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April/May, 2006 : Feature:

The Way the Future Was

Coping with Ecological Disaster in Film

I remember seeing a short film in elementary school—this would have been in the mid to late 70s—in which an elderly man tends a greenhouse in which he is carefully cultivating what may be some of the last plants on the planet. The air outside the greenhouse, the air in the "real world," is toxic—it is absolutely essential that the plants be kept in this controlled environment. And the key moment of the little film comes as a gang of idiot kids throw rocks at the greenhouse, breaking the glass and killing the plants, and the man is devastated.

Maybe I'm overly sensitive, but I was devastated by this, too, even as a little kid.

They liked to scare the crap out of us in school, us Generation Xers, which makes me suspect that school is where I also saw Soylent Green for the first time. Whether it was at school or not, though, I certainly digested the film at just the right age to have had it seared into my memory—watching the film again today, while I recognize that it's pretty preachy and hammily overacted by Charlton Heston, its imagery of a dying, overcrowded planet still scares the crap out of me.

Even though the realities of global climate change have become far more certain and far better understood than they were when I was that sensitive little kid, there's nothing in today's cinema that even approaches the horror of those two movies, one an educational short (I think) and the other a cheesy B flick.

Disaster movies have been a staple of the cinema since at least 1933's Deluge, the first disaster talkie, which depicted tidal waves devastating coastal California and New York City. That film's catastrophes were initiated by earthquakes, but disasters of nature (volcanic eruptions, asteroid strikes, and so on) and disasters caused by humans (plane crashes and towering infernos) first started coming together in futuristic nightmares of ecological collapse in the years immediately after the first Earth Day, in 1970. Oh sure, humanity's disdain for the power of nature is at the root of, for instance, the many movies throughout cinematic history about the Titanic sinking, as well as the slew of 1950s flicks about radiation-created monsters, but those disasters were localized. Logically enough, it was only in the wake of the sudden popular realization of the impact of humanity's activities upon the entire planet that we began to see films that suggested the planet as a whole was in major trouble.

And yet, considering the vast potential for calamity presented by overpopulation and global warming, surprisingly few films have been produced that address the issue directly—even in the 1970s, when public consciousness about the matter reached a fevered new height. The 1971 enviro-disaster film Silent Running, about a spacebound scheme to save the last of Earth's plantlife, posits a nuclear war, not a runaway greenhouse effect, as the reason for the death of the planet's ecosystem. A year later, though, it was human abuse of the environment that had led to the worldwide food shortages in the little-remembered (and justly so) film Deadly Harvest, about an American farmer defending his crops from starving hordes.

And the year after that comes the film that still represents the epitome of global human-induced cataclysm: Soylent Green. For all its problems on an artistic level, it remains a potent nightmare on many other levels. Visually, the sickly yellow tinge to the film, signifying a year-round, global heatwave, is oppressively effective. Thematically, there's real power in all that goes unspoken and taken for granted in this world of diminished expectations and extreme deprivation, until small moments reveal all: how a bit of stolen beef can reduce an elderly man—who remembers the good old days of abundance—to tears; the spectre of a sandy Gramercy Park hosting the tented "tree sanctuary" that shelters a few wan specimens. The image of Heston's cop vaulting over people sleeping on the staircases of his apartment building—and all that it implied about the suffering of so many—is one that stuck with me from childhood. The subtle pointedness of other aspects of the film only became clear to me upon adult re-viewings: as a little girl, what it meant for attractive women to trade their self-determination for the comforts of hot showers and $150 jars of strawberries and a life of concubinage was lost on me; as an adult woman, everything from the bald, blunt term for these women—"furniture"—to the thoughtless ease with which they give themselves over to the demands of men chills me to the bone.

But almost immediately after Soylent Green, the fears of global climate change became background, or metaphor, or both. The cheery dystopia of the goofy Logan's Run, from 1976, is the result of a campaign launched long before to deal with overpopulation. 1977's beautiful and eerie The Last Wave uses global-warming tropes of constant rain and an energy crisis as the backdrop for an allegorical exploration of cultural genocide between indigenous peoples and European descendents in modern Australia. In 1979's Mad Max and its 1981 sequel, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, oil shortages—a tangent to global warming—are the underlying cause of the social unrest in Max's world.

Worry about human-induced climate change all but disappears from film in the 1980s—perhaps as nuclear war enjoyed its last hurrah as a cultural bugaboo—before returning as mere backdrop and setting in the 1990s and into the early 2000s: Freejack, from 1992, is set in a near future in which pollution and the disappearing ozone layer have ruined human health, prompting the rich to reach back in time to the relatively clean late 20th century for robust bodies to harvest for organs. The not-as-bad-as-you-think (but not-as-good-as-it-should-be) Waterworld, from 1995, takes place on a far-ish future Earth flooded by the melting of the polar ice caps. In 2001's A.I, rising sea levels have submerged New York City.

Only two films of the last 15 years deal in any overt way with issues of climate change and how it will impact global civilization, and neither is terribly incisive. The Fire Next Time, an American TV miniseries from 1993, follows the travails of one family in 2017, when climate change sees Southern California aflame, oil at a shocking $60 a barrel, and a major hurricane devastating the Gulf Coast; one subplot explores the social upheaval that comes with massive waves of illegal immigrants pouring over the Mexican border in search of cooler climes. If audiences were shocked then by such a grim vision of the future, the scary thing today in this otherwise banal drama is how much sooner such economic and cultural disorder has come to pass, and how good we seem to be at ignoring it. Even the recent attempt to peddle global climate change as Hollywood disaster porn—in 2004's The Day After Tomorrow—doesn't seem to have moved American society to face these new fears for our future, if only in the theater, where we've confronted so many other terrors.

The Matrix, from 1999, might be the best example in recent years of how we have, perhaps, come to accept dramatic climate change over the whole planet as a given, something to be taken for granted, and perhaps something we can do nothing about. The idea that humans might deliberately blot out the sun to starve the enemy machines of energy, as we learn has happened in the early days of The Matrix's human/machine war, is a unique one, yet it is not treated as impossible or unexpected; of course humans could and would do such a thing. And the Soylent Green-esque concept of the dead being fed to the living is dispatched in just one line of dialogue, an homage to the older film but also indication of just how accustomed to such ideas the audience had become. Does it even horrify us anymore? I wonder...

It's ironic that in the same week in which Time magazine headlines its global warming cover story with a big dramatic "Be Worried. Be Very Worried" (April 3, 2006), the animated kiddie flick Ice Age 2: The Meltdown is released, and to huge and enthusiastic audiences, no less. From a newfound near panic—or at least serious awareness—of human-caused global climate change to the concept of disappearing glaciers as a vehicle for cartoon slapstick, the best it seems we can hope for is that Western society is meeting a tremendous threat with a kind of schizophrenia. Whether we begin to see an upsurge in movies specifically about how global civilization will meet this challenge may well indicate how ready we are to do so.

Copyright © 2006, MaryAnn Johanson. All Rights Reserved.

About MaryAnn Johanson

MaryAnn Johanson is one of the most popular and most respected film critics publishing online—Time magazine likes her "snarky, well-informed commentary [and] breezy style," and Variety calls her "one of online's finest" film critics. She keeps a weather eye on Hollywood at The Flick Filosopher.


Apr 24, 17:01 by IROSF
Thread for the discussion of MaryAnn Johanson's film column.

The article is here.
Apr 25, 08:54 by Adrian Simmons
I think that climate change is one of those things... it's very hard to address. It's kind of like a really fat guy who keeps saying that he has a glandular problem or sleep apnea or something. You want to shake him and tell him that, no, the problem is that you eat a spoonful of sour cream with each bite of nachos.

But when you say that, he gets all sulky and adds some cheese fries to those nachos.

And that awkward analogy is how I see climate change. It isn't any person or small group's fault so there is no 'enemy' to fight. Heck, if there were a string of catastrophic and unprecedented volcanic activity, we could rally our resources and will around it. But the enemy is us, and we know it. We've know it for a long time, and like that fat guy, we just don't really want it to be our fault, and we'll start to take the bus tomorrow.

And the solution is not going to be something that can't be passed on to a particular group of people or industries- it's going to affect every one of us.

So, not a lot of entertainment value in that. Which may explain why no movies have been made that deal with the transition period- which is what we've been in for a while- they deal with the big aftermath. YOu know, where the characters have to fight off starving hordes instead of screw up their courage to take the bus.

Would the late 70s movie VIRUS count as an eco disaster flick? It's more of a man-made supergerm disaster movie, but it does make most of the earth's surface unihabitable. And then there is the inevitable nuclear exchange as the automated national defense systems hammer at each other, triggered by an earthquake.

It's the kind of movie you want to wash down with a cup of broken glass.
Apr 25, 13:33 by Michael Andre-Driussi
Did the theory of "nuclear winter" spawn a movie or three, or did it die before that was possible?

That is, are there no movies about a human-made ice age?

Altman's QUINTET comes to mind, but that was slightly before the nuclear winter period (which makes it prophetic!). And I don't recall if any reason was given for the snow.

I vaguely recall there being something icy in the future of "13th Monkey" or whatever the remake of classic "la Jetee" was called, but perhaps I'm mistaken there.
May 4, 14:12 by Brian McCarthy
Global warming is still in the controversial stage. That means the characters have to be persuaded of it each time, and much of the drama has to concern what happens to people who don't believe.

That kind of movie cannot be made too frequently, or the result will match the response to sharks.

Perhaps by the time it's possible to make the next controversial movie then threat will have disappeared, to be replaced by another.

The campaign to encourage mass transit has its work cut out, but, like many other causes advocated in the movies, this is a determination that knows not time.

[Mass transit is chosen for effect. The changes demanded by those advocating global warming are far more ambitious.
Whether the current situation is an ordinary, brief shift from warmer to cooler or a more significant (and more rare) warm shift, and whether either is affected by human activities remains to be determined by objective evaluation of evidence.
Recent admissions that the evidence for human induced global warming will never be definitive are a good indication that another threat may soon arise.]
May 5, 10:16 by Bluejack
FYI: Global warming is not in a controversial stage. Of 928 abstracts published in referreed scientific journals from 1993-2003, Science Magazine found 0 departures from the scientific consensus that global warming is, in fact, happening. [ reference ]

What is controversial are the mechanisms by which global warming happens, the limits to climate change (if any), and the short and long term consequences of climate change.

May 13, 05:21 by Brian McCarthy

I'd add to your list of controversies whether human activities are a significant part of the reason for warming.
That's not at all easy to determine because it's necessary to guess what would be happening otherwise.

Even if there were some way to isolate human impact and find it to be significant, the movies would still be in the controversy stage, selling the problem, and will remain stuck there until - and if - a consensus exists.

That consensus need not be objective and accurate, but it does have to be widespread. And human global warming does not now have a popular consensus.

Feb 1, 01:43 by M Elron H
I came across this forum by doing Google searches trying to find out the name of the 1970's short film about the man who is tending the greenhouse-- the people outside seem to be living in toxic environment in hazmat suits then smash their way in, destroying the greenhouse... at least I've come across some other living soul that remembers being shown that film in school, but what is the name of the film? I am hoping to maybe track it down on YouTube if I could come up with a title or something better to go on. Anyone remember?

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