Why 45 Years Is the Definitive Climate-Change Movie

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In 2001, long before climate change was among the two or three biggest concerns of the international argument, A.I. Artificial Intelligence posited a world ravaged by the phenomenon. A significant portion of land became uninhabitable, food was hard to come by, and much of the population was condensed in urban areas. Although climate change only existed on the periphery of A.I., the film nonetheless explored some of the philosophical implications of what scientists already recognized as a dangerous, existential crisis. The film’s damning critique of the immorality of humans—the film aligns the viewer far more closely with the robots—is thereby tied with complacency in the warming of the earth. As Jonathan Rosenbaum put it, mankind’s responsibility toward robots capable of true love is depicted as “about the same responsibility George W. Bush seems ready to take for curbing the greenhouse effect.” One poor decision leads to another.

Arguably the defining cause of our time, global warming nonetheless remains a rare topic in the cinematic world—something that cannot be said of the September 11th attacks, whose long-term impact is comparable in size. When climate change does exist in movies, it is as an explanation for a dystopia against which a human interest story is set, as in Snowpiercer or The Day After Tomorrow. Its effect is more or less immediate, and any incremental changes to lifestyle are completely absent. Perhaps the rarity of such portrayals is because the threat is, for most of the world (or at least its inhabitants), viewed as a distant, rather abstract one. It’s easy to make a film about 9/11 because its impact on the world was sudden and immediate: franchise and big-budget blockbusters from Man of Steel to Star Trek: Into Darkness to Pacific Rim create a “ post-9/11” world in which tragedy must be avenged rather than prevented and anxiety is ever-present while simultaneously assuring us of the continued moral legibility of the world. While it would be an overstatement to say that 45 Years, Andrew Haigh’s new drama about a long marriage suddenly made insecure by the discovery of the husband’s former lover, is a corrective to this imbalance, it’s as close to one as has yet been made. Rather than presenting climate change as a dystopia that most people alive today won’t experience anyway, it instead presents it as an existential threat, too far away to have any visible, dramatic impact on day-to-day life but too close for us to not begin seriously considering a world different from the one today.

The idea of a changed world is precisely what global warming proposes in 45 Years, albeit in an oblique way. When the film begins, Geoff (Tom Courtenay) receives a letter saying that an ex-lover’s body has been found deep in the Alps, perfectly preserved by the ice that is now melting as a result of the globe’s warming temperature. In a later scene, Geoff reads to his wife Kate (Charlotte Rampling) from a book on the subject and explains how the phenomena could obliterate the human race. That kind of sudden awareness of mortality comes with baggage, and that baggage arrives in the form of Katja and her “belongings” (Geoff is the next of kin) with the arbitrariness of what amounts to a life-changing discovery accredited to a phenomenon so abstract as to seem natural.

It is worth noting, then, that 45 Years—and note also that the EPA was founded 45 years ago—utilizes, in a handful of scenes, tricks more commonly associated with the horror genre. Geoff and Kate’s attic is under-lit; framing grows increasingly claustrophobic; off-screen noise disrupts, surprises, and even frightens characters, especially as they sleep; and the camera goes black for longer than it should in a marriage drama. But the horror proposed in 45 Years is not that one day a long-married couple will question their love for one another. The horror proposed is that it is only a matter of time until somebody wakes up and this ticking time bomb known as climate change has dried out the well, scorched the crops, brought forth a hurricane, or otherwise onset the realization of mortality and all the regret that comes with it long before it should occur naturally.
What this realization of mortality imposes on an individual is, of course, a reflection on one’s life so far, on roads not taken and mistakes made. And indeed, both Geoff and Kate begin to think about the different ways their lives could have gone. Both take trips into the house’s attic where reminders of a past, stowed “upstairs” for decades, suddenly intrude on the couple’s marriage.

Nothing good comes of this intrusion. In the film’s devastating ending, Geoff gives a speech asserting his love for Kate and the pair share a dance to “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.” Despite the idyllic appearance, however, Kate’s initially delighted expression gradually sours, as if she didn’t believe a single word Geoff just said to her. Characters cannot live in “the moment” because climate change means the moment is constantly soured by reflection.

This kind of perpetual second-guessing and course-correcting is what climate change necessitates. Throwing away an empty soda can because the sidewalk does not have a recycling bin simply won’t do; your shower should be five minutes shorter; the sustainable food option will cost you a couple extra bucks that you might not want to or be able to spend, but should. When our own end is in sight, every choice we make is far more urgent than before. As one ages or otherwise approaches death, he or she tends to think about previous decisions, what should have been different, and the big, life-altering mistakes and serendipitous occurrences that brought together two happily married people. But the possibility of global warming bringing us to a premature end (or at least transforming the world into some apocalyptic dystopia) requires these reflections of mortality and this awareness of permanency on a day-to-day basis. 45 Years takes a place in a world in which climate change has obligated that pattern of thought, and while it may not apply to the most mundane of decisions, it does not occur in a dystopic world, either. One day, Geoff woke up and found every decision he has ever made has caught up to him; it’s scary to think that it might not be long until the collective human race can relate.

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