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Scott Z. Burns' Star-Studded Extrapolations is a Harrowing, Hopeful Look into the Future

Three years ago, a 2011 movie by screenwriter Scott Z. Burns saw an unprecedented increase in popularity. That movie, “Contagion,” imagined a fictional global pandemic where the CDC works to find a cure. The similarities between the fictional pandemic in “Contagion” and our own battle with COVID-19 were a little eerie, but audiences found comfort in its eventual solution. Now, Burns is back with a new series, “Extrapolations,” which turns the clock forward to the next catastrophe, global warming. Scientists have been banging the drums for years about the issue and how even a minuscule change in global temperature can have irrevocable effects on our way of life. This Apple TV+ series imagines a world where we’ve let the climate continue to erode and examines how our ignorance could do unthinkable damage to our planet. In oftentimes harrowing fashion, "Extrapolations" looks at one possible future while offering enough scientific know-how to keep the series exciting even in the bleakest of times. 

Each of “Extrapolations”'s eight episodes introduces a new conflict set in a slightly different time in the future. New and returning characters are placed in various dilemmas and are intrinsically connected by subtle details. One of the biggest selling points of “Extrapolations” is its star-studded cast: Meryl Streep, Diane Lane, Edward Norton, Forest Whitaker, Marion Cotillard, Sienna Miller, and Kit Harington, among many others. While each actor is mostly constrained to their singular episode, some, such as Harington’s Jeff Bezos stand-in, Nicholas Bilton, loom large over the series. The time jumps show how the planet changes as it gets warmer, and this storytelling device showcases technology that could possibly assist the population during the climate crisis. From finding new ways to save historical buildings from rising sea levels to imagining a future where mask-wearing becomes the de facto way of life, the innovations within “Extrapolations” are one of its most interesting aspects. It’s not too far out of the realm of possibility that some of these solutions are already being explored. 

The first three episodes, launching on March 17, introduce recurring characters and how society's need for a quick fix allows the climate to suffer. In 2037, Rebecca Shearer (Miller) is deep in the California wildfires that continue to rage unabated as the heat climbs. Saving animals and preserving wildlife means the world to her, but her late-stage pregnancy has her seeking refuge from the smoke. Meanwhile, her husband, Omar Haddad (Tahar Rahim), has a vital vote in a global climate summit. He represents the interests of Algeria, which, due again to the rising temperatures, is facing catastrophic drought. Haddad concludes that the only solution would come from a patent that Alpha’s Nicholas Bilton is in possession of, one of many patents the world-leading company owns. That patent contains technology that could once again provide the country with water. When Haddad hastily leaves the summit due to the impending birth of his child, he entrusts his voting power to the hands of a neighboring country. But he's unaware of how much his peer is willing to give up for water. Have these decisions, however important they may seem, lead to the deterioration of the planet? 

Another character introduced during the premiere is Marshall Zucker (Daveed Diggs), a newly appointed Rabbi who believes his most important work is in Israel. The source of his struggles comes from his father, Ben (Peter Riegert), who still lives by the principle that once you’ve given your word, it's set in stone. In this case, Ben has arranged for Marshall to move to Miami and become the Rabbi of a temple in Florida, leaving behind his work. This conflicts with the principles that Marshall has sworn to live by. Of lesser note, there’s a third subplot in this episode that revolves around Junior (Matthew Rhys) and social media celebrity Hannah (Heather Graham) looking into a new location to build hotels. Apparently, with the changing sea level and temperatures, there’s land to build on. Miller and Diggs have dedicated episodes later in “Extrapolations” that continue to delve into their wildlife preservation and humanitarian pursuits, but the decisions made during the pilot have ramifications throughout the entire series.

The strongest episodes of “Extrapolations” examine the micro ways that climate change has affected the world, using the world-building from previous chapters and building on it in unique ways. In the fifth episode of the series, Adarsh Gourav and Gaz Choudhry star as runners for an underground smuggling organization. The logistics of this journey have changed significantly due to climate change, making this trip even more difficult than it has to be. It’s a crime thriller and quite the change of pace from all the other episodes in the series. 

Another noteworthy entry comes from the seventh episode, directed by Nicole Holofcener (“Enough Said,” the upcoming “You Hurt My Feelings”). Sylvie Bolo (Cotillard) decides to put on an extravagant New Year’s Eve party for her husband, Augustin (Whitaker), and their friends Nicolas (Tobey Maguire) and Elodie (Eiza González). Unbeknownst to Sylvie, Augustin has other plans for the evening, and that includes a conversation that he’s been avoiding. 

Using global warming as a device should be enough to deliver some poignant stories about humanity’s denial and inaction when it comes to climate change. But Burns provides possible solutions for the problem as well. One solution that occupies much of “Extrapolations”'s middle chapters is geoengineering and how it only takes one rogue individual to completely alter the ozone layer. Unfortunately, it's built up as a world-altering crisis in one episode, but in future chapters, it's an afterthought, and the continuity that “Extrapolations” has so carefully developed loses its way. And like fellow climate change spectacle “Don’t Look Up,” Burns and his fellow writers figure corporate greed will have a great influence over society's ultimate future. Bilton’s Alpha is seen as a great leader in tech and innovation, but at what cost? 

"Extrapolations" can lose its way when highlighting world-altering events and trying too hard to find logical solutions; the show falters when it dreams too big. But its strengths lie in looking at the micro ways that climate change affects individuals–the intimate dinner gathering, the importance of religious institutions, and those who work in the service industry. Ultimately, “Extrapolations” is a significant warning that this could be the future. Hopefully, humanity is as resilient as Burns imagines it to be. 

The entire series was screened for review. "Extrapolations" premieres on Apple TV+ on March 17th. 

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