I've looked at clouds
Last March, the World Meteorological Organization put out its first new edition of the International Cloud Atlas in thirty years. The first edition, published in 1896, was intended to train meteorologists and generalists in identifying what were then newly standardized models of cloud types. Where color photographs of clouds—preferable for their precision but still very cost- and time-intensive to produce—were unavailable, the Cloud Commission relied on paintings to illustrate basic principles of cloud formation and categorization. (That edition’s image of the stratus cloud is an unattributed grim painting in the style of Corot, depicting a tiny figure in a red hat looking out over a river, above which a few patches of blue sky are visible through a low, thick cloud layer.) Twentieth-century installments of the Cloud Atlas expanded on this basic educational mission to incorporate new technological and cultural understandings of weather: the 1975 edition included a chapter describing clouds from the perspective of aircraft flying above them; the 1987 edition globalized the geographical distribution of clouds represented by broadening its archive of source images, now all photographs.
The 2017 Cloud Atlas was produced entirely digitally for the first time, forgoing color plates for a comprehensive web-based portal of crowdsourced photographs. A print edition is possibly forthcoming, but would be considered secondary to the online resource. The exhaustive database contains several new cloud classifications, including an entirely new species (the volutus, or roll cloud, created by wind shear) and five new “special clouds,” including a new name for clouds produced by airplane contrails and ships releasing exhaust into cool ocean air (the homogenitus, or anthropogenic or artificial cloud, a nod to the Anthropocene’s dominance over even the sky).
In the press release for the 2017 edition, the WMO cites as a decisive moment in its history the 1803 “Essay on the Modification of Clouds” by Luke Howard, the amateur meteorologist who created the first systematic cloud-naming system. Howard’s radical insight was that there is not an infinite number, or even a very large number, of potential cloud types, only a small and constant set: the stratus, nimbus, and cumulus clouds children still learn about today in school. He realized that this basic set followed a regular system of formation, and used Linnean principles to create the names and flexible modifying compounds (cumulonimbus, cirrostratus) we still use. Howard’s work was done out of faith in a rational universe, and at the time it was a revelation: since the classical period, the general understanding had been that cloud formation was arbitrary, the potential forms and permutations infinite. The first Cloud Atlas was published two years after Howard’s death, and its introduction describes the great debt the WMO—then the International Meteorological Organization—owed to his prescience.
In The Invention of Clouds: How an Amateur Meteorologist Forged the Language of the Skies, Richard Hamblyn traces Howard’s life and influence, particularly his relationship to Romantic literature and visual art. Hamblyn follows the development of nephology (the study of clouds) from its ancient history of error-ridden attempts to rationalize the weather through to the discipline’s modernization, under Howard’s hand, and subsequent professionalization. The book also shows how Howard’s revelation that cloud formation is neither mysterious nor arbitrary was important not just for the historical course of classification and meteorology, but also for art created at the peak of Romanticism. The new language of clouds had an immediate and powerful effect on artistic seeing, one that moved some of the most prominent artists and writers of the time; Howard inspired weather-related writing by John Ruskin and by Goethe, who wrote a poem, “Atmosphere,” about him: “The world’s enormous fact, / The pure height of the sky: / I grasp this with the eye / But it eludes my intellect.” 
For an aesthetic movement that prioritized the expression of subjective emotion, it can be surprising to learn how deeply Romantic artists were influenced by concurrent scientific discoveries, particularly the work of amateur scientists like Howard. Hamblyn describes how Goethe appropriated symbolism from contemporary theories of chemical attraction as the framework for his 1809 novel Elective Affinities; Coleridge attended “theaters of knowledge,” lectures by self-trained scientists to large audiences, in order, as he put it, to “renew my stock of metaphors.” (Howard first presented his cloud nomenclature at one such lecture, in 1802.)
But Howard’s most direct impact was likely on the field of painting. Hamblyn finds the greatest contemporary artistic advocate of “the overarching truth of Howard’s clouds” in the English landscape painter John Constable, whose “cloud studies” are now canonical in Romantic painting. Constable, who moved to Hampstead in 1819, found the area’s wide expanse of sky ideal for observing clouds, which he began to paint systematically. By 1822 he had made dozens of cloud studies, many titled using Howard’s nomenclature. Deeply interested in how scientific understanding of nature could inform his work, Constable declared, in an 1836 lecture at the Royal Institution—the venue where theaters of knowledge were held—that “painting is a science, and should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of nature,” and wondered why landscape painting could not be “considered as a branch of natural philosophy, of which pictures are but the experiments?”
In this spirit, John Constable’s Skies: A Fusion of Art and Science by John E. Thornes, director of the Atmospheric Impacts Research Group at the School of Geography and Earth Environmental Sciences at the University of Birmingham, takes the unusual tack of judging Constable’s cloud studies by scientific weather-measurement standards. A trained meteorologist, Thornes describes his “shock” at the lack of reference materials available for an assignment he once gave a group of students on “the effect of weather on landscape appreciation”; this scarcity led him to inaugurate the still largely nonexistent interdisciplinary field of “meteorology and representational art.” Thornes’s great interest is in the accuracy of representational art in representing the weather, and while his insistence on a kind of literalism in painting can seem comical at times—one of the book’s many elaborate tables maps the direction of the view in Constable’s paintings against the wind speed and direction on the day they were painted—it’s also striking how seriously he takes painting.
Thornes finds both subject and muse in Constable, who recorded notes on the weather at the time of painting on the backs of many of his cloud studies. Thornes weighs the available evidence as to how deep Constable’s meteorological understanding was for his time (very), and then studies the evolution of the skies in Constable’s paintings before concluding that they are, essentially, “the most scientifically accurate of all landscape art.” His first appendix, which attempts to date the cloud studies based on historical weather records from Hampstead, finds that for the most part there is “very good agreement” between the data and the paintings themselves.
What is the impulse to measure paintings by their accuracy if not an extension of the same impulse that led early meteorologists to classify our surroundings and thus project order onto a world that had for so long felt impetuous, senseless, and catastrophic? Today, against a series of devastating hurricanes, fires, earthquakes, and other disasters brought about at least in part by climate change and “global weirding,” imagining a time when we could find comfort in measuring the weather is an exercise in deep melancholy worthy of high Romanticism.
1 Anthony Howell’s translation.
I've looked at clouds (II)
If wisdom largely consists of the capacity to identify forces beyond our control and adopt appropriate attitudes toward them, then it’s probably inevitable for it to find expression in metaphors drawn from meteorology. Weather is always available as a sublime reminder of the human subject’s limitations, and just about any emotional impasse, from romantic disappointment to existential despair, stands to gain some resonance from the addition of a raindrop or two. Songwriters, of course, have always made enthusiastic use of such tropes. As a result, any historical survey of weather imagery in pop music also tracks subtle shifts in cultural sentiments about the perimeters of individual liberty.
Though they do tend to amplify fundamental phoniness into deplorable cliché, portrayals of climate in songs aren’t intrinsically kitsch or trite. Take, for example, Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides, Now” and Antônio Carlos Jobim’s “Águas de Março” (“Waters of March”), both of which shape their rhetoric around descriptions of weather, and both of which have a plausible claim on being the best popular song written in the last half century.
“Both Sides, Now” was first released in 1967, in a hit version by Judy Collins that Mitchell hated. Mitchell was a girlish twenty-three when she wrote it, just starting to earn notice as an artist; she had also endured a series of disenchantments and traumas that would still be noteworthy if borne by someone twice her age. The song walks the line between hopeful innocence and bitter experience, each verse pivoting at its midpoint from the former to the latter; it earns its power less from authoritative pronouncements than from the palpable vacuum created by what it withholds. Beyond the simple elision of the specific events that prompt the narrator’s ruminations, this reticence is encoded in the song’s structure. The opening lines, for
Rows and floes of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere
—float like the things they describe, in a kind of directionless grammatical suspension that finally ends with the abrupt emergence of subject and verb: “I’ve looked at clouds that way.” Combined with the formal rigor of the song’s refrains and rhyme scheme, this initial concealment of the narrator’s presence conjures a haunted, almost mechanical inevitability that reflects her melancholy over what is and isn’t within her grasp. Having used weather to define a sphere in which she is powerless to escape disappointment, the song widens its boundaries to include love, then life as a whole; within this sphere, her only practical option is to adopt a posture of gnomic guardedness—“Don’t give yourself away”—and grim acceptance.
The expression of disillusionment by someone so young that makes “Both Sides, Now” arresting also anticipated the sense of thwarted weariness that became widespread in global pop following the collapsed revolutionary promise of the 1960s. It was in that milieu, and from the unmistakable perspective of middle age, that Jobim composed “Águas de Março,” which initially came out in 1972, when Jobim was forty-five and the bossa nova music that brought him wealth and accolades had fallen out of fashion. He wrote it at Poço Fundo, his country retreat north of Rio de Janeiro, while awaiting a break in the autumn rains that would allow contractors to make needed repairs, and its lyrics are scattered with the renovation-related minutiae of bourgeois aspirations and frustrations: beams, spans, blueprints, truckloads of bricks, cars stuck in the mud. Jobim nests these in a delicately balanced collage that ranges from the concrete to the ineffable, from the irksome to the profound, succinctly sketching a broad tapestry of human experience in the natural world:
A stick, a stone.
It’s the end of the road.
It’s the rest of a stump.
It’s a little alone.
It’s a sliver of glass.
It is life, it’s the sun.
It is night, it is death.
It’s a trap, it’s a gun.
“Águas de Março” (for which Jobim wrote lyrics in both Portuguese and English) achieves a faintly eerie atmosphere not unlike that of “Both Sides, Now,” and it, too, relies on strategic omissions. Rather than concealing the presence of a first-person narrator, it excludes a narrator entirely.And, even more than Mitchell’s song, it adopts the form of a litany, largely shorn of grammar—no conjunctions except and, few verbs apart from is—thus achieving a leveling effect that sets each image afloat alongside the others, bereft of order and context, like debris caught in a seasonal flood. What results is a droll and oblique portrait of a single consciousness beset by preoccupations, impulses, injuries, fleeting raptures, and fears about mortality—“A scratch, a lump / It is nothing at all”—none of which can be overcome, only regarded with attentive detachment. This impression of bemused stasis is reinforced by Jobim’s ingenious arrangement, an illusion of constant descent that suggests both water spiraling down a sewer and the gentle entropic drift of all earthly things.
Enduring though they may justly be, both of these songs are artifacts of an era that prized sophisticated cool and favored the spectacle of lone individuals confronting impersonal, implacable forces. The passage of decades has complicated our understanding of such confrontations, obliging us to consider that the aura of romantic gloom may have led us to overstate our powerlessness, or to ignore the cumulative effect of our uncoordinated actions on our surroundings. Thanks to changes in climate, Mitchell’s clouds behave somewhat differently these days. Poço Fundo was destroyed in 2011 by floods of unprecedented severity.
In this light, the withholding of narrative particulars in Mitchell’s and Jobim’s songs—so effective in imbuing them with compelling mystery—also seems to limit their capacity to suggest links, causes, courses of action. Not so in “Rachel’s Song” by James McMurtry, which, like most of the material on his unfairly neglected 1995 album Where’d You Hide the Body, depicts a small town on the skids and the venomous resentment that pools between those who leave it and those who stay. It’s a persona song, unreliably narrated by a single parent—Rachel, presumably—in the form of a letter to her long-absent partner, one that won’t ever be written or sent. As the song begins, she’s watching an eastbound train pass, noticing snow on the cars; if bad weather blows in, school will be canceled tomorrow, and she’ll have to figure out what to do with her son. By the final verse, sure enough, snowflakes have started to fall. The train and the snow are bridged by the narrator’s clipped, vivid account of her circumstances, shot through with desperation and elemental fury, leaving us with an understanding that the impending shift in the weather is enormously consequential, maybe a matter of life and death:
I wrecked the El Camino.
Would’ve been DWI,
so I just walked off and left it
laying on its side.
The troopers found it in the
They said it’s purely luck
I wasn’t killed.
I probably ought to quit
drinking but I don’t believe I will.
It’s not the weather that did this to her, though it might as well have been. Alone, too proud and angry to ask for help, she’s unable to differentiate the forces arrayed against her, to determine which might be avoided and which must simply be endured. Like a violinist on the deck of the Titanic, she figures her best and only option is to regain a measure of dignity—the ghastly precision of “I don’t believe I will”—by asserting her limited agency in the face of impending doom.
The narrator’s posture of self-consuming rage isn’t categorically distinct from the bruised resignation of “Both Sides, Now,” or from the sheepish fatalism invoked by “Águas de Março.” What’s critically different is the world in which McMurtry locates Rachel, a world that rewards listeners’ efforts to do what she can’t: to untangle the factors that afflict her, to determine which are natural and which constructed. While wisdom may consist of learning how to face the inevitable, it also prescribes attentiveness to openings, wakefulness toward opportunities for action. Not everything that feels like weather is weather.
Cloudy with a high chance of feels
It was a hard year. America’s highest office was filled by a painfully unqualified, morally vacant buffoon who has brought us closer than any modern president to the brink of nuclear twilight—and for no good reason. Meanwhile, he has managed, either by malice or by gross incompetence, to gut the federal agencies tasked with protecting the people who live here. The vacuum at America’s heart has affected the way we treat and understand each other: our country’s private life has fractured and polarized in a way we haven’t seen since the Vietnam War. It feels like there’s less empathy to go around than ever.
We’ve also seen a spate of extreme weather events—from unusually late seasonal change to Hurricanes Irma and Harvey and their destructive sequelae to the firestorms reducing California to an ash heap—which have lent outsize psychic importance to what’s going on outside. Conversations about the weather have come to seem, of late, about more than storm systems, to stand in for things bigger than rain totals or wind speeds. It’s hard to believe this isn’t all a punishment for some national crime, that we aren’t reaping what we’ve sown, by our carbon-emitting actions, in the very air itself.
For many people I know, Trump’s election felt like a catastrophic event—a moment you can point to in retrospect and say, This is where things went off the rails. Keeping up with the news doesn’t help. It’s actively emotionally destabilizing, sometimes, and feels a little like freezing to death: the cold hurts, then you go numb, and finally, just before the end, you’re suffused with a warm, delirious feeling that carries you off into the dark.
When meteorologists get things wrong, it isn’t because of flaws in their models; it’s because forecasting the weather is a gigantic math problem that falls under the umbrella of chaos theory. Small changes in initial conditions can make for very large changes in the resulting storm. (This is where the popular metaphor of the butterfly effect originated.) Trump’s election was a change in the initial emotional conditions of everyone in this country, whether it made us optimistic or filled us with dread. It’s changed the private weather of our lives, even if we don’t recognize it yet.
I recently picked up The Sarah Book, a masterful work of autofiction by Scott McClanahan that details the ways a marriage falls apart. It’s fundamentally a story about loss, and the first page says as much:
There is only one thing I know about life. If you live long enough you start losing things. Things get stolen from you: First you lose your youth, and then your parents, and then you lose your friends, and finally you end up losing yourself.
The rest of the book is about that last step, about what it takes to become unrecognizable to yourself. How you find yourself in secret places, never sober, feeling as though you’ve divined the secrets of the universe, then wake up the next day, with at least a moral hangover, to realize that those hard-won insights have no bearing at all on the world as it is. It’s a slow alienation. “Every type of heart in the world was here and we were all the secret people,” McClanahan’s narrator says. “We were sons and daughters and mothers and friends and no one could judge us and no one could know us because tonight we were together.” This is shortly after he tells us that his wife, Sarah, has asked him for a divorce and that he’s spent the subsequent week living in his car in a Walmart parking lot, pissing into a Gatorade bottle and watching “drug related activity” happen around him. He rates his experience four stars.
McClanahan’s genius is to show how easy it is to get caught up in a squall. The conditions of his protagonist’s life change, and the resulting storm system spins him desperately out of control. After he finds an apartment, he continues to stalk Sarah and harbor jealous fantasies about her new lover, getting fucked up on gin and attempting to ruin his own life.
The Sarah Book is as much a catalog of loss as a chronicle of how close we can come to spiritual death and then come back, because no storm lasts forever. By the end, McClanahan’s fictional twin finds his way back to a version of normalcy without Sarah. A few pages from the finish, he chronicles everything he’s been through with her, everything they’ll now never address:
We didn’t talk about water bottles full of gin or burning Bibles or how Mountain Dew would shrink your penis. We didn’t talk about destroying computers with sledge hammers or asking for a divorce or saying I love you and I love you no more. We didn’t talk about what we once were and how all things merge into one. We didn’t talk about first dates or kissing with our eyes open or trying to commit suicide with Tylenol PM. Instead we just sat and ate hamburgers and we were all so fucking boring now.
I don’t think it’s inaccurate to say that, emotionally speaking, we’re ultralight aircraft flying under our own power. Some days we crash. This, too, is a kind of healing.
But what if these wounds never close? Darcie Wilder’s literally show me a healthy person, another autobiographical novel, unspools its grim facts in a series of diary entries: the unnamed protagonist’s alcoholic, neglectful mother has died, and her sublimated grief has undone her.
friday night imagining everyone i know dying
plan b is kind of a party drug
The book seesaws between tweet-like descriptions of forgettable nights and existential despair—also, it’s funny as hell: everything is written in the same flippant tone. Humor is another way to cope, although it won’t change your broader emotional climate. “everything you say is just another way to say are you my mother,” Wilder writes later. Then: “can you save me.” And finally: “i spend so much time trying to forget that i’m going to die.”
While The Sarah Book ends on a moderately hopeful note, there’s no indication earlier on that things will work out, that Scott will manage to pull out of his death spiral before it kills him. literally show me a healthy person is more like a survey of what life looks like after the plane has gone down. It ends abruptly. There’s no resolution.
The lesson being, I think, that it’s as hard to predict how you’ll feel in the future as it is to predict the weather more than a week out. The math is impossibly complicated, and every rounding error accrues to the final result. As Tom Waits sings in “Emotional Weather Report”:
With tornado watches issued shortly before noon Sunday
for the areas including the western region of my mental health
and the northern portion of my ability to deal rationally
with my disconcerted precarious emotional situation,
it’s cold out there.
Spring will come soon, regardless of what happens in or to America. Seasons are as indifferent to people as the weather is, and what they do is bring change. What keeps me going are those rounding errors of feeling and the change they, too, can engender. I don’t know how I’m going to feel a week, a month, or a year from now. But here is what I do know: the color of my interior life is different in summer and in winter. Not worse, just different. Nothing’s ever changed that.
Strangers in a storm
They gathered in the darkness below seats, covered themselves with popcorn, hung from the hooks of bathroom stalls. They arrived at the height of storms, like victims knocking at a horror-movie castle, and all ended up in the same place: a bin in the manager’s office, where they piled up like bodies in a morgue waiting to be identified. Mostly no one came. If someone did, we’d walk her up to the office and she’d marvel, ask what we did with all of these umbrellas. What do you think we did? The rain came again and we took them, kept them for days or years, and left them elsewhere, for other hands to toss into other bins in other sad back offices.
As a teenage usher at a movie theater, I was alive to the strange economy of umbrellas: our fiercest protectors one minute, discarded the next, only to rise again above another head. Yet I mourned each loss like La Maga, the heroine of Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch, who throws a kind of funeral for an umbrella that collapses in a “catastrophe” of lightning, believing that “an umbrella found in a public square ought to die a noble death.” 
In Brolliology: A History of the Umbrella in Life and Literature, released last November, Marion Rankine traces how the umbrella first circulated from noble royals into our humble cineplexes. Figured in the mythology of Egypt and ancient Greece, carried over the heads of Asia’s sultans and emperors, umbrellas threaded their way into Europe, shading the routes of travelers, hovering above kings and priests, passing with mourners through the drizzle of churchyards, and then making their way into the muddy, rain-soaked streets. As Europeans moved away from the shadow of churches and courts to embrace the cult of the individual, the industrial era refined the umbrella into the form we recognize today: a fragile skin stretched over a steel frame.
As Rankine recounts, umbrellas’ earliest catalogers were quick to note what I saw at the theater: how easily the fragile contraptions manage to go missing. Robert Louis Stevenson postulated in an essay that some men simply could not master the art of holding on to one; Ralph Waldo Emerson pinned the blame on others. Late in life, it is said, he referred to the umbrella as “the thing that strangers take away.”
Novelists have made good use of the umbrella’s constant changing of hands. Like a pitcher of milk asked for at a neighbor’s door, or a waiting room where sufferers share their complaints, the lost umbrella functions in literature as it does in life: as a way to connect strangers. Howards End, E. M. Forster’s novel of Britain’s divided social classes, yokes together a wealthy woman and a working clerk: he traces his stolen umbrella to her home, where he meets the family that will steal from him so much more. The immigrant hero of Franz Kafka’s Amerika chases a missing umbrella belowdecks just as he feels the “unchained winds” off New York’s harbor. There he finds the laborer who has been fueling his journey—the ship’s stoker, a Hephaestus of the coal bins, who suggests the umbrella is long gone, probably stolen. “The different ports have different morals,” he says. The undeterred immigrant then tracks his umbrella to the home of a businessman, who keeps it “dangling from a trouser pocket,” so apparently unwilling to let it go that the immigrant must remind him to give it back.
We think we’re owed each other’s umbrellas, as if they were interchangeable. Edith Wharton fired off an angry missive to a shop that refused to lend her one as rain pounded outside, even after the shop had “mislaid” her own umbrella. A character in Henry James’s play The American (his adaption of his novel of the same title) suggests we should be happy with the umbrellas we have in our hands, never searching for the lost one: “The joys we’ve missed in youth are like back numbers and lost umbrellas; we mustn’t spend the rest of life wondering where they are!” The giddiness of the line recalls Satan’s description of sin in Paradise Lost: “Joys / Then sweet, now sad to mention.”
How sinful we are to misplace our umbrellas. How thoughtless. How we slip. Our need one minute, our disinterest the next, speaks to the cruel economy we wreak on those we love. Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair opens on a “black, wet night” with an adulterer who is too thoughtless to notice he has stolen another man’s umbrella, then offers to share its protection with the cuckold whose wife he once loved. The woman between them dies—as an umbrella often does—from a sickness caught while walking in the rain. We might have known she would, had we been paying attention to our protagonist’s umbrella as it sprang a leak and poured cold rain down his collar.
For we are as mortal as our umbrellas, flesh pulled over bone like silk over steel, and yet within them we find comfort, pulling ourselves inside our own little worlds. I wonder, carrying a stranger’s umbrella, what thoughts they had under its dome. In Japanese fables, Rankine tells me, I might have said I was haunted by a tsukumogami, a discarded object turned sentient that follows its former owner, stalking the living. The narrator of Hopscotch, Horacio Oliveira, is haunted by his own tsukumogami, La Maga—his own discarded object, the woman he has rejected yet spends the whole novel seeking but never finding. Whenever he sees a woman like her, “a clear, sharp pause would close in like a deafening silence, collapsing like a wet umbrella being closed. An umbrella, precisely.” Yes, we are our umbrellas: tossed from lover to lover, discarded, ached for, haunting the hands that hold us now with the weight of everywhere we’ve been.
2 Gregory Rabassa’s translation.
3 Michael Hofmann’s translation.
Self-destruct sequence initiated
This century has not been kind to our commonplace of the weather as an inviolably neutral topic of conversation. In 2017 alone, the unceasing presence in our news cycle of meteorological extremes—hurricanes, floods, wildfires; a daily low temperature of 111˚ F in Oman; lightning striking the Space Needle, twice, during a February snowstorm that was already statistically improbable—made it difficult to keep speaking of weather as an ambience: it was, and is, a series of events, one whose cadence shows no signs of slowing down. If weather was once the stuff of pleasantry, it has become its own preoccupying unpleasantness, barely separable from a vague but constantly corroborated sense of impending doom.
Environmental disaster movies—those that play out an apocalyptic extreme-weather scenario for the benefit of viewers like me who delight in seeing top global cities lavishly dismantled by CGI acts of God—have done their part to sensitize us to various versions of this doom. They also, as environmental activists have lamented, keep us from picturing it to completion. In even the most thoughtful and merciless movies, like Roar Uthaug’s 2015 tsunami drama The Wave, a small quorum of survivors invariably emerges, chastened but resilient, to carry on in renewed concord with a planetary weather system purged of the worst of its juju. (“Now we rebuild,” says Dwayne Johnson at the end of San Andreas, setting his jaw against a Bay Area sunset above a remarkably well-appointed FEMA camp.) Without the vision that meteorological neutrality will finally prevail again, over us and our loved ones, a satisfying narrative—perhaps even an intelligible one—appears to be unthinkable.
Nonetheless, at their best, these movies allow us a glimpse of shifted perspective, whereby we and our loved ones are the global threat to be neutralized, where the ideally redemptive ending would take the form of the earth shaking us off like a wet Labrador. Most thrilling, I think, is when this argument is made not by the fatalistic scientist or the eccentric urban prophet but by the weather itself, personified as a tidal wave exploratorily caressing the Statue of Liberty, or the Los Angeles landmass sullenly sloughing off its skyscrapers into the ocean. It’s not dread I find in such scenes, personally—and certainly not renewed conservationist vigor—so much as an eerie kind of serenity.
The examples above come from The Day after Tomorrow and 2012, two movies by Roland Emmerich, a German screenwriter and director with a flair for these lush orchestrations of monumental collapse. Troublingly, if not surprisingly, foundational elements of the plots of both films have since been echoed by real scientific findings: respectively, that glacial melt due to global warming is raising the sea level and slowing oceanic currents at a rate for which existing climate models are inadequate, and, more recently, that the supervolcano underneath the Yellowstone Caldera could erupt catastrophically within decades, not centuries.
Time running out is a central engine of disaster movies—as it is for any kind of thriller—and it’s significant that the symphony of destruction almost always begins while a beleaguered climate scientist is still bickering with someone more powerful about the degree to which a critical safety margin has been overestimated. Whatever other resources have been irrevocably squandered by way of prologue, time is the resource whose misuse cannot be forgiven: barring the odd governmental conspirator or circumstantial dickhead, the guilty parties in these movies are the bureaucratic deniers and reckless profiteers who have insisted to the end that weather is a lesser force than money and influence, that there will be time later to talk about climate change. In some movies, Emmerich’s especially, late humanity—with our overpopulation and fracking and massive carbon footprint—is implicated too. But the weather itself is not the villain, only our grumbling, majestic henchman. The weather does what we make it do.
The chief innovation of Geostorm, the directorial debut of Dean Devlin, who served as coproducer on earlier Emmerich vehicles like Independence Day and Godzilla, is that it reads this notion as a reassurance, a sort of biospheric manifest destiny, rather than as a threat. The movie’s central device is Dutch Boy, a globe-covering web of satellites that look like gargantuan toner cartridges and that can preemptively neutralize the weather. Some time in the mid-2020s, it has begun to malfunction: a swath of the Afghani desert freezes; lava crackles to life under the streets of Hong Kong. At this rate, without further intervention, the earth will suffer “simultaneous catastrophic weather events.” (This is a Chinese meteorologist’s answer when the US deputy secretary of state asks him what geostorm means.) Beachgoers in Rio are flash-frozen by an offshore cold front. A tuk-tuk somewhere in India is casually slurped into the vertical column of a tornado. Lightning blows up the Democratic National Convention. At some point it comes to light that this is not organic malfunction, so to speak, but the design of a cadre of conspirators who have hacked into Dutch Boy, which as it turns out can not only neutralize the weather’s deadly intensity but also weaponize it.
Geostorm is turgid on the whole—Devlin has none of Emmerich’s narrative or emotional finesse, and his sense of irony about the folly of a quilt of weather-controlling satellites is impenetrable—but it is somehow exemplary in its utter ambivalence about whether the weather is neutral or a combatant, an actor or a reactor. It is a bracingly pure expression of the fantasy of potency and control, literally global in scale, that animates both human environmental arrogance and the disaster movie as a medium: the weather can be good or bad because so can we. We are, finally, responsible for our own acts of God. “Aren’t you a little bit curious to watch the world… burn?” asks one of the movie’s actual villains.
Of course we can’t watch the world burn forever, not without finally being consumed ourselves; this is the moral of the genre, at least on the surface. “It belongs to all of us,” the narrator of Geostorm says at the end: “one planet, one people.” It may as well be unthinkable that we belong to the planet, not vice versa; that there are other species whose lives hang in the balance as well; that “one people” may be less the key to our salvation than the last remaining obstacle to the planet’s. Instead, presumably, if we perish, it will be the ultimate expression of our dominion over the earth.
But the subtext of the conversation is that we won’t perish, not anytime soon—even as the action sequences continue to drift from the movies to the news, from cautionary fantasy to genuine disaster and displacement and death. When the command-center clock counting down to full-on geostorm stalled a few seconds before zero, we were suffused—me and the eight other people in the theater on opening day—with that familiar reassurance that there would be time, more time, whenever and wherever it was needed. The threat had been, again, neutralized. Outside, the Bay Area sunset was a livid pink that looked like CGI but was actually the residue of a not-too-distant wildfire. It really was beautiful.