Name the speaker: “How many oil spills can
we endure? Millions and millions of gallons of oil are now destroying
the oceans and the many forms of life they support. Among these
is plankton, which supplies 60 to 90 percent of the Earth’s
oxygen, and supports the entire marine ecosystem, which forms
the basis of our planet’s food supply. But the plankton
If you guessed Ed Begley, Jr., then you were way
off. The quote comes from a speech made by action hero Steven
Seagal at the end of his 1994 directorial debut, On Deadly Ground.
Perhaps the most twisted environmental movie ever made, it closes
with Seagal’s answer to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a
three-and-a-half minute soliloquy before the Alaskan capitol.
Seagal’s compassion might be more apparent if he hadn’t
just murdered 700 oil-rig and security guards and set off multiple
catastrophic explosions on behalf of plankton. But as an escapist
remedy for your frustration with President Bush and his cronies,
this movie has no peers.
Environmentalism isn’t only explosions and
kung fu, however, which explains Hollywood cinema’s disdain.
Conservation activism may be dramatic, but it makes poor entertainment
for the general audience. Green themes typically appear off-screen:
think Charlize Theron and Joaquin Phoenix in People for the Ethical
Treatment of Animals (PETA) anti-fur campaigns.
Still, a number of provocative environmental movies
have slipped through the minefield of corporate censorship and
escaped Los Angeles with their agendas intact. If you’re
looking for a cheap night at home, a trip down memory lane, or
discussion agit-prop for students and kids, then look for the
following modern classics, all of which can be rented at a video
store near you.
Some of the strongest environmental messages play
out in courtroom drama. Stephen Zaillian’s A Civil Action
(1998) stars John Travolta as a sleazy personal-injury lawyer.
In litigating on behalf of small-town residents—whose children
have died or mutated as a result of chemical dumping—he
transforms into a soulful justice hunter. The film also notably
exposes the intricate shenanigans of civil litigation.
In Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich (2000),
Julia Roberts’ titular character delivers justice to Californians
devastated by a Pacific Gas and Electric plant. In the process,
she stumbles through child-rearing, new love, and the demands
of a career she talks her way into. Rarely has a movie portrayed
the “good” guys with such emotional credibility. Between
its true-story realism, and Roberts’ unreal looks, it’s
the perfect propaganda. Steven Soderbergh’s film should
have launched a generation of activists from both genders. Time
Mike Nichols’ 1983 drama Silkwood is the
true story of a radiation-contaminated would-be whistleblower
in Oklahoma who strangely disappears before she is able to meet
with a New York Times reporter. Similar to Erin Brockovich, the
movie centers around her personal life and her friends, lending
credibility to the main character’s heroism.
The China Syndrome (1979) features Jack Lemmon
as a nuclear plant employee who stumbles into a conspiracy to
cover-up the plant’s faulty safety mechanisms. Pro-nuke
critics blasted the movie for its bias, then shut their mouths
tight when Three Mile Island suffered its core meltdown 11 days
later—one of history’s most disturbing examples of
life imitating art.
And Speaking of Art...
In pop-surrealist Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys
(1995), scientists from the future send Bruce Willis back in time
to stop a plague that forces humanity underground. In one of the
most magically chilling scenes ever filmed, Willis ventures above
ground into wintertime Philadelphia to collect animal specimens,
and spots a lion roaring on the ledge of a building. Brad Pitt
steals the show as a radical lunatic.
Koyaanisqatsi (1982) matches the arresting music
of Philip Glass to a series of stop-motion films of nature being
nature, technology being technology, and mankind being mankind.
There are no characters, and no plot, but the movie is entrancing
and perhaps, artistically, the finest environmental movie ever
made. Even impatient viewers may be surprised to discover themselves
rapt. Director Godfrey Reggio made two similar, and beautiful,
sequels, Powaqqatsi (1993) and Naqoyqatsi (2002); followers of
this intensely visual form might also enjoy Ron Fricke’s
For the Wee Ones
When an industrialist ignores the voice of nature
in the 1972 film of Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax (“I am the
Lorax... I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues”)
it naturally leads to his downfall. In Ferngully: The Last Rainforest
(1992), forest pixies save (and miniaturize) a lumberjack who
is nearly killed by clear-cutting bulldozers. This animated adventure
fable also features a bat who escaped an animal testing lab. The
same year spawned a sequel, Ferngully 2.
Most kiddie flicks don’t address environmental
themes so directly, but because they personify animals they may
lead to eco-empathy. Free Willy (1993), The Little Mermaid (1992),
and the highly regarded Finding Nemo (2003) send positive messages
about undersea life. A Bug’s Life and Antz (both released
in 1998) do likewise for the underappreciated world of insects.
In The Secret of Nimh (1982), rats escape the
National Institute of Mental Health and adjust to life in the
field. More mature kids might be ready for the cartoon of Richard
Adams’ Plague Dogs (1982), in which two dogs escape a testing
laboratory and are hunted as possible anthrax-carriers. If you
found Bambi disturbing, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
Also too grim for toddlers, Watership Down (1978) faithfully follows
the same author’s book, detailing the trials and tribulations
of rabbits forced by man to leave their original warren.
Blockbuster Shlock: Movies to Avoid
In recent years Hollywood wreaked havoc on the
silver screens of the world in a succession of natural disaster
flicks. Watch Twister, Volcano, Dante’s Peak, Deep Impact,
Armageddon, The Perfect Storm and The Core, all in a row, and
you’ll be running for the nearest space shuttle. In their
only real nod to environmentalism, major elements of these movies
were recycled: namely, the plots, lifted from the glut of identical
movies in the 1970s (e.g., Earthquake and Avalanche). These films
teach one primary lesson: fear nature.
You may hate Jurassic Park for its plywood characters—or
for author Michael Crichton’s stated belief that environmentalism
is a cult—but politically it stands as a somewhat environmental
film in its retelling of the myth of Prometheus. Ill-considered
science, driven by ruthless capitalism, might—as a reincarnated
Tyrannosaurus Rex would explain before eating you—cause
a few problems for humankind. In contrast, many natural disaster
films scapegoat weather, a politically convenient target. Armageddon
and Deep Impact, for example, both foretell massive destruction
caused by asteroids colliding with the Earth; in the latter, tidal
waves destroy coastal cities in excessive computer graphic detail.
The parallels with global warming’s swamped shorelines are
lost, however, with technology’s inevitable triumph.
Generally, humankind’s (which is to say
America’s) knowledge of science, coupled with charming self-sacrifice,
saves the day from the molestations of meteorological marauders.
For example, America’s vaunted space program, led by Bruce
Willis as a psychopathic oil-rig captain, manages to explode the
devastating meteor threatening global Armageddon. In effect, the
movies send the message that science will always save the day.
The quotidian, scientific self-sacrifice of millions of environmentalists
worldwide—such as installing environmentally safe windows
or investing in responsible stocks—never appears on the
playbill. Such movies reinforce a message of individual powerlessness,
a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Even 2004’s The Day After Tomorrow—Hollywood’s
one riff on climate change, in which the urban world winds up
flooded and frozen in a few days—manages to find a sort
of happy-sappy ending for most of its characters, despite the
four billion or so off-screen deaths. Climatologists largely agree
that the film’s scenario is dramatically exaggerated—a
relatively rapid deep freeze could occur, but not that fast. Still,
as a pro-green shocker, it rises above the rest of the disaster
flicks, and after the cheap thrills it might lead to some provocative
CONTACT: For an enjoyable scholarly take on the
same topic, check out David Ingram’s book Green Screen:
Environmentalism and Hollywood Cinema, which gives close scrutiny
to hundreds of relevant films, organized by theme.
BEN CHADWICK is E’s webmaster and an avid
fan of green films.
Safe (Todd Haynes, 1995): Julianne Moore plays
a woman tormented by multiple chemical sensitivity—or maybe
she’s just crazy.
The Pelican Brief (Alan J. Pakula, 1993) highlights
the partnership between big government and anti-environmental
business, although this takes second stage to an assassin chasing
Medicine Man (John McTiernan, 1992): Sean Connery
accidentally finds the cure for the “plague of the twentieth
century”—cancer—in the Amazonian rainforest,
but struggles in the face of slash-and-burn deforestation to preserve
the source of the cure.
Quest for Fire (Jean-Jacques Annaud, 1981): A
dialogue-free movie set 80,000 years ago. A tribe of hominids
search for the means to make fire.
Heaven Can Wait (Warren Beatty, 1978): Beatty’s
soul is placed in the body of an industrialist, who is transformed
into a wacky environmentalist.
Soylent Green (Richard Fleischer, 1973) posits
another futuristic dystopia, overpopulated New York in the year
2022. You’ll never guess what makes Soylent Green taste
so good (hint: it ain’t sugar).
Silent Running (Douglas Trumbull, 1971): Bruce
Dern protects the last biological reserve—in space—after
the Earth has been thoroughly defoliated.
Gojira (Ishiro Honda, 1954): The unedited Japanese
original is profoundly bitter toward America. Spawned by the atomic
bomb, the reptilian Godzilla takes it out on Japan.
Them! (Gordon M. Douglas, 1954): again radiation
makes things big. Giant ants plague Los Angeles. Just another
day in the city of angels.
(from E: The Environmental
Magaizine, Sept/Oct 2005)