What are you gonna do when the world’s on fire? The mini-series Extrapolations provocatively asks this question and viewers had better have their answers ready. The series by Scott Z. Burns (Contagion, The Report) is a star-studded consideration of the climate crisis. The clock is ticking and the world’s fate hangs in a series of Biblical events that collide like dominoes with each falling episode. The world is on fire and celebrities are dying faster than they drop in Contagion.
But when the fate of the world rests in the hands of a powerful few, Extrapolations invites audiences to join the hunger for change. It’s an unabashed call-to-action drama that’s bound to divide audiences, but no matter how viewers feel about climate change (or “the myth of climate change,” depending upon one’s politics), it’s worth experiencing Extrapolations purely as event television. As a sci-fi series set in the not-so-distant future and rooted in concerns ripped from the here and now, the drama is as prescient as a series can be. Oh, and Meryl Streep plays a whale.
Episode 1 – “2037”
Extrapolations, the first three episodes of which are considered for this review, doesn’t follow a clear narrative. Rather, actors and stories vary by episodes that Burns connects thematically. Key characters tie one story to the next. The first episode, “2037,” sees American Rabbi Marshall Zucker (Hamilton’s Daveed Diggs) go green with his congregation. Marshall preaches to his faithful their shared responsibility to God’s earth. At the same time, he finds himself caught in a dilemma worthy of the Talmud. His mom (Leslie Uggams) is in hospital after collapsing under the scorching heat, but his dad (Peter Reigert) is more concerned with a plum, if shady, real estate deal in the Arctic. Marshall must reconcile his loyalty to his father while condemning the very acts that provide for his family.
Faith and family collide as researcher Rebecca (Sienna Miller) races against raging forest fires with her colleague (Cara Gee). All the while, her husband Omar (Tahar Rahim) is an environmentalist preparing to present at a COP-like summit in Israel where needy nations are ready to make a deal with the devil, aka billionaire tech tycoon Kick Bilton (Kit Harrington). Throw in a shady realtor (Matthew Rhys) who’s circling the Arctic real estate with his pop star wife (Heather Graham) and some angry-looking walruses, and the first episode of Extrapolations sets up thoughtful ‘eat the rich’ entertainment.
Episode 2 – “2046”
Extrapolations then flashes forward nine years to 2046 and, with nary a reference to Wong Kar-wai, delivers a romantic dive. Rebecca now works in an undersea lab where she studies the last surviving humpback whale. She converses with the animal. In an excellent performance by Miller, Rebecca asks the whale thoughtful questions and documents her thoughts, feelings, and sonic patterns for future use. However, the study comes with a twist.
Rebecca fashions her AI voice thingy to sound like people she knows. For the whale, she chooses her mother. Voiced by Meryl Streep, a whale hasn’t sounded so grand since Finding Nemo. The screen icon lends a prophetic air to the whale as the marine mammal and Rebecca chat about life, love, and loneliness. A mother herself, and one reeling from multiple losses amid the escalating climate crisis, Rebecca opens up to the whale more than she does most humans.
If the first episode of Extrapolations proves thoughtful, if narratively scattershot while introducing characters in a globe-trotting tale, Burns finds greater power in the intimate scope of the second episode. “2046” works as a standalone feature, really, as it invites poignant considerations of the relationship between humans and non-human animals. Streep also appears in effective flashbacks as Rebecca introduces her ailing daughter to her grandmother via video diaries she left behind. The parallels are obvious but stirring. Extrapolations reminds viewers of the frailty of living things on land, in the air, and in the sea. Life on the surface isn’t so hot, either—actually, it’s too hot—as kids have weakened heart conditions as if they’re allergic to sunlight. Death saturates every frame of this episode as Rebecca realizes that she can do nothing to reverse the effects of climate change. She can only document the world’s destruction.
Episode 3 – “2047”
One year later, the third episode, “2047,” sees the water rising. Marshall now lives in Florida and members of his congregation wear knee-high rubber boots to Temple even on sunny days. Floods—like, Old Testament Biblical floods—engulf coastal cities. Reports arise on the news to advise citizens that complete zones closed for safety in downtown cores. Marshall desperately wants his synagogue to be among the chosen sites that the city council deems worthy of saving. However, the request invites a deal with the devil that echoes his father’s own practices. He looks deep within himself and asks if he can protect the faithful by compromising his faith.
At the same time, Marshall mentors a young girl (Neska Rose) as she prepares for her bat mitvah. But she struggles to reconcile her faith with a wrathful god that’s content to let the world burn and/or drown. They’re all just waiting for locusts at this point as the storms roll in, yet Extrapolations makes surprisingly reflective considerations of faith for a mainstream series. While the show itself remains refreshingly secular, the characters can’t turn to the world they ruined for answers.
Diggs in particular shines in the third episode as he occupies nearly every frame of the drama. He even gets a dazzling “Singin’ in the Rain” number as the series makes a welcome stylistic shift amid the doomsday set pieces.
A Star-Studded Soapbox
The Rabbinical nature of Marshall’s characters lets Extrapolations become confidently preachy as the story progresses. Burns isn’t afraid to use a soap box here. Burns, after all, was also a producer for Davis Guggenheim’s landmark climate change doc An Inconvenient Truth. But where An Inconvenient Truth sounded the alarm by taking Al Gore’s message to the masses, Extrapolations considers the consequences of failing to heed the call for change. Extrapolations doesn’t aim to inspire viewers to turn off their lights or cut single use plastics. It knows it preaches to the converted and doesn’t worry about subtlety. Three episodes in, the world’s future looks awfully bleak. The film uses its futuristic, yet chillingly contemporary setting to remind viewers that the drama may be more predictive than speculative.
By this point in Extrapolations, Marshall emerges as the lead character amid a game of “spot the celebrity.” Big names come and big names go in Extrapolations. Judd Hirsch enjoys roughly as much time here as he did in The Fabelmans and he makes equally good use of it, while Graham presumably won’t be seen again after her stint in episode one. Meanwhile, names like Marion Cotillard, Edward Norton, Forest Whitaker, Gemma Chan, Tobey Maguire, and Diane Lane have yet to be seen after three episodes.
However, much like Burns did in Contagion, the star power proves very effective. When major actors appear in Extrapolations, one expects multi-episode arcs, rather than extended cameo appearances. Instead, as big names come and go, Extrapolations reminds viewers that nobody is safe in a world on fire. Money won’t buy anyone’s way out.
Episodes 1 to 3 of Extrapolations debut on AppleTV+ on March 17. New episodes premiere weekly.