With unimaginable amounts of oil continuing to leak into the Gulf of Mexico things look bad. There’s an almost apocalyptic science fiction element to an ecological disaster this sweeping, this horrible and this avoidable (“Drill baby drill” indeed. Let’s hope Sarah Palin comes by to clean this shit up. With her tongue), especially when the Coast Guard set portions of the slick on fire to control it. It’s depressing to see an area still barely recovered from Hurricane Katrina getting hit with another cataclysm. And it’s even more depressing to imagine what impact this will have on the sensitive local ecosystems.
But hey, it could always be worse! Here are eight films that are about, or set against, huge environmental catastrophes. All of these scenarios are worse than what’s happening in the Gulf, and some of these movies even offer up some hope. And right about now we could use some hope.
Be aware: there will be spoilers for these films.
Silent Running (1972)
d. Douglas Trumbull
Cause of Ecological Disaster: Pollution
The Story: At some point in the future the Earth is so fouled by pollution that no plants can grow. The only plantlife that exists in the solar system is housed in spacefaring domes floating in the vicinity of Saturn. Bruce Dern and three robots – who he calls Huey, Dewey and Louie – are caring for the remaining plants, waiting to return to Earth to reforest the planet. When the word comes in that the domes should be destroyed and the space ship returned to commercial service, Dern takes things into his own hands.
The Ultimate Hope: Depends on how you define ‘hope.’ Bruce Dern kills a bunch of people, three of the four forest domes are destroyed, and then Dern himself dies (along with two of his robot buddies). But there’s still one dome left, floating in deep space, being cared for by Dewey, so maybe one day…
Soylent Green (1973)
d. Richard Fleischer
Cause of Ecological Disaster: Overpopulation
The Story: There are forty million people living in New York City in the year 2022. The overwhelming population of the world has put an incredible strain on natural resources and the environment, and there’s just not enough food to go around. Some people, like star Charlton Heston, live by eating scenery. But most of the people on Earth live off of the Soylent Corporation’s high-protein rations. They’ve already introduced Soylent Red and Soylent Yellow. Now comes Soylent Green, which is supposedly made from plankton. Except we all know that’s not true. We all know Soylent Green is…
The Ultimate Hope: In true 70s fashion there isn’t much hope for the big problems. The hope comes from Charlton Heston discovering the true ingredient in Soylent Green – people! – and getting the word out. It’s a Nixon-era victory, finding the win in an already lost situation. Yeah, the Earth is fucked but hey at least people now know they’re eating people.
Mad Max (1979)
d. George Miller
Ecological Disaster: Peak Oil
The Story: Society is breaking down during a prolonged and seemingly endless energy crisis. In the middle of this is Max Rockatansky, a good cop who sees the system failing him. When a savage gang murders his wife and child, Max takes revenge. Many people assume that Mad Max takes place against the backdrop of a nuclear war, but Byron Kennedy and George Miller’s script seems to be mostly influenced by the energy crisis. The wars that are referenced in The Road Warrior were probably resource wars, set off by superpowers trying to get their hands on fuel.
The Ultimate Hope: None. The state of things in Mad Max would be considered the good old days when compared to The Road Warrior or Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.
Blade Runner (1982)
d. Ridley Scott
Ecological Disaster: Pollution
The Story: In 2019 pollution has left most animals extinct and keeps an almost constant acid rain falling on Los Angeles, slowly rotting away at the old buildings and Edward James Olmos. Rick Deckard lives in this dystopia, hunting down replicants, who are banned on Earth. The replicants might really have it better at the off-world colonies anyway, which is where people go to escape the degraded quality of their home planet.
The Ultimate Hope: Zilch! To be fair the movie isn’t really about the environmental situation in the year 2019, but it does look like going off-world is the only hope.
d. Kevin Reynolds
Ecological Disaster: Global Warming
The Story: It’s the year 2500 and much of the Earth’s surface is covered in water after the polar ice caps melted. The few survivors have banded together on floating platforms they call atolls, and they dream about one day discovering dry land, which they futuristically call Dryland. Kevin Costner drinks piss.
The Ultimate Hope: We’ll make do. In the end Dryland is found and a new colony is set up there. While the damage done can’t be reversed, humanity will have a future. And best of all that future won’t include piss drinking Costner, who takes off on his own.
Children of Men (2006)
d. Alfonso Cuaron
Ecological Disaster: Unclear; possibly Gaia Theory run amok
The Story: In 2009 women start becoming infertile. It’s never made clear why this happens, but the fact that the infertility strikes globally very quickly and the fact that animals continue getting pregnant indicates that it could be the Gaia Theory in action. The Gaia Theory postulate that the entire Earth is an organism that acts to take care of itself, including regulating the temperature and the salinity of the oceans. The infertility seems to be Gaia enforcing her own brand of population control. But the long period of infertility could be over in 2027, as one young woman has become pregnant. It’s up to embittered loner Clive Owen to get her safely to the Human Project, man’s last hope, and keep her out of the hands of the fascist government or the radical revolutionaries who want to use the baby as a rallying flag.
The Ultimate Hope: Hope itself. While incredibly grim, Children of Men is also incredibly hopeful. The very sight of a newborn makes soldiers lay down their weapons in the middle of a battle. The movie is all about hope’s ability to conquer the most negative parts of ourselves. The metaphor is pretty clear when the baby safely ends up with the Human Project, who sail around on a boat called ‘Tomorrow.’
The Happening (2008)
d. M. Night Shyamalan
Ecological Disaster: Gaia Theory run amok
The Story: At first everyone thinks it’s a terrorist attack, but then it turns out to be a new film from Shyamalan. I mean… People in big cities begin mysteriously killing themselves. Soon the suicides begin happening in smaller communities. High school teacher Marky Mark realizes that it’s the plants causing the suicides – they’re releasing a neurotoxin that’s causing folks to Budd Dwyer themselves. It’s the Gaia Theory again, with the plants protecting the planet by thinning out the human herd.
The Ultimate Hope: Who even knows. At the end of the movie it seems that the answer is in living in smaller communities, but then the Happening happens all over again in Paris. When will these horrible plants be satisfied?
d. Andrew Stanton
Ecological Disaster: Trash
The Story: Our consumer society leads to a planet covered totally in trash. Having rendered the Earth inhospitable to life, the humans all get into space ships and take off, leaving behind a bunch of robots to clean their shit up. But that doesn’t work out, and lonely Wall-E ends up being the only sentient dude on the whole planet.
The Ultimate Hope: Life is resilient. Or, if you’re cynical, “Things will fix themselves.” Wall-E discovers one tenacious sprout growing amidst the trash wasteland, and that one sprout is enough to bring the humans back. And the humans, who have evolved into giant fat babies, clean up the whole planet over the course of the movie’s end credits. So the bad news is that big corporations shoveling out cheap plastic shit and feeding kids bad food (corporations like… Disney!) will make our planet uninhabitable. The good news is that somebody else will fix it eventually.