Scott Z. Burns Makes His ‘Contagion’ for Climate Change

Mar 10, 2023

There is nothing quite as demoralizing as waking up day after day knowing that the world is sliding further and further toward climate catastrophe. This is not something that any one person alone is having to deal with; a warming planet has and will continue to impact us all. It makes sense that more stories being told on screen would start to seek to grapple with this looming threat and the collective ripple effects that it will have. The fittingly titled Apple TV+ series Extrapolations is one such work. Created by Scott Z. Burns, who previously wrote 2011’s fortuitous pandemic thriller Contagion, the story grounds itself in the lived experiences of various characters scattered throughout a world in peril. Though it doesn’t have the kinetic energy of other recent works tackling this crisis, such as the outstanding upcoming film How to Blow Up a Pipeline, it pushes us to reflect on one of the most important questions of our age: what is that will happen if we fail to prevent the coming catastrophe?

Much like Contagion, Extrapolations is built around an ensemble cast of characters navigating their lives while everything is falling apart around them. Some, like Daveed Diggs’ compassionate Marshall Zucker, have dreams and aspirations that will be forever altered. Others, like Kit Harington’s callous Nick Bilton, seek to make a profit from the crisis. Then there are many who are just trying to get through the day, bearing the brunt of decisions made thousands of miles away or decades prior by people who will mostly be able to continue their lives without much of any impact. Technology is constantly hailed as a solution, but Burns brings a whole heaping of skepticism about whether this will actually be our salvation.

The opening episode shows how the leaders of the world essentially punt having to make any hard decisions down the road once more, capitulating to catastrophe as something that will happen later and is for someone else to deal with. We then see how this takes shape and form over the subsequent decades. It sounds like it can be quite grim viewing, and it often is. At the same time, its pessimism is intertwined with hints of optimism sprinkled throughout. It’s a delicate balance, as one way or the other would be dishonest, though it manages to walk it all the same.

Image via Apple TV+

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From 2037 all the way to 2070, each episode tells a relatively confined story focused on how the choices we are making right now are going to determine the reality of those left to live among the rubble. Most notably, the series doesn’t just have one moment where everything collapses. Rather, it is a steady decline that feels authentic in how multiple degrees of warming would really play out. Even as it ends up going to some pretty eccentric places by the time we get to the end, expressed in everything from the unique costume design to some unsettling makeup, it all feels painfully human throughout. Sure, there are elements such as Perry Mason’s Matthew Rhys playing a cartoonishly evil corporate villain of sorts, but is it so hard to believe there could be a petulant manchild with the power to hasten the demise of so many? Though Burns is blunt in how he writes the dialogue of these characters, the end that they often meet feels pointed and darkly comedic. When facing the end of the world, sometimes all you can do is laugh at how incompetent and corrupt everything has become.

Though the series would have benefited from exploring more of the details of the lives of those who will be the most heavily impacted by climate change, there is an intentionality to one transition between episodes that demonstrates an understanding of this necessary framing. Where the proceeding one was about the way the United States government will align itself with corporate interests when push comes to shove, we then see what the reality on the ground is for those who may soon get caught in the crossfire. It is in its fifth and sixth episodes that this is excavated most comprehensively. These moments succeed where those in other works, like the disastrous, recent Don’t Look Up, fail as they are more precisely measured and emotionally resonant rather than falling into being broadly fatalistic.

The episodes towards the end can be more than a bit awkward, even getting rather goofy in a way that can take some getting used to, but these tonal swings still manage to work. Just as things can be rather dire and depressing for those most impacted, the vapidity of others more protected from these worst impacts will always be present. The juxtaposition and contradictions of society end up being the point. A tense dinner party confined completely indoors due to the air outside being completely unbreathable without oxygen shows that, even as the world has fallen apart, there still is immense stratification that society clings to.

Image via Apple TV+

With that being said, it also soon becomes clear that everyone will eventually have to face the cascading impacts of the unrestrained release of carbon into the atmosphere. This is made most painful as we observe a story of a scientist trying to look out for their child whose entire life and existence will be forever altered by a previously unheard-of health condition created by the warming planet. When we catch up with both of them in the future, the ongoing tragedy that Burns has been trying to make sense of is crystallized. For all the ways that climate change can feel abstract, either because of the lack of information or the glut of dangerous disinformation from bad actors, Extrapolations makes it into something concrete.

It is an ambitious science fiction story, but it makes room for the more intimate moments of humanity. Just like Contagion, this is to show what is at stake and why it is always important to keep fighting. Much like the conclusion of that film, Baker brings the story to a close where the immense suffering is crossed with an eye on the potential that remains for hope. This is not hope built upon hollow sentimental messages, but based upon the real work that is needed to begin to turn the tide away from the forces of callousness that drive our world. Extrapolations is clear-eyed about the urgency, and one can only hope that we can bring ourselves to be too.

Rating: B+

Extrapolations premieres March 17 on Apple TV+.

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