Leonardo DiCaprio’s strong presence in Hollywood was fortified by his Oscar win for his role in The Revenant earlier this year. He used his acceptance speech to raise awareness for his next project, stating, “Climate change is real, it is happening right now. It is the most urgent threat facing our entire species …” In his new documentary Before the Flood co-produced with director Fisher Stevens, released Oct. 21, DiCaprio commits to his role as a United Nations Messenger of Peace, traveling to opposite poles of the Earth to raise awareness about climate change.
DiCaprio starts off by stressing that climate change is not fictional like his films. The world is its stage, and we don’t have the convenience of changing locations as movie producers do when climate conditions become forbidding. The film’s tone is rather despairing, as we view the raw damage that has already been inflicted to our planet, from the melting ice caps in Greenland and the Arctic Circle to the incineration of forests for palm oil in Indonesia.
Though disheartening to viewers, the unfiltered footage of natural habitat destruction is the film’s strongest point. The ocean’s ghostly, barren reefs and Canada’s desolate tar sands are ugly updates to the our planet’s fractured mosaic under the pressures of climate change, caused by practices such as red meat preparation and oil dumping, an issue many have chosen to ignore out of convenience or for monetary gain.
The film takes a break from displaying the dismal results of climate change to expose the flow of money from fossil fuel corporations to Congress members, who block bills advocating for environmental protection. Whether the disbelievers in Congress whom the film calls out are actually blinded by the dream that climate change isn’t real or are simply too comfortable in their money from lobbyists to wake up, it is made clear that they will not budge until the flood, in whatever form that takes, hits them. The producers of Before the Flood must hope viewers who were drawn to the film by DiCaprio’s name stayed for the substance and not just the shots of him, as even his star power is not likely to attract or convert many adamant deniers. Before the Flood is an earnest alarm, but it is merely an echo of climatologists’ many warnings before on which climate change deniers have hit snooze.
Before the Flood harbors one fault: the solutions suggested by experts to rehabilitate the environmental damage inflicted on Earth seem implausible. Tesla CEO Elon Musk offers hope in discussing renewable energy, a path to which many European countries such as Germany, Denmark and Sweden have committed.The problem is funding such a switch — and while the suggestion of a carbon tax to fund development of renewable energy is explained logically, legislative enforcement would prove difficult, as climate change critics would fervently block such action in Congress. DiCaprio may have traded in his suits and red carpets for parkas and the great outdoors, but his efforts might not stand against the suits that run our world: politicians influenced by big money.
The film offers insight from those who are concerned about climate change: environmental scientists and activists such as Michael E. Mann and Sunita Narain, world leaders like President Obama and Chinese citizens who commute amidst suffocating smog. The intellectual conversations take a humanistic turn with NASA’s Earth Sciences Division Director Piers Sellers. As an astronaut, he fondly describes “seeing all the cities at night, all the people…” and then, in “the day, seeing the natural systems…” as “a kind of revelation.” Sellers reminds viewers how small and fleeting we are in this unimaginably vast universe, inspiring them to coalesce to focus on the well-being of our world, a blue planet brimming with life against the bleak, black backdrop of space.
Before the Flood concludes with a surge of optimism: streams of brainpower from environmental researchers coupled with the thundering voices of environmental activists may be able to break the dam of ignorance amongst negligent corporations and politicians before the literal floods set in. The images in this film are vivid and expansive, captivating viewers with shots that encapsulate the sheer natural beauty of our planet and conversely shocking them with the ravaged wastelands human development leaves in its wake.
Juxtaposing these massive landscapes are more intimate shots: the weathered faces of Indian farmers whose crops have been lost to increased rainfall show how painfully ways of life are being washed away, while the blissfully innocent smiles of Indonesian children on islands facing flooding are blank canvases which tell stories of future hardship. Before The Flood is a film we all have a role in, and the direction the plot takes for the cast that follows us depends on how we face the common foe of climate change today. DiCaprio has diverged from the fiction and flashiness of movie stardom and created a documentary about mankind’s destruction of the planet in hopes that it will awaken the humanity in all of us.