The familiar voice of Leonardo DiCaprio opens “Before the Flood,” narrating over a set of graphic paintings by Hieronymus Bosch. He explains that they represent his first encounter with the environmental concerns to be subsequently discussed in the documentary, depicting the downward spiral of man from the harmonious Garden of Eden to an apocalyptic future of paradise lost. Just as these images must have haunted his infant mind, the intent of this impassioned documentary is clear – humanity is heading down a destructive path and we need to wake up before it’s too late.
The other relevant analogy suggested by the film’s title is of course the Biblical flood, believed to be God’s punishment for man’s debauchery. Teaming up with director and co-producer Fisher Stevens, DiCaprio attempts to show how we are setting ourselves up for another climate-related disaster. The film follows the movie star – appointed by the United Nations as a Messenger of Peace – as he travels the world to show how climate change affects all of us, from impoverished communities in India, to the more affluent cities of America. Throughout his journey, he speaks with scientists, fellow activists and regular citizens, crafting a compelling argument for necessary action to combat climate change.
As with any persuasive environmental documentary, “Before the Flood” relies heavily on evocative photography to relay its message. And cinematographer Antonio Rossi proves to be up to the task, providing a steady stream of stunning images. Far from a celebrity joy ride around the world – the film’s considerable carbon footprint is offset by a voluntary tax – DiCaprio displays an undeniable passion for the issue at hand. Guiding us through his informative journey, he uses the spectacular footage to show what we stand to lose, as well as the destruction we’ve already caused. Beautiful arctic vistas contrast with horrific expanses of oil sands for example, among countless other memorable sights littered throughout.
For many viewers, these images will provide the film’s lasting impressions. Indeed, much of the climate science explained in the film will feel like “Climate Change 101” to more informed individuals, especially considering what we’ve already learned from other documentaries (and from simply being engaged members of society). But the other key strength of the film is the way it provides a balanced perspective. In particular, the film delves into the crucial predicament facing developing countries. Though they are disproportionately affected by climate change in a negative way, they must also consider their own need to industrialize to provide food, water and electricity for their people. In one vitally candid interview with Indian environmentalist Sunita Narain, she explains how third world countries often lack the resources to pursue alternatives to cheaper, more abundant fossil fuels like coal. For them, the primary concern is the alleviation of poverty.
As such, the film also stresses the responsibility of developed nations like the US in promoting investments in renewable energy and fostering sustainable development. But despite irrefutable evidence acknowledging the effects of climate change, the film strikes a sobering blow in reminding us of the prevalence of corrupt individuals and corporations who are misleading the public. These damning clips of influential individuals spewing dangerously facile rhetoric to deny climate change offer convincing support for DiCaprio’s pessimistic outlook.
But it’s not all doom and gloom however, as “Before the Flood” ends with a message of hope, highlighting the positive steps we all can take to alleviate climate change. In that regard, DiCaprio saves his most urgent plea for last, imploring us to help enact change with the power of our vote. And with earlier footage depicting one presidential candidate (the infamous Donald Trump) using a platform to denounce climate change based on one cool day, the film further confirms who the right choice for our future will be.
“Before the Flood” is currently playing in select theaters and premieres Oct. 30 at 9 p.m. ET on National Geographic Channel.