Climate change is a difficult thing to put on film. Aside from the direct-appeal approach of a documentary like An Inconvenient Truth, because climate change is gradual, un-dramatic and not very photogenic, it doesn’t often serve well as a springboard for tension in a dramatic presentation. But, as an undeniable part of our world, climate change is reflected in our culture (as I’ve blogged about before, here and here). The other day I was thinking about movies that depict climate change or climate change-related themes, often obliquely, and perhaps in some cases without even meaning to. I figured this would make an excellent blog post, especially now, because two of the films that wound up on my list are Christmas-themed.
I can almost guarantee that you’ve never thought about the climate change implications of some of these movies; maybe even their creators didn’t at the time. But looking back from late 2014, it’s hard to miss them now. Here are, in chronological order, 10 movies that you probably didn’t realize deal with themes of climate change, and why.
1. How Green Was My Valley (1941, John Ford, director)
This sad, heartfelt film, based on the Richard Llewellyn novel from 1939, is the story of Huw (played as a child by Roddy McDowall, in his first performance), the son of a hardworking coal mining family from Wales in late Victorian times. The “valley” of the title is the place where their village is situated, and all the men work for the local coal mine. The struggles of the family, both interpersonal and in the context of the labor strife, form the main plot, but as the movie goes on the formerly green valley eventually becomes a blackened wasteland despoiled by coal mine refuse. This is a very vivid depiction of local small-scale climate change, and also a very heartfelt story. This film won Best Picture in 1941.
2. White Christmas (1954, Michael Curtiz, director)
Have I lost my mind? How can a warm-hearted, fluffy 1950s Christmas movie starring Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye possibly have anything to do with climate change? Well, think of the central problem: Wallace and Davis (Crosby and Kaye) are Army buddies, now Broadway entertainers, who wind up in rural Vermont at Christmastime at the inn run by their old general (Dean Jagger). The problem? There’s no snow. As they arrive in Vermont on a train, a conductor says, “It hasn’t snowed since Thanksgiving. It was 68 yesterday.” The mysterious climate anomaly even gets a song sung about it, “Snow,” and although its cause is never identified, Santa (of course) solves it at the end of the show. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, yes, they did know about climate change in the 1950s.
3. The Last Wave (1977, Peter Weir, director)
Australian auteur Peter Weir’s bizarre tale of occult environmental disaster begins with a rainstorm in the desert out of a clear sky (an image that also appears in Holes, another film on this list), and its protagonist (played by Richard Chamberlain) hallucinates a world-shaking cataclysm that leaves the urban streets of Sydney underwater. You see both images in the trailer. The words “greenhouse gases” are never mentioned, and the whole thing supposedly has to do with aboriginal time-cycles, but a clearer depiction of the horrors of climate change has, I think, seldom ever been committed to film.
4. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978, Philip Kaufman, director)
This sci-fi horror flick, a remake of a 1955 original, concerns an alien invasion of Earth. The twist: the aliens are plants. And they’re terrifying! This fun roller-coaster of a picture stars Donald Sutherland, Veronica Cartwright (Alien) and Jeff Goldblum (The Fly), as well as a cameo by Leonard Nimoy as a creepy psychologist. The climate change implications are clear. If the aliens win, what kind of planet will they make out of Earth? Hint: it’s going to be hot and steamy.
5. Gothic (1986, Ken Russell, director)
I did a review of this film earlier in the year, which is here. Based on a true story–or at least a real legend–Gothic takes place in 1816, where Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and their literary friends are vacationing at a creepy villa in Switzerland and trying to scare the beejezus out of each other with ghost stories. The climate connection? It’s June, but the weather is stormy and wintry–in real life the result of temporary volcanic climate change caused by the 1815 eruption of Tambora. As you may know, this episode is a significant part of my academic research.
6. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986, Leonard Nimoy, director)
Kirk, Spock and the Star Trek gang flash back in time to the ’80s to rescue humpback whales. The ecological message seems to be, don’t kill whales. But on a more subtle level, notice what the alien space probe–the “question” that the time-traveling whales are supposed to answer–does to Earth. A character in the film says, “The probe is vaporizing our oceans!” What’s more, Spock tells us that the probe is unaware that its presence is destructive to Earth. If this can’t be interpreted as an allegory for manmade climate change, I don’t know what can be.
7. Batman Returns (1992, Tim Burton, director)
It was my husband who suggested this, the second Christmas-themed movie on the list. Is he mad? Batman, a climate change story? But yes, it is. Gotham City is depicted as eternally dark, frosty, damp and unpleasant. Evil industrialist Max Schreck (Christopher Walken) has made his millions spewing toxic sludge all over the city, and he wants to suck its power supply to boot. Penguin’s (Danny DeVito) program for a better world is “Stop global warming! Start global cooling! Turn the world into a giant icebox!” The allegory of the Penguin’s lair, an abandoned zoo exhibit called “Arctic World,” going up in a fireball at the film’s end is something else to think about. And how come you never see the sun once in this film?
8. Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002, Peter Jackson, Director)
There are a lot of environmental implications in the Lord of the Rings series, but the second film, The Two Towers, makes it most clear. Evil wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee) lives in a tower in a forested glade called Isengard. In order to build weapons for his army of Uruk-Hai creatures, the furnaces of Isengard are stoked with wood from all the trees that are cut down, rendering Isengard a bleak, desertified landscape. This royally pisses off the Ents, which are tree-creatures, and at the film’s climax they give Isengard a rather unexpected lesson in hydro-engineering. Although set in a fantasy world, the climate change message for Earth is pretty unmistakable.
9. Holes (2003, Andrew Davis, Director)
What does a kid’s movie about buried treasure, starring a tween-aged Shia LaBeauf (in his first role), have to do with climate change? The back story of the film, depicted in a series of colorful flashbacks that establish the character of soon-to-be-outlaw Kissing Kate Barlow (Patricia Arquette), concern a prosperous town called Green Lake, Texas in the early 1900s. It’s lush and green and the lake provides for all, especially peaches and onions that have magical properties. Fast-forward 100 years, where Stanley (LaBeauf) and Zero (Khleo Thomas) are sentenced to dig holes in a labor camp for juvenile delinquents, and the lake has dried up, the town gone and the whole place a blasted wasteland. As she dies Kissing Kate curses the landscape, sentencing its residents to dig hopelessly for the next 100 years to find her buried treasure. And notice the climax of the film involves an oasis with a micro-climate, where the magical peaches and onions still grow.
10. WALL-E (2008, Andrew Stanton, Director)
Pixar’s charming animated film presents a very direct message about the environment. In the distant future little robot WALL-E, who has a thing for Hello, Dolly!, is programmed to clean up garbage on an empty Earth so hopelessly polluted that its residents fled in luxury starships, built by the same consumer corporation that destroyed the planet. WALL-E becomes sentient and falls in love with another robot, EVE, who is sent to Earth to search for vegetation. Of course WALL-E eventually meets the humans who are returning, and they’re not as friendly as he would hope. WALL-E may be the only picture on this list made with a specific climate change message in mind, but it’s also an amazing piece of filmmaking, and possibly the best animated film of the last 10 years.
As the problems of manmade climate change worsen, and as our solutions (should we ever decide to come up with any) consume an increasing amount of humankind’s attention, labor and money, climate change is going to become an ever-increasing presence in our popular and artistic culture. This process has already begun. As these ten movies show, the problems of climate and environment are never far from our consciousness, even in fluffy Christmas films or superhero adventures. This is the thing about climate change: no one on Earth can escape it.