Why do environmental movies suck?

These days, there are angry ghosts all around us. Dead from wars, sickness, starvation, and nobody cares. So – you say you’re under a curse. So what, so’s the whole damn world.
~Jigo, “Princess Mononoke”

I wondered something once while I was watching the remake of “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” Why the hell don’t environmental movies work? Sure, maybe on a small scale they influence a few people to do things a little differently, but none of them seem to have any planet-shaking influence.

The short answer is because environmental movies suck.

They suck because they tend to be high-handed and preachy, typically with a heavy dose of condescension. It’s less that they’re movies and more that they’re, well, like reading a blog post or article, only dressed up with special effects and/or blue alien catgirls with hemp bracelets and sea anemones stuffed in their braids.

There are two movies I can think of that had environmental themes that didn’t suck. “WALL-E” and “Princess Mononoke.” Note that I refer to them as having environmental themes…not as being environmental movies. They weren’t environmental movies. They were movies, first and foremost. Solid and entertaining, the soapbox was either secondary or a natural extension of the already existing plot.

In particular, “Mononoke” displayed the gray nature of the man vs. environment plot. The characters were trapped in crappy situations and each was merely trying to make the best of it. Ashitaka was a naive idealist at times, but even he realized that the people of Iron Town had as much need to live as did the denizens of the forest, who were, by the way, far from being noble savages.

“WALL-E” seems to be merely a case of “Hey, look, the plot is such that we can make a statement about rampant consumerism.” They did so, and in a fashion that was not heavy-handed or condescending. In fact it was humorous and entertaining, exactly like the rest of the film.

In contrast, “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and “Avatar” were all about the environmental issues. Entertainment took second place to the soapbox and everything was cast in solid black and white. Don’t get me started on James Cameron.

I still say that “Avatar” sucked even despite it’s popularity. I liked it, yes, and it was mildly entertaining and visually amazing, but it had some definite issues. Cameron is, if nothing else, the king of camp. “Avatar” gave us a problem, but offered no solution other than “go back to living like pre-technological tribal peoples.” That’s not an option in this day and age. It preached that we should live more in harmony with the world around us, yet showed us a world that connected with itself literally, making it nigh impossible for audiences to visualize how to connect with their own world. Instead of showing us how to see our own world as beautiful, unique, and amazingly inter-connected, it gave us a childishly simple and attractively bizarre world to escape to. “Avatar” is a snake-oil cure offered to us as a panacea. The plot was so shallow my boss apparently thought it was geared toward children. Like the ecology depicted in the film, it’s beautiful, but without any depth. A good film will have me mulling over concepts for days. The longer I spend thinking about “Avatar” the more I’ve come to realize that the film was no good. But I digress.

The long answer for why environmental movies don’t change people’s behavior is because the people themselves aren’t going to be swayed by something so simple as a movie with a moral. At least, not by itself. But taken together with the rest of the mass media as a whole, movies add to what some call “the Litany” and others call a meme. Which is to say that if you tell most people that the environment is going to hell in a hand basket enough times in enough different media over enough of a time span, they’ll buy it hook, line, and sinker without question. I know, because it worked on me for years.

And maybe that’s another reason why “WALL-E” and “Mononoke” worked where others didn’t. “WALL-E” gave us a critique of consumerism instead of the litany, and the environmental theme in “Mononoke” was extremely localized and not a simple case of good vs. evil.

Add into this the fact that the people who are most likely to go see an environmental flick are already environmentalists, and well, it’s preaching to the choir. Take someone actively hostile to the environmentalist movement to the same flick, and they will entrench themselves further. Take someone who doesn’t give a shit, and they will complain because the movie was boring.

3 Responses to “Why do environmental movies suck?”

  1. Dargon Says:

    I would argue that even the good ones don’t “change” people, don’t “work.” In those cases, the movie is often quite enjoyable, and the days spent mulling over the film mull over the plot rather than the environmental issues lightly touched on.

    That being said, the ones that get heavy handed tend to be the type where you walk out of the film, perhaps having been mildly entertained by the flash and shine, and promptly go about your day.

    Admittedly, I did mull over Avatar for days, though the mulling was primarily over how the life on the planet would have evolved, not the plot. Having seen the film a second time, it was definitely a one watch kind of film.

    All that being said, don’t beat James Cameron too much, I really like Terminator 2.

    • I do have to give him props for Terminator 2 and Aliens. But his whole “I’m gonna save the planet via this movie I have made” makes me want to punch him in the nads.

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