In 2020, Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion” became much more than just a vision of a potential future. As the COVID-19 pandemic dragged on, viewers pointed to how much the film’s writer Scott Z. Burns got right about a world-reshaping pandemic. And, if anything, he underestimated how dumb some people would be about it, but that’s another story. But if Burns’ latest project proves similarly prophetic, well, we’re all seriously screwed.
READ MORE: ‘Extrapolations’ Trailer: Scott Z. Burns’ Climate Change Series Features Meryl Streep, Marion Cotillard, Ed Norton & More
Awash in details about climate change, global warming, and the role of technology in our lives, Apple TV+’s “Extrapolations” uses an anthology format to show viewers where humanity might be headed. Flooding cities, air conditions that lead to lethal diseases, large portions of the world that become uninhabitable due to heat, and a cadre of power players looking to profit from it all. “Extrapolations” is an undeniably dark vision, but Burns and his insanely talented ensemble remember to return to the human beings caught in these power struggles between corporations and Mother Earth. Like any anthology series, the whole season is a bit hit-and-miss, and the show struggles as it gets further into the possible future, but there’s something to like in every episode and a few standouts that feel like major television episodes.
“Extrapolations” opens in 2037—each of the eight episodes are named after the year they take place in, up to “2070”—with arguably its most cluttered, least effective episode. Burns, who also directs, throws a lot of characters up on the screen, shoving in a lot of his ensemble, who he will then break out into their own standalone episodes. For example, “2037” introduces us to Rebecca Shearer (Sienna Miller) as she escapes a wildfire just before giving birth. She’s only one of two dozen characters in the premiere, but she’s the lead in the second episode, in which it’s revealed her child has a genetic condition caused by the increasingly dangerous environment on this planet, with Shearer working for an organization that’s trying to track and perhaps save or even replicate the endangered species of this planet.
But back to the premiere. Rebecca is only one small part of this cluttered episode that often feels like its characters are mere mouthpieces for the writer. Too many players here make pamphleteering statements about climate change and global warming statements, but viewers should know that this tone shifts dramatically after the first episode. The premiere plays like an overture, purposefully elevating the themes that unfold over the next seven hours and giving viewers faces to watch for as the limited series unfolds.
Alongside Miller’s Rebecca, there’s also Kit Harrington as Nicholas Bilton, a tech pioneer at the forefront of guiding decisions that could save or doom the planet. There’s Daveed Diggs as Marshall Zucker, a young man finishing his religious training whose father wants him to return to run a synagogue in Miami but who feels drawn to help people overseas. There’s a power broker named Junior (a devilish Matthew Rhys), who travels to see an iceberg collapsing to figure out how he can profit from it. And there are other players in the A-list ensemble, too, but they appear in the standalone episodes after the premiere. Meryl Streep may be the most significant there, as Rebecca’s deceased mother in the show’s most heartbreaking episode.
But the third episode of “Extrapolation” is the standout of the series, centering on Diggs’ rabbi in a vision of Miami where the water levels have risen to a degree that entire communities are disappearing. Imagine the power plays that would happen if a government body chose which buildings to save in a city and which to abandon to the ever-rising tides. Against this fascinating backdrop, Diggs does some of his career-best work, rattled by a girl who is going through a “First Reformed”-esque crisis of faith: questioning how a benevolent God could even allow the horrors resulting from climate change. A confident blend of humor, heart, and horror, this is such a strong chapter that it could stand on its own as a short film.
From there, “Extrapolations” gets a little too “what if” in its concepts, starting with a mid-season two-part chapter set in 2059. The first half, based on a story by Dave Eggers, features great work from Ed Norton and Cherry Jones. However, its unpacking of geoengineering leans a bit hard into speculative fiction. Will the water levels rise enough to impact Miami? It’s only a question of when at this point. Will someone attempt geoengineering in an effort to reverse climate change in a way that approaches world terrorism? Maybe? The show certainly loses something when it shifts into this kind of sci-fi thriller territory, even if the performances remain top-notch from the first episode to the last (and it’s truly bizarre that the major actions of each episode don’t immediately impact what follows.)
The strongest episode in the show’s back half belongs to the great director Nicole Holofcener, who guides an incredible cast in the seventh episode. Marion Cotillard, Forest Whitaker, Tobey Maguire, Eiza Gonzalez, and Hari Nef star in an episode that tries to take macro problems and bring them back to a micro level at a New Year’s Eve dinner party gone wrong. Cotillard is playful and barbed in a manner that makes one want to see her lead whatever film Holofcener makes next.
In the end, “Extrapolations” features so much talent in front of and behind the screen that it becomes impossible to ignore. Surely, all these A-list stars wanted to be part of this project that could theoretically produce some good in the world. But it’s impossible to ignore the irony in Apple’s massive carbon footprint in making the series as well as the devices people will use to watch it. To be fair, Apple is taking that seriously. But “Extrapolations” could be so much more than just a series imparting a message. The show is at its best when the rich ensemble gets to not proselytize but instead embody real people caught up in the push and pull of the fate of the planet. When the show operates at its highest level, it’s hard for the viewers not to see themselves in them. And that’s terrifying in and of itself. [B]