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A Look At Hollywood’s Recipe For Environmental Disaster Movies

thedayaftertomorrow2004 For decades the synopsis has been pretty much the same when Hollywood tangles with the environment. In some cases, the Earth looks like it has been run over by army of ATVs. In other cases it appears to have been mauled by a disaster of the screenwriter’s choosing—earthquakes, fires, hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis and by global warming.

A 2007 New York Times headline put it most succinctly: “On Screens Soon, Abused Earth Gets Revenge.”

You leave the Cineplex with ears ringing and confidence shaken, wondering when environmental judgment day will arrive. Or you leave it singing “it’s the end of the world, as we know, and I feel fine.”

At Dialogue Earth we occasionally delve into how pop culture intersects with perplexing problems such as climate change, energy policy and pollution. (See our recent post on a rap song defense of climate scientists.)

What we observe in the film industry is remarkably similar treatments to remarkably difficult problems.

So how to you make a film such as The Day After Tomorrow, 2012, Jurassic Park, The Happening, Avatar, Transformers, Creature From the Black Lagoon, Children of Man or The Road and…(for a good list see this one)? Let’s look at the elements.

The plot: Something bad happens to the Earth, namely earthquakes, meteors, volcanoes, global warming or climate change. And let’s not forget chemical and nuclear disasters, as well as epidemics. The standard damsel-in-distress plotline works particularly well, with the Earth starring as the damsel with an environment in distress.

Heroes: Scientists—generally a handful of them, and they tend to be handsome and beautiful. Activists, journalists and lawyers tend to fare well. Although it’s not an absolute rule, one should be played by Sigourney Weaver. Ironically, the American public tends not to love journalists, attorneys or scientists—until the world is at stake.

Villains: Politicians, other planets, comets, the government, evil scientists, mankind, really evil bad guys and the bad weather.

Strengths: Even awful disaster films tend to have good special effects. Rarely is the acting great, but when you’re assigned the task of saving the world you’re mainly going to be shouting lines, grimacing and looking fearful.

Weaknesses: Tin-eared and foreboding dialogue, speechified lines and wildly incorrect or untested scientific information. As critic Benjamin Chadwick pointed out in an essay on the best and worst “green” movies, all of them have the same theme: Fear nature.

It’s probably too much to ask for a more nuanced view of the environment and nature. Sure, you can get that on PBS, the National Geographic Channel and other outlets, but that kind of sensitive, thoughtful storytelling just doesn’t seem to cut it in today’s Cineplex.

This summer two more films will give a go at the environment—Rise of Planet of the Apes (genetic engineering brings about a war) and Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia. Look for Von Trier’s tale of a planet colliding with Earth, and its impact on two sisters, as perhaps inviting a more personal study of disaster and the environment.

Maybe there’s hope after all for the Earth. We’ll see.


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