There’s an old song by the pop duo Daryl Hall and John Oates called “Everywhere I Look,” which wanted— almost 20 years ago now—to be an anthem for environmental awareness. It failed to catch on, but it does feature these great lyrics: “The green flag is risin’, and baby, green means go.” I like that: I like the optimism and the positivity of that. Our environmentally aware movies could use more of it.
Because if you’re looking for upbeat and cheery instead of doom and gloom when it comes to how movies cope with environmental issues, good luck. Man, these are a bitter lot of flicks.
Of course the first one that always springs to my dark and cynical mind is 1973’s Soylent Green, which continues to give me nightmares to this day with its imagery of crushing human overpopulation, environmental degradation and imminent planetary death. Cheery! Things are all more … well, arty in 1982’s Koyaanisqatsi, with its plotless, characterless visuals of the human impact upon planet Earth—and it’s not impact for the better, either. But it’s still enough to leave you curled up into a fetal ball and contemplating moving to a cave.
The closest modern film comes to the lurid horror of Soylent Green is, perhaps, 2006’s Children of Men, a near-future nightmare in which society is teetering on the brink of collapse because humans have suddenly lost the ability to reproduce. The reason why goes unspoken, but, you know, what else could it be but all the chemicals we’ve dumped into our own environment? Damn, even animals know better than to crap where they live. It’s also decidedly not cheery, despite the presence of Clive Owen, who certainly can inspire the brain toward thoughts related to human reproduction. At least Children is pure fiction, however rooted in reality the speculation may be. Grim real reality hovers over the entire subgenre of films devoted to almost journalistic muckracking in connection with the human rape of the natural world.
Flicks such as 1979’s The China Syndrome (Jane Fonda’s TV reporter vs. nuclear power plant), 1983’s Silkwood (Meryl Streep’s nuke worker vs. her corporate overlords) and 2000’s Erin Brockovich (Julia Roberts vs. polluters of drinking water) give us feisty fighters against the politics of secrecy and corporate malfeasance in the furtherance of crapping where we live. And perhaps it’s not coincidence that the feisty fighters in this subgenre tend to be female; if feminism is a way of rethinking the way men dominate women in our culture, it’s hardly a stretch to extend that rethinking to taking a fresh look at how men dominate the natural world, too.
Not all the guys are bad, of course. Al Gore has taken plenty of hits from complacent deniers, and still his 2006 cinematic slideshow An Inconvenient Truth is the modern touchstone for environmental awareness. And it’s even funny, here and there—though the overall impact of Gore’s passion is terrifying. If the former veep is too wonky and too scary for absolute beginners to the issue of climate change, there is, thankfully, The Great Warming, narrated by Keanu Reeves and Alanis Morissette (a surprisingly friendly and cuddly overview of rising temps, melting icebergs and such) and The 11th Hour, produced and narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio (which is calm and hopeful and also features cute and charming Leo).
Wanna be scared some more? Check out last year’s documentary Flow: For Love of Water, about how the precious liquid is running out (at least in a form we can drink), and what’s left is being appropriated for profit by greedy global corporations. And then move on to the 2004 made-for-Canadian-TV thriller H2O—sort of a State of Play meets Flow—in which political murder meets a resource grab of astonishing proportions.
Feeling miserable after all that? Well, you could check out 2001’s Winged Migration, the beautiful documentary about birds all over the world. Oh, but wait: It features one poor creature enduring a six-pack skeleton stuck over its neck. Or there’s 2005’s Being Caribou, about the ungainly but majestic creatures who depend upon the fragile ecosystems of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for their very existence. Oh, but that’s the place we’re gonna end up drilling for oil, and sooner rather than later.
Well, there’s always 2006’s Happy Feet, the all-singing, all-dancing penguin cartoon (about how their world is melting around them). Or 1986’s Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, in which Kirk and Spock travel in time so they can crack wise in 20th-century San Francisco (and so they can bring a mating pair of whales back to the future, when whales have all become extinct).
Good times, good times. Remember: Green means go! *sob*