Two thousand and six may go down in history as The Year We Got Scared. Our hearts began to break for polar bears. Al Gore was redeemed as a revolutionary. And people in polite society began to consider it heresy to question the facts about global climate change (or, for that matter, about Al Gore). Gone are the days when moviegoers happily watched floods submerge Manhattan and drove home in mobile greenhouse-gas factories known as Hummers. In the wake of two seasons of record-breaking heat from France to California, a supercharged hurricane and a movie called An Inconvenient Truth, America — and the movies — started to worry that the state of the Earth may be more dire than we know.
It can be hard to assimilate the information that the once vice president of the United States — the same man who, in his last few months in office, failed to get the United States to ratify an international agreement on carbon-dioxide reductions — has evolved into a beloved pop icon for his performance in an Oscar-winning documentary on climate change. But only in irony does a man find redemption: When An Inconvenient Truth hit the theaters last spring, at the very moment that Bush’s popularity was plunging, it made it possible to forget that Gore spent eight years in office without persuading the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases as pollutants. It also made it pointless to try to remember: An Inconvenient Truth has done too much good for the hobgoblins of small minds to niggle over Gore’s hypocrisy. If nothing else, the movie has greened entertainment culture like nothing that came before.
On the heels of Gore and director Davis Guggenheim’s success came the antidevelopment animated feature Over the Hedge; Chris Paine’s documentary on the death of General Motors’ EV1, Who Killed the Electric Car?; and Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, whose thinning Chekhovian forests and global infertility crisis hint at something gone wrong with the ecosphere. Then came Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, full of fears about a waste-hastened fall of civilization, and that other Oscar winner, Happy Feet, George Miller’s batty dance of the fish-deprived penguins, which, in a year less concerned about emissions, might have lost out to the less nonsensical Cars.
Those were just the relatively successful movies. Scattered among them were more small to medium-sized features and documentaries (including Hoot, Our Daily Bread, Manufactured Landscapes and The White Planet) in which, as David Ingram puts it in his book Green Screen: Environmentalism and Hollywood Cinema, “an environmental issue is raised explicitly and is central to the narrative.” Not since 1973 — when Charlton Heston declared Soylent Green was people, Charlotte’s Web wooed us to give up meat and Sleeper predicted a postnuclear future overrun with McDonald’s franchises and ruled by a dictator’s nose — have our worries about our blighted home flashed before us so persistently in the theaters. Even more films starring a poisoned rebel planet are in the offing: In M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening, growing green things drive humans to suicide; in James Cameron’s Avatar, set for 2009, humans pillage the solar system to compensate for their own squandered resources. Thanks to Gore, even the Oscars have gone green to the point of absurdity. (Did anyone really think Melissa Etheridge’s bludgeoning theme song was better than anything in Dreamgirls?)
But at the risk of sounding like an ingrate, I worry that there’s something unhealthy about An Inconvenient Truth leading the enviro-movie pack. There’s only one way to stop climate change, and that is to stop burning fossil fuels, stop driving cars that burn gasoline, stop burning coal in power plants and stop flying in so many airplanes. So why didn’t An Inconvenient Truth stand up and say that? Instead, in its parting advice, it offers a number of wan remedies for individuals to pursue (“Turn down the heat!”), failing to acknowledge that arresting climate change will require an enormous, coordinated effort of political will, not mere nips and tucks from individual households.
Happy Feet promulgated a similar fool notion that the bigwigs who messed up the world will save it. The story of a multiethnic band of birds who persecute one of their ugly-duckling brethren (he was dropped as an egg!) because he lacks the pipes to sing ’70s disco with a girl bird named Gloria, the film manages to eke out a peppy message about dying oceans and depleted fisheries decimated by big-net catches that leave nothing behind for the wild things. But Happy Feet proposes a happy ending that’s hardly more useful than An Inconvenient Truth’s: If only humans knew the situation, they would spring into action in corporate rotundas around the world.
Sadly, unlike the responsible corporate bodies parodied in Happy Feet, real boards of directors generally need to be relentlessly sued and regulated before their shareholders will submit to the expense of treading more lightly on the earth. And unlike Happy Feet’s downy lead character, Mumble, real penguins are mean and smell terrible. Just as digitally realized creatures inspire in most people only a Timothy Treadwell–like environmentalism, in which species have value because we think they’re cute, our favorite enviro-movies inspire only Treadwell-like solutions: Educate the people, goes the cant, and global action in defense of the Earth and its inhabitants will follow.
Then again, there’s little point in trotting out a message about overfishing if nobody hears it, and for all that Happy Feet saves penguins only because they dance like Savion Glover, it nevertheless grossed $200 million at the U.S. box office even before winning the Oscar. But there might be a way to cut to the heart of our doom without having to make so nice: Invent a monster.
Back in the 1950s, when the world was in the grip of another scare, this time brought on by the invention of atomic weapons, filmmakers created monsters mutated by radiation to serve as metaphors for our fears and the scientists and governments who stoked them. To restore society to order, the monster had to be destroyed, often by the same powers that made it. Watching the 2006 enviro-movie parade, it was possible to feel the time had come for a pollution-mutated Godzilla (or, as the Japanese first named it, Gojira) — a beast to stand in for the bureaucrats and hack scientists who’ve led us down this path, like the Gill-Man that emerges from the Amazon in the 1954 film Creature From the Black Lagoon, which Universal reportedly plans to remake sometime next year. Only this time, we can’t rely on the authorities to kill it.
South Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho’s The Host (currently in release in American theaters) is such a purely pro-planet movie that it tempts you to declare it the only real environmental movie ever. It connects common values like clean water with individual freedom and official stupidity about toxins with government-sanctioned hysteria over imagined contagions, and makes the very real point that the people who suffer most from pollution work petty jobs in factories and stores. It is not a call for the better technological solutions and responsible corporate management that An Inconvenient Truth insinuated, nor does it imagine a grand corporate conspiracy in the way of Who Killed the Electric Car? Its only computer-generated creature is the one that emerges from the Han River, near where our protagonist family runs a little snack shop, after the river has been polluted with formaldehyde by careless lackeys in a U.S. government-run lab.
Ironically, although many people die within its boundaries (including, unlike The Day After Tomorrow, people you actually care about), The Host has a slapstick friendliness about it that hooks you deeply into the fate of its somewhat feckless lead character, a dyed-blond single dad named Gang-du (Song Kang-ho), who fights the official powers for his right to pursue the creature that has abducted his daughter. It breaks your heart in the end, as well any movie about an ailing Earth should, but not before it offers a solution to the mess we’re in. To sum it up without spoiling the movie, that solution has nothing to do with the cooperation of DuPont and Chevron, with boardroom pep talks or the batting of animated eyelashes. It has much more in common with the vigorous protest movements led by college-age war resisters throughout the generations.
In other words, The Host dares to suggest that bringing down the monster of environmental collapse, whether it’s caused by carbon dioxide or human avarice, will take more than a plan drawn up in a European sanctuary by an intergovernmental panel. It might mean subverting those pokey governments and their authority altogether. If we get scared enough, it might even mean we need to riot in the streets. Gore will not be leading that riot, and Melissa Etheridge will not be singing its theme song. But in the end, it may be the only way to get the job done.