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Cinema classics: the best energy & environment films

Avatar, the most commercially successful film in history, has a strong environmental message. Flickr: rxau

The motion picture was born of industrial revolution, the first image in history whose base materials were electrical and chemical energy. Cinema exhibited the laws of motion on a white rectangle for all to see and experience.

Some of the most thrilling special effects of motion play with our vestibular system, with our inner sense of direction, our sense of up and down, of left and right, and of course our position in space. Remember Jake Sully’s first moment of flight in Avatar (2009)?

Films such as Babel (2006), by Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu, reinforce the idea that we belong to one environment, natural and artificial, by exploiting the relatedness of distant events.

What then are the best films about energy and environment?

A vision of urban motion

My first pick is actually a group of films: three different visions of early 20th century urban motion. There is one from Weimar Germany, one from the Soviet Union and one from the USA. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) is dystopic about the electro-spiritual world of the future. Whereas Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) is utopic about the future of what he calls “the perfect electric man”. That is, the socialist subject freed of the phantoms and illusions that plague Lang’s film and Weimar cinema more generally.

Finally, Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1931) parodies the physiological tyranny of assembly-line labour.

Each of these motion pictures considers the human body as an engine of the industrial revolution. The difference between lies in the relations of machine and organism, industrial life and human life.

Vertov, in particular, seeks a body composed of the speed and precision of the machine, while in Lang it is precisely speed and precision that is dangerous to the body. Chaplin of course never confuses the machine and the organism. The two only ever enter into a comic alliance, to the detriment of both.

Environmental destruction and human spirituality

My second choice is a smaller group. In the 1970s and 1980s, filmmakers were ruminating about an immanent environmental emergency, created in no small part by industry, military binarism and the social orders that such binarism protects.

“It is true, something is driving us against our will,” says an unidentified bus commuter in Robert Bresson’s The Devil Probably (1977). “We use the microscope as a cudgel” says a melancholic character in Tarkovsky’s Sacrifice (1986).

Both these films see environmental destruction as a sign of the death of human spirituality. In Tarkovsky’s film, the end of the world is announced as a nuclear holocaust and in Bresson’s, the end is contemplated by a young man who seeks assistance from another to commit suicide.

These films remind us that the period after the Second World War was one in which the end of the planet was a constant possibility. If our current climate emergency is difficult to imagine, is this because it does not have the saliency of nuclear destruction?

Catastrophe and natural disaster

Catastrophic imagination has not been restricted to the art film. Since the 1980s, action films have become increasingly interested in destructive natural processes.

Volcanic eruptions, (Dante’s Peak 1997) viral outbreaks, (Outbreak, Contagion, I am Legend,) evolutionary marvels (The Hulk 2003) and the X Men films to name just a few, all imagine a present or future in which the relationship between nature, human society and survival are at odds.

My personal favourite is 2012 (2009) if only because of the way it links bed wetting to the biblical flood through the domestic drama of a father trying to re-establish a relationship with his daughter. In the final moments of the film, as the view looks out across a vast endless ocean, the daughter informs her father “no more pull-ups”.

Real-life nature

As a counterweight to the catastrophic imaginings of 1970s and 1980s art cinema and contemporary special effects cinema, is the considerable archive of documentary films that inspire a sense of natural beauty.

In the 1920s, the “founder” of documentary, John Grierson, stressed the film camera’s capacity for “getting about”. Grierson and his colleagues in the British documentary movement took the camera into the industrial life of the nation, stressing its unity, and perhaps its productive harmony.

This Wonderful World, by John Grierson.

But the camera has also been taken into the wilds of the natural world. From the North and South poles, to the forests of Latin America, and the deserts of Australia, the camera has explored the surface of the globe as a place of great complexity and forbidding fragility.

I would nominate a nature documentary such as Yellowstone (1994) for its attempt to capture the range of natural states of the park and particularly the geothermal forces that drive its volatile ecology. We see the park from the point of view of a germinating plant and from the point of view of space, where geothermal forces of nature have clearly carved themselves into the surface of the earth.

Will somebody think of the children?

Finally, the anthropomorphism that animates so much children’s cinema is noteworthy.

Environmentalism is often espoused in children’s films through the humanisation of animals. They are given human motivations, emotions and traits. Brother Bear (2003) teaches a lesson in the spiritual power of natural coexistence.

The Bear (1988), by Jean-Jacques Annaud, contains an Oedipal scene, where a young Grizzly watches two grown bears copulate. Can a bear experience embarrassment?

Given that the most successful film on the planet, the already mentioned Avatar, contains an environmental message of sorts, I would nominate an animated feature that serves as a precursor to Cameron’s epic. Set in Australia, Fern Gully; The Last Rainforest (1992) is a wonderful example of a film that seeks to communicate the wonders of nature to future generations.

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