Extrapolations review – even Meryl Streep can’t save this convoluted eco drama

An impossibly starry cast put in brilliant performances in this anthology series about the climate crisis. If only it weren’t a chaotic, overly worthy plod

I’m not too sure where to begin with Extrapolations, Apple TV+’s star-studded anthology series about the possible impact of the climate crisis on humanity’s future. On the one hand, it is well intentioned and at its best drives home the horror of our impending doom through finely constructed tales and brilliant performances. On the other, there is a death-by-walrus that is not played for laughs, Meryl Streep voicing a humpback whale and the opening episode is an impenetrable heap of chaos.

Let’s call it a mixed bag. Creator Scott Z Burns wrote the 2011 Steven Soderbergh hit Contagion, which enjoyed a resurgence during the pandemic as people rewatched it to admire its prescience and, as the months wore on, score it for realism. In Extrapolations there is less to get hold of, even though there is plenty going on.

The first, wildly convoluted, episode is set in 2037 as crisis talks about global warming are being held in Tel Aviv while forest fires, droughts, riots and refugees abound across the world. Its main purpose seems to be to impart the project’s heavy sense of its own worthiness (I have rarely looked at my watch so much in an hour to see if time was still passing) and to introduce us to the main characters who will recur throughout the series. Also to introduce us to Matthew Rhys, who plays an amoral profiteer and whose agent I suspect needs a word about reading to the end of a script to see quite what’s in store for his client.

Kit Harington plays tech multibillionaire Nick Bilton, who holds the patents for various desalination techniques and therefore the fate of millions in his hands. Sienna Miller is pregnant research scientist Rebecca who will give birth to a baby with “summer heart”, a genetic abnormality caused by pollution. Daveed Diggs is a rabbi who is called to help ordinary people drowning in the horrors of the increasingly unliveable future.

Heather Graham, Tahar Rahim, Peter Riegert are also in the mix, with Streep pitching up in the second episode, and the likes of Marion Cotillard, Forest Whitaker, Tobey Maguire, Diane Lane and Edward Norton come thick and fast after that as we move through the increasingly catastrophic years. By episode three, set in 2047, Miami is disappearing underwater. Come the 2060s there is no sun or wind after a geoengineering project is FUBARed. By the final episode, the international court at The Hague is considering the case for ecocide against Bilton.

Marion Cotillard in Extrapolations.
Marion Cotillard in Extrapolations. Photograph: Zach Dilgard/Apple TV+

Extrapolations is at its best when it finds the sweet spot between lecturing and enlightening, but these moments don’t come frequently enough. More often it finds itself stuck at the student debate level set in the first episode when a protester who is about to deliver a speech on the failure of the 2015 Paris agreement, via a giant hologram, is asked if there’s anything she needs. “Yes,” she says. “For people to listen!” Elsewhere there is anthropomorphic schmaltz, unlikely reactions and sometimes both at the same time, as when Rebecca sabotages her company’s project when she finds it requires lying … to a whale.

Even at its best, it fails to move the viewer in the same way that, say, Russell T Davies’s Years and Years did as it condensed the existential threat of the climate emergency into the particular effects on one ordinary family over the decades. There, the fear was distilled and evoked far more effectively than any effort to show the true scale of what faces us could ever be, however starry the names and heartfelt the attempt.

• This article was amended on 19 March 2023 to correct a misspelling of Peter Riegert’s surname.

Extrapolations is on Apple TV+ now.


Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

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