Leonardo DiCaprio usually plays the leading man. But in the new documentary Before the Flood, climate change is the star—a villainous one—and DiCaprio takes on a supporting role as a guide who walks us through what’s happening to the planet.
With two and a half years’ worth of footage, the film, directed by Fisher Stevens, takes us on a journey to the front lines of a warming world. We watch Arctic ice melting and coral reefs bleaching. We get a bird’s-eye view of the Alberta tar sands (“It kind of looks like Mordor,” DiCaprio remarks to a bemused oil exec). A helicopter ride over a smoldering Sumatran rainforest shows us how illegal slash-and-burn agriculture to clear land for palm oil plantations produces drifting haze that has made the air unhealthy to breathe in neighboring countries. We meet Indian farmers who have lost their crops to flooding, and the former Kiribati president Anote Tong, whose island nation is slowly slipping beneath the sea. As president, Tong oversaw the purchase of land in Fiji to relocate Kiribati’s residents when sea-level rise inevitably overwhelms the country.
“All that I have seen and learned on this journey has terrified me,” DiCaprio told delegates at last year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. In 2014, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon named DiCaprio a U.N. Messenger for Peace, with a special focus on climate change. The actor and longtime environmental activist—who also sits on NRDC’s Board of Trustees—is the first to admit that Before the Flood makes for some seriously daunting viewing.
But this horror flick isn’t without hope. Cleaner technologies and policies play the roles of potential heroes. DiCaprio speaks with electric car entrepreneur Elon Musk about his ambitious ideas for sustainable transportation and discusses how countries like Denmark are successfully transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy. DiCaprio also reminds the audience that we’re not merely witnesses to the planet’s destruction. Through how we live, we are all actively choosing what kind of world we want to leave for our children.
The film’s pithy tagline sums up the situation: “The science is clear. The future is not.”
Before the Flood premieres in theaters in New York and Los Angeles on October 21 and is available to stream on the National Geographic Channel.
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.