‘Extrapolations’ Review: Apple TV+ Series Makes a Passionate Statement on Climate Crisis, but Its Purpose Remains Unclear

Meryl Streep, Kit Harington and more lead the ensemble of the anthology show exploring the effects of climate change in the near future

Sienna Miller in "Extrapolations" (Apple TV+)

The perils of climate change are unfolding at a dangerous rate before our eyes, and worldwide
responses to the problem seem tepid at best. Dystopian fiction has only grown in popularity during this time, but few narratives have tackled the crushing realism of our contemporary ills, and detailed exactly where we’re heading. Step forward Apple TV+ and “Extrapolations,” alongside a murderer’s row of talent, as they bring the matter to the forefront for our entertainment.

It’s not necessarily that it’s hard to get people to care about the climate change disaster that is
unfolding before our eyes. The problem is getting the people and corporations who can make
seismic change to give a hoot. This is the agony we, alas, live with, and it’s now so thoroughly the status quo that many of us have turned to nihilistic shrugs to cope with it. Hollywood has spent a lot of time trying to reverse that pessimism, or at least turn it into a call to action, with mixed results. Herein lies the conundrum: Can you make a genuinely good piece of art that is simultaneously an urgent demand for change? Does it even need to be good, and if not, what does that mean?

Apple TV+ put together an eye-wateringly starry lineup for “Extrapolations,” an anthology series helmed by “The Report” director and “Contagion” writer Scott Z. Burns, who previously produced the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” (the fact that 17 years separates the release of these two projects and little has changed politically on the matter speaks volumes.) With every scene change, there’s a new A-Lister of note, from Meryl Streep and Tahar Rahim to Marion Cotillard, Tobey Maguire, Keri Russell, Forest Whitaker and many more. Each episode takes place in a new year, starting in 2037, after climate change has left Earth in a potentially irrevocable state of disrepair. Ocean levels have risen, droughts and forest fires are commonplace, refugees flee home in search of safety.

Through it all, people try to keep living their lives, from the pregnant park ranger considering a shift in careers to the rabbi hoping to keep the peace in Israel and Palestine as the temperature (politically and literally) rises. The meat of the action comes from the figures trying to stop the flames from consuming it all, and those who seek to benefit from its spread. In episode one, yet another worldwide climate meeting of world leaders find themselves all too ready to throw themselves at the feet of Nicholas Bilton (Kit Harrington), a billionaire tech mogul who has earned obscene riches by capitalizing on the fallout of global warming. Delegates squabble over bureaucratic mundanities because they seem painfully aware that no real change can happen as long as corporate powers hold the reins.

“Extrapolations” spends a lot of time simply stating the various ways that climate change impacts every aspect of life, whether it’s in the monopolizing of life-saving resources or news reports of various catastrophes happening on a daily basis. It’s didactic, but how else would you talk about this stuff when it’s happening? It’s in the little touches where the potency of the moment lands heavier, such as the knowledge that there are still internet trolls trying to simp for rich people in the middle of worldwide panic. The instinct as a critic is to note how clunky such dialogue feels, an endless assembly line of exposition with little narrative thrust. Yet isn’t that the point?

It is nervy for “Extrapolations,” a show on Apple TV+ of all platforms, to bluntly and without hesitation note that capitalism is the problem. Harrington and the overtly white-teethed Matthew Rhys may play stereotypes, but we know such figures are almost beyond satire now, and that their sanitized images as “disruptors” helped pave over a lot of damage. Harrington’s brand of stoic blandness finds a good home with Bilton, a man who barely raises his voice when discussing plundering the melted Arctic Circle for copper, allowing him to maintain his stranglehold over the battery business. He makes a grand speech about how capitalism can fix the problems but Burns has no qualms about letting the audience know who caused them in the first place. In this sense, “Extrapolations” is precise in its targets, far more so than, say, the Oscar-nominated film “Don’t Look Up.”

Comparisons to Adam McKay’s divisive satire seem inevitable, if only for the relatively recent timing. “Don’t Look Up” was dinged for its seeming smarminess, the sense that it didn’t know who best to target or how to do so while bringing the promised laughs. “Extrapolations” doesn’t bother with jokes, although there are moments of bleak humor to be found. It’s glossily made (if derivative in terms of cinematography, with the hazy gold tones overused) with every dollar of Apple money on display, and full of recognizable people telling a painfully earnest story as well as they can. It definitely has a greater focus than “Don’t Look Up,” particularly in how it shows the passage of time and the ways that climate change is a tangled web that exempts nobody. Yet it’s hard to escape the sense that it’s all for naught.

“Extrapolations” is not a hopeless show. It truly believes in people’s power and finding ways to amplify that, even as characters are forced to make impossible decisions and the tide swings more towards willing extinction than change. This gives a lot of actors screen time to make an impact, especially the oft-underrated Sienna Miller as she puts aside her morals to work for a shady bioengineering firm, and Daveed Diggs as the rabbi torn between family and duty.

Perhaps this is a reflection of audience fatigue with such narratives, or a wider sense of malaise with how the political system has failed us. Many characters in “Extrapolations” talk about how it doesn’t feel like their small actions have much effect, and it can’t help but feel meta to the viewer. Is this show going to help? That’s not typically the job of art, at least not its majority agenda, nor should the culture examining our contemporary concerns be forced to offer hard solutions.

Yet this is a series that wants action, it wants people to care and to change, so how do you gel that with the basic demands of mainstream entertainment? It seems like a conflicting pair of endeavors, which makes the show suffer in terms of pure execution. But, again, when you just need to let people know how bad things are, do meaty monologues or well-crafted mise-en-scene matter? There’s no easy answer to that, and “Extrapolations” is a worthy effort with much to recommend. It’s not the show’s fault that reality leaves you questioning what it’s all for.

“Extrapolations” premieres with the first three episodes Friday, March 17, on Apple TV+.