Astonishingly overwritten and mega-ambitious sci-fi parable Extrapolations, which premiered today on Apple TV+, has a cast of thousands and more than a few things on its mind. None of what show creator Scott Z. Burns (who wrote Contagion and The Bourne Ultimatum) is saying in this show about the impact of climate change can be argued with. But the messages aren’t easily swallowed, either.
Rather than leave room for viewers to draw their own conclusions, Extrapolations sits you down and yells at you for 10 hours of dreary cli-fi drama. It’s certainly distinctive — but that’s not always a good thing.
Extrapolations season opener
Season 1, episodes 1, 2 and 3: The year is 2037. Climate change has gotten out of control, with great swaths of the world constantly in flames. Even though billionaire Nick Bilton (played by Game of Thrones’ Kit Harington) promises to do something about it, a lot of people remain skeptical.
At a climate conference in Tel Aviv, the participants become gridlocked. Algerian diplomat Omar Haddad (Tahar Rahim) wants Bilton to put his money where his mouth is and give the world the patents to his water-purification/creation system. Omar’s wife Rebecca (Sienna Miller) is going into labor while caught in a wildfire, and she and a friend have to be airlifted to a hospital.
Marshall Zucker (Daveed Diggs) is arguing with his dad, Ben (Peter Riegert) about becoming a rabbi — and, of course, about the climate. Ben thinks his son is wasting his life by trying to help people in Tel Aviv, the epicenter of the climate crisis, because you can’t help people who are going to die anyway.
Ben also doesn’t understand that there isn’t enough water to fill his swimming pool, so naturally he thinks his son’s altruism is stupid. His dad wants Marshall to go get a higher-profile rabbi job. As they argue Ben’s wife and Marshall’s mother (Leslie Uggams) takes a terrible fall and suffers a subdural hematoma.
Trouble at the top of the world?
Meanwhile, real estate developer Junior (Matthew Rhys) and his trophy partner, pop star Hannah (Heather Graham), are on a plane to Greenland. Junior’s trying to build a casino at the top of the world, and people are livid about it.
Bilton is a partner on the casino project, but not because he wants to build gambling destinations. He wants to own the property up there so he can control the water produced by melting glaciers — and the mineral deposits beneath the ice. Bilton’s pretty proud of himself until a protester lights himself on fire in front of his private car ride to the climate summit.
Then, we jump forward a decade
Ten years later, Rebecca and Omar’s son Ezra (Joaopaulo Malheiro) faces health problems because of the circumstances of his birth. Omar is long dead, but Rebecca now works for a company that harvests DNA from animals going extinct. Also, computers apparently have enabled animals to talk to people (a whale speaks with Meryl Streep’s voice, just as an example).
Rebecca has grown attached to a mother whale who’s been searching in vain for her dead husband (get it?). And when she realizes that her corporate overlords aren’t trying to save her but rather want to extract her information so they can teach baby whales in zoos, she’s shocked, shocked, to discover the company isn’t as scrupulous as it initially appeared.
Meanwhile, Marshall is trying to save his synagogue (the one his dad wanted him to work for). And to do that, he must appeal to a board of land-appropriations officials. Most buildings are being relocated thanks to the rising tides in Miami. As he considers getting into business with a shady businessman (David Schwimmer), Marshall engages in a series of theological debates with the man’s daughter (Neska Rose). They quickly become the angel and devil on Marshall’s shoulders.
Extrapolations is a tangled mess of timely bummers
Extrapolations is the brainchild of writer/director Scott Z. Burns, who has had good and bad luck getting his kind of political cinema to take hold in Hollywood. On the one hand, he wrote a quartet of good-to-great Steven Soderbergh movies (Side Effects, Contagion, The Laundromat and The Informant!) as took a pass at The Bourne Ultimatum, which is quite entertaining in addition to being underpinned by Burns’ version of geopolitics.
His luck as a director is more spotty. The deeply unsubtle PU-239, his directorial debut, concerned a man trying to sell plutonium as he wasted away of radiation poisoning. It introduced the many facets of Burns’ style that would, unfortunately, come to define his work, including cruel final-minute twists, jokes that don’t land and sledgehammer subtext.
His serious aims are undercut by the compromises needed to produce Hollywood products. (For instance, his movie The Report, about the George W. Bush torture memos, featured Colin Powell’s daughter Linda in a pivotal role. Burns was apparently unmoved by how remarkably tactless that looked to anyone with even a passing interesting in the movie’s subject.)
Never go full Scott Z. Burns
Extrapolations is the most himself Burns has ever allowed himself to be. But just take a minute to wonder whether I mean that as a compliment. Obviously, spending millions and millions of dollars to make an Apple TV+ show about climate change — a project that included flying people around the world to bring them to sets — is its own special kind of hypocritical, LA-brained solution to a problem this won’t fix.
It’s also extremely funny that this opens with a famous activist played by Yara Shahidi talking about how we’ve known for years (since Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth is the implication) that the planet was heating to an unlivable degree and we did nothing. And yet here’s another piece of expensive media about climate change that will do absolutely nothing.
Turning headlines into plot lines
That’s not even the problem, though. It’s that Burns has created a sci-fi satire that is neither as smart nor as funny or dramatic as he imagines it to be, even with the rabbinical subplot and dying children. Burns is a pretty amazing example of what my colleague and friend Nathan Rabin would call “The Morning Paper Auteur.” In his words, this is “a filmmaker who picks up the morning paper, grows more enraged about each article he reads, and decides to make movies that forthrightly address every social ill in the known universe.”
Burns looked at the paper and saw climate change, Israel and Palestine locked in violent conflict, species going extinct, land developers exploiting our resources, rising infant mortality, and celebrities signing their names to fraudulent business plans. And then he decided to produce 10 hours of TV on all of that. Not only that, he made it something of an omnibus. The show will jump forward a year or a few years at a time, so none of the characters introduced in the beginning can make it to the end. Are you beginning to see what a confusing prospect that might turn out to be?
Don’t forget to kill your darlings
There is also the fact that Burns’ gifts as a writer are not in fantasy, but in stone-cold facts. Side Effects and Contagion work well because they’re procedurals rooted in science and directed by Steven Soderbergh, who can be counted on to provide visual panache, trim the fat from the script he’s given, and keep the story moving at a great pace.
Burns is no Soderbergh. He is too in love with his writing — both the conceptual framework and the ham-handed dialogue — to ever cut a thing. And so we get jokes about “Secretary of State Rubio.” We get constant references to the events of 2018 and 2019, which would have been on the TV in whatever expensive hotel room Burns wrote the script. (“Pompeo gave a speech about this in 2019!”)
… or listen to how celebs really talk
We also get the very worst approximations of how celebrities talk, everything from Heather Graham helpfully saying, “I’m not a geologist, I’m an actress and a singer,” to a slam poet singing, “We’re dancing in a disco inferno and the music is burning beneath our feet!”
And then all that ludicrousness must work side by side with Meryl Streep basically doing Lisa’s mom from The Room and Daveed Diggs’ histrionically scolding his father with a line worthy of Studio 60. Peter Riegert is on the phone and Diggs snatches it out of his hand, so dad says, “That man has been a client for 25 years.” Diggs’ reply: “That woman upstairs has been your wife for 40!”
It’s not quite “your brother is standing in the middle of Afghanistan!” but it’s close. And you get all of that in the same hour of television that has Matthew Rhys’ cartoonish mogul murdered brutally by a CGI walrus.
Climate change awareness turns into self-parody
Perhaps more succinctly (certainly more succinctly than anything on the show), Extrapolations can best be summed up by this purple turn of phrase delivered by Sienna Miller about her son: “Does he know he could die from a sunny day? No, I haven’t found the words for that.”
Burns did not find the words he needed to tell this story in a way that doesn’t play like self-parody. He threw all the money and screamingly self-righteous writing he can at the problem of global warming. I guess history will decide if all those vapid words were in vain.
Watch Extrapolations on Apple TV+
The first three episodes of Extrapolations premiered today on Apple TV+.
Watch on: Apple TV+
Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.