On Fire

On Fire (2023)

On Fire begins with an aerial tracking shot, following a brown leaf as it flutters through the air, swept by a wind over a vast forest, before finally drifting down to the dry floor below. This is not unlike the opening shot from Gil Kenan’s animated feature Monster House (2006), where the fall of an autumn leaf heralds Halloween – except that as the very title of this feature from director Nick Lyon implies, and as protagonist David Laughlin (Peter Facinelli, who also directed the last part of the production after Lyon contracted Covid) will later state, here the “hungry monster” is not a house, but fire itself, which has “got a mind of its own.” Indeed, as the camera alights with the leaf, it will tilt up to reveal flames erupting and spreading across the trees not far away. The dryness of the leaves, the strength of the winds, and the heat itself, will prove the destructive vector for an inferno. 

Text near the beginning of On Fire claims that it is “inspired by a true story”. There is a long-established tradition in cinema that such claims of veridicality should be taken with a pinch of salt, and in fact Lyon dreamt up the film’s scenario while out camping with his sons. Yet you would have to be living under a rock not to recognise that Lyon and co-writer Ron Peer are drawing on an emerging global reality – and in case the point is missed, the film’s initial shot of the leaf falling is accompanied by an audio montage of news reports about unprecedented wildfires across the globe. “Do you think climate change has done all this?”, David’s teenaged son Clay (Asher Angel) asks as the Laughlin family finds its woodland home beleaguered by raging blazes. Clay’s cantankerous grandfather George (Lance Henriksen) forcefully rejects this very notion as ‘bullshit’. “I’m 80 yrs old, I was there 40 yrs ago,” George will insist, “it gets hot, it gets cold”, dismissing out of hand the ferocity and increasing frequency of these fires. Yet George belongs to a generation that is running out of time and on its way out – in his case literally, given that these are the last words he will ever utter – and as a man who, despite struggling to breathe and being on a respirator, still sneaks a smoke when nobody is looking, he is the epitome of self-defeating, self-destructive denial. Soon, like him, all the Laughlins will be struggling to breathe, choking on the consequences of the climate change whose very existence George refuses to countenance even as it kills him.

The fourth member – and fifth, in a way – of this god-fearing, working-class family is David’s wife Sarah (Fiona Dourif), eight months pregnant and about to have to endure a more complicated and stressful birth than she would ever have imagined in order for the Laughlins to have a future. For this family, already drowning in debt, will be torn apart by environmental catastrophe, at risk of losing their uninsured home and their very lives. On Fire plays like a smaller-scale, forest-bound version of Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow (2004), with the Laughlins literally chased by all-consuming fire, and suffering one loss after another as they try to stay ahead and maintain some sort of family integrity, even continuity. Here two very different kinds of struggle are unfolding in parallel – one proletarian, the other ecological – with this family already in trouble long before the wildfires arrive. They will end up in a lake, with flames on all sides, endangered but just about keeping their heads above water – and while the film may finish on a note of rebuilding, regrowth and new hope, we are aware that the surviving Laughlins are planning a future in the very same environment, exposed to an ever greater threat of being consumed that is spelt out in closing statistics.

At one point the Laughlins are almost undone by the literal trail of oil that leaks from their gas-guzzling truck – the second of two vehicles that they own. Which is to say that On Fire is hardly less subtle than Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up (2021) in its ecological allegory. Yet when large swathes of the American populace refuse to accept that the realities of global warming will eventually, inevitably catch up with them unless greenhouse emissions are reduced to slow down the path of devastation, then perhaps subtlety represents mere waste, and it is better to hammer the point home in a punchily combustible – if also accessibly conventional – package of family drama, survival thriller and disaster movie. 

strap: Nick Lyon and Peter Facinelli’s tinderbox allegory uses conventional tropes to ignite discussion -and expose denial – of climate change

© Anton Bitel