Blowout preventer—that sounds pretty good right about now. Not for the crack at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico that’s spewing oil, but for me—I’m furious, and trying to calm myself by watching movies didn’t help. Perhaps movies about villainous oil companies were a poor choice.
I tried to start with funny. There’s the unintentional hilarity of the preposterous, campy On Deadly Ground (1994), in which Steven Seagal takes names and kicks ass among villainous oil execs in Alaska and stands up for the rights of the native Inuits and the necessity of protecting the environment—or, at least, he speechifies about such things. But oil spills and ecotastrophe just aren’t funny, even accidentally.
And our addiction to oil appears to be tough to satirize deliberately, too. Star and co-writer John Cusack’s War, Inc. (2008), which revolves around a fake oil-rich Middle Eastern nation being colonized by Western corporations, hits a few sore spots but mostly appears to be unable to find ways to render its fiction more ridiculous than reality already is. The only amusing movie about oil—if only indirectly—may be the delightful Local Hero (1983), in which an American oil company’s scheme to take over a charming Scottish village is derailed by the villagers’ very charm.
The rest of the history of oil cinema, right up to the present moment, is depressing as hell. Quality stuff, much of it, but not anything to cheer you up. Generally, movies about oil are about the insidiousness of the oil industry and the seductive lure of easy oil money. This theme goes back at least as far as Black Gold (1936), a mostly forgotten little melodrama starring the mostly forgotten Frankie Darro about the corruption and dirty dealing a couple of good guys will put up with in the quest for riches from a gushing well. Two decades later, it was Rock Hudson and James Dean greedily transforming their Texas cattle ranch into an oil field in Giant (1956). The theme culminates in the devastating There Will Be Blood (2007), a startling portrait of a heartless oil magnate (Daniel Day-Lewis).
Mystery and intrigue surrounds oil on film, too, typically connected to maintaining the power structures that have developed around the resource. In The Formula (1980), George C. Scott’s detective unravels a murder connected to a secret Nazi recipe for creating synthetic gas that the big oil corporations don’t want getting loose. But that’s nothing compared to the massive international extralegal collusion between governments and corporations that George Clooney’s CIA operative uncovers in 2005’s Syriana. The powerful get even more jealous of their power as the oil starts to run out, as we see in the thriller The Deal (2005), starring Christian Slater and Selma Blair. It’s set in a near future in which a confederation of Arab states is at war with the United States, oil is even dearer than it is now, and those who make their fortunes in oil get even more daring in their attempts to hold on.
Not depressed yet? Many scary-as-hell documentaries are available to enrage you. The End of Suburbia (2004) is a terrifying look at the Western addiction to oil and how our dependence upon it may well be our undoing unless we make radical changes in our society; A Crude Awakening (2006) and the just-released-on-DVD Fuel (2009) only reinforce the message—and with the latter’s filmmaker Joshua Tickell hailing from Louisiana and focusing in part on the environmental impact of oil production on the Gulf Coast, this film is especially timely. Then there’s Joe Berlinger’s Crude (2009), which looks at a lawsuit brought by indigenous people of the Amazon against Texaco/Chevron for its endemic pollution of their lands in the pursuit of oil. It’s no spoiler to reveal that Goliath has no shame in playing Goliath. And once the oil is gone? The dystopia of Mad Max (1979) and its sequels The Road Warrior (1982) and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) show us a world in which gasoline is so precious that even cops like Mel Gibson can’t keep the bandits after it at bay.
Oh, and this is really distressing: A DVD is made, in part, from oil. And that’s before a DVD gets into its plastic case and shrink-wrapped. *Sigh*