L.A. Environmental: Hollywood’s Best and Worst “Green” Movies

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 is dying.”

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.

Legal Heroes

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 will tell.

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 Baraka (1993).

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, f

or 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 discussion.

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.

Also Rans

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 Julia Roberts.

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.