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Leonardo DiCaprio’s Before the Flood: A Movie Review

By: Jeff Masters 3:09 PM GMT on October 31, 2016

“Before the Flood” is Academy Award-winning actor and environmental activist Leonardo DiCaprio’s worthy 96-minute documentary on climate change that will be streamed for free all week on Facebook, Youtube, Hulu, Playstation, and can be viewed on demand on Apple iTunes, Amazon, and GooglePlay. DiCaprio spent three years traveling the globe to meet with key political leaders, climate scientists and environmental leaders to understand and document the changes and challenges of climate change. While the movie does not cover much new ground compared to other climate change documentaries like An Inconvenient Truth, it is entertaining to see DiCaprio’s personal journey of understanding, which started with a meeting with Al Gore in 2000, when DiCaprio had “no clue” on the issue of climate change. The movie is worth watching just to see DiCaprio’s remarkable star power—which allows him to interview President Obama, Pope Francis, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Figure 1. Leonardo DiCaprio visits the NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre to discuss Earth science with former astronaut Dr. Piers Sellers. Image credit: NASA/GSFC.

The movie gets its name from a scene in Hieronymus Bosch’s painting "The Garden of Earthly Delights", which hung over DiCaprio’s bed as a child. He gives a rather compelling personal narrative on how the painting influenced him, and how the painting’s final panel, showing a “paradise that’s been degraded and destroyed”, acts as a warning to humanity on what awaits if we fail to act on climate change.

Another excellent scene occurs when DiCaprio visits with former astronaut Dr. Piers Sellers. Accompanied by spectacular time-lapse video from the International Space Station, Sellers describes how the experience of looking down on Earth from space made him immensely more fond of the planet and its people. In a dark room illuminated by full-wall graphics of Earth, he then describes how a stage-four cancer diagnosis inspired him to create visualizations of the Earth to help educate and draw attention to climate change and its impacts.

The movie ends with a speech DiCaprio gave in April 2016 to the general assembly of the United Nations in his role as a U.N. Messenger of Peace with special focus on climate change. “No more talk, no more excuses, no more 10-year studies,” DiCaprio says in the speech. “This is the body that can do what is needed, all of you sitting in this very hall. The world is now watching. You will either be lauded by future generations or vilified by them.” As he delivers his words, the movie cuts between video of him speaking and images of a planet in peril, in a way I found very moving.

Overall: three stars out of four
While the movie documents many gloomy and depressing aspects of climate change—like pollution in China, sea level rise in Florida and on low-lying Pacific islands, the climate denial industry in the U.S. and the failure of the U.S. to lead on the climate change issue—the movie shows there is a lot of optimism that we can avoid a fate like depicted in “The Garden of Earthly Delights”. One of the more hopeful moments comes during DiCaprio’s interview with Tesla founder Elon Musk, who is building the world’s second largest building—a lithium-ion battery “Gigafactory” near Reno, Nevada. Musk estimates that 100 such factories would be enough to power the entire world. DiCaprio, who admits to a profound pessimism about climate change several times during the movie, brightens, as he and Musk use the word “manageable!” to describe the issue of powering the world with renewable energy.

DiCaprio gets the science of climate change right in “Before the Flood”, and addresses pretty much all the key issues—an impressive feat for a non-scientist. The only major dings I give against the movie—it is, after all, a documentary—is that it has no real plot, not much action, and runs a little long at 96 minutes. Nevertheless, I highly recommend checking out “Before the Flood”, and give it three stars out of four. I also recommend the companion website, beforetheflood.com, which has nearly 50 articles by leading climate change communicators and climate scientists.

Links to my other reviews of climate change documentaries

The 2013 six-part Tipping Points series that aired on the Weather Channel.

James Cameron’s 8-part series on climate change, Years of Living Dangerously, which aired on Showtime.

Al Gore’s 2006 movie, An Inconvenient Truth.

The 2013 documentary, Greedy Lying Bastards.

Video 1. The YouTube trailer for Leonardo DiCaprio's 96-minute climate change documentary, Before the Flood.

Jeff Masters

Book and Movie Reviews

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.