the planet” have nothing to do with most characters’ decisions. Paul repeatedly says things like “plus all the good you’re doing for the environment”, but his altruism comes off like a joke to others.

Lastly, Downsizing shows us that no technology can exist in a vacuum – despite the motivations of the inventor. One character is forcibly “downsized” and shipped to the US in a TV box after she was arrested for protesting the Vietnamese government, there is talk on the news of corrupt nations “shrinking” vulnerable populations, crazy cable hosts rant and stir up fears of “illegal immigration” in a world with small people, and we’re even told of a character who is killed because of a sloppy, unregulated procedure.

No new sustainable technology or public policy we introduce (especially some procedure that can turn people “small”) will exist in a vacuum of “environmental problems” alone. The inequalities of race and class and the full range of human motivations cannot be ignored.


First Reformed

Lastly, I want to talk about First Reformed, written and directed by Paul Schrader. Schrader is much more famous for writing classic films like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, but to many, First Reformed‘s gritty tone and spiritual Thomas-Merton styled inquiries into God, religion, and justice make it Paul Schrader’s magnum opus.

Similar to how Taxi Driver tapped into looming issues of the mid 70’s with Vietnam, political assassinations, and a racially charged obsession with “law and order”, First Reformed takes a deep dive into the issues haunting us in 2017.

We learn early on that our main character, Reverend Toller, used to be a chaplain in the US military when he encouraged his son to enlist, sparking Reverend Toller’s divorce when his son was later killed in Iraq. As the story unfolds, we follow Toller on his darker and darker path towards climate despair, alcoholism, failure to face his potential cancer, and eventual consideration to wear a suicide vest to a church event with a major global polluter present.

At one level, First Reformed falls into the trap of the earlier mentioned “climate conscious bad guy” films. Our main character is compelled toward action in the face of climate change and the destruction we’ve brought to Earth, and the only paths he seems to notice are violence or a what-about-ism that downplays the danger or passes the responsibility to others. It’s worth recognizing this similarity, but it is clear that Toller is not a Thanos-style bad guy nor does he play that role in the narrative.

At its core, First Reformed is as much about loneliness as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Reverend Toller is FAR from the sociopathy of Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver) or the paranoia of Jake LaMatta (Raging Bull), but self-destruction and violence find their way into the brutal loneliness of each of these films.

And much like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, First Reformed is a hard movie to wrap your head around. The ambiguity can be off putting at first, but there are so many different things going on during First Reformed and it can be taken in many different directions. In truth, First Reformed is best treated as a film to spur serious thinking and conversation.

So, I’ll consciously set aside all the other directions you could take this film and pick the intersection of 2 themes which can be interpreted with specific relevance to climate change: Ignoring Warning Signs and Hope vs. Despair.

Ignoring Warning Signs

It’s hard not to at least subconsciously connect these moments in the story, but I’ll be honest. I actually didn’t think much of this aspect at first, and now I believe this is one of the most compelling ways to frame the story.

Almost every warning sign expressed in this film seems to be ignored. Toller continues to avoid the doctor’s office despite peeing blood and regularly vomiting, Toller suddenly disrupts almost all of his personal relationships when he begins to plan his suicide, and the church organist even finds a half dozen empty bottles of whiskey in Toller’s trash shortly after he is told to stop drinking by the doctor.

It isn’t until the very end that Toller’s boss confronts him and addresses the abundant warning signs, but any action to help Toller is deferred to a later time.

Allegorically, this mirrors the lack of significant human action in response to climate change. We can come up with a billion excuses, but the simple truth is that we’ve all seen the abundant warning signs and we know exactly what they mean. Still, we continue to kick the can down the road or pass responsibility off to someone else.

Hope vs. Despair

The tensions between themes of hope and despair are central to the human experience and this film does a fantastic job of communicating the tension.

Reverend Toller begins First Reformed with faithful messages of hope,

Despair is a development of pride so great that it chooses one’s certitude rather than admit God is more creative than we are.

First Reformed, Paul Schrader

And by the end, Toller switches tone to an overwhelming degree of despair,

I know that nothing can change and I know there is no hope.

First Reformed, Paul Schrader

However, Paul Schrader intentionally designed First Reformed’s final scene to evoke a near perfectly split in how people interpret it. I won’t spoil any specifics, but its incredible ambiguity has caused MANY people to vehemently disagree the ending.

(without giving away any specifics) It boils down to interpretations of miraculous hope verse interpretations of cynical despair.

If you were hoping to find out “what the director thought it meant” Schrader won’t provide much help. On a podcast with filmmaker Sofia Coppola, Paul Schrader weighed in,

I don’t know what the ending is.

– Paul Schrader on First Reformed

Like I said earlier, this movie is more about spurring conversation than sending a clear message. However, rather than get caught up arguing for an ending of either despair or hope, I’ve found meaning in this story’s ending through an earlier quote by Toller himself,

Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our mind, simultaneously, hope and despair. A life without despair is a life without hope. Holding these two ideas in our head is life itself.

First Reformed, Paul Schrader

First Reformed’s perfectly split ending lives up to this paradoxical tension between despair and hope. When it comes to Hope vs. Despair, there just isn’t an easy answer.

This tension reminds me of a similar section from Radio Raheem’s monologue on love and hate in Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing,

The story of life is this: static.

One hand is always fighting the other hand, and the left hand is kicking much ass. I mean, it looks like the right hand—Love—is finished.

But hold on, stop the presses; the right hand is coming back. Yeah, he got the left hand on the ropes now, that’s right. Ooh, it’s a devastating right, and Hate is hurt. He’s down.

Do The Right Thing, Spike Lee

Connecting the Dots

Accepting this paradox also speaks insight into the narrative’s potential allegory regarding climate change represented by the theme of “ignoring warning signs”.

The “ending” of humanity’s ultimate climate change story is just as unsure as the ending of First Reformed. We know we’ve been ignoring warning signs, but now what? Do we fail to stop the catastrophe? Is any miraculous vision of hope just fantasy in the face of climate change? Or does a miraculous kind of hope have the power to overcome even Toller’s level of despair?

If we build off of the earlier mentioned “hope and despair” quote, we’ll see that actually Toller frames this relationship between the novel issue of climate change and the ancient issue of Hope vs. Despair,

Man’s great achievements have brought him to a place where life as we know it may cease in the foreseeable future.

Yes. That’s new.

But the blackness is not.

Courage is the solution to despair, reason provides no answers. I can’t know what the future will bring; we have to choose despite uncertainty.

Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our mind, simultaneously, hope and despair. A life without despair is a life without hope. Holding these two ideas in our head is life itself.

First Reformed, Paul Schrader

Wrapping It Up

These films aren’t necessarily perfect, but they both contain interesting angles that are important for us to keep in mind as we move forward and try out new narratives.

If you haven’t already, I highly recommend checking out the earlier blog post, “Improving Our Narratives”. It goes into a few other films and frames the importance of narratives which this post came out of.


Feel free to message me or leave a comment with some feedback, and always let me know if there are other important films, books, or other pieces of art that you think are worth exploring.


(This post has since been edited and re-published to Medium as ‘How Downsizing and First Reformed Take on Climate Change’).

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