Disaster movies took a turn for the weird in the early 1970s, when a growing environmental awareness manifested in a string of “animal revenge” pictures. Sci-fi movies and literature often reflect contemporary concerns—recall Deep Impact and Armageddon, two films released shortly after preliminary NASA speculation about a giant rock thought to be due for a collision with Earth around the year 2030.
Movies set against a backdrop of human-caused environmental degradation and/or catastrophe don’t really qualify as a genre unto themselves, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be good for a grim laugh, or actually provide food for thought, perhaps even suggest a course of action. You be the judge. In the event of melting ice caps (see this week’s cover story on Glacier National Park’s incredible shrinking glaciers), this column will float.
Soylent Green (1973)
Forget the ecological repercussions—just trying to find a decent roommate in a New York City swollen to 40 million inhabitants is disastrous enough. Charlton Heston’s crib mate just keeps blabbing about what a great place Earth used to be (the movie is set in 2022), when it still had real meat, butter and eggs. God, won’t the guy shut up? No wonder Heston is so preoccupied with a murder that leads him to the secret ingredient in the titular nutritious plankton cake which is pretty much the only affordable thing left to eat on the planet. He’ll do almost anything to get out of the house. (Andy Smetanka)
Plenty of earthly implications in David Lynch’s love-it-or-hate-it sci-fi epic, based on the series by Frank Herbert, about the interstellar struggle for possession of a planet poor in water but blessed with a relative abundance (compared to the rest of the universe) of psychedelic worm shit. The good news is that Earth doesn’t have many giant sandworms. The bad news is that once Coca-Cola or whoever owns all the clean water, non-stockholders will have to wear special suits to reclaim H2O from poop and pee. Or maybe that’s the good news. (Andy Smetanka)
The Handmaid’s Tale (1990)
Environmental pollution and toxic waste have significantly reduced fertility in women to a chosen few in this movie, based on the 1986 book of the same name by Margaret Atwood. The movie stars Natasha Richardson as one of a few fertile handmaids who is captured and sent to act as the surrogate mother for a childless, upper-class couple in the totalitarian state known as the Republic of Gilead, formerly the United States. The movie is a feminist’s nightmare, in which an extreme right-wing government bent on exercising a biblical standard of living controls women’s bodies and minds. Also starring Faye Dunaway and Robert Duvall. (Diego Bejarano)
On Deadly Ground (1994)
Five years after the Exxon Valdez spill, Steven Seagal takes out the trash—said trash being an unscrupulous oil company owner played by Michael Caine. Caine’s Alaskan oil refinery installs “faulty preventers” (it doesn’t really matter what that means) in order to establish a pipeline before land rights revert back to local Eskimos. As the oil tycoon cares only for profit and not for people or wildlife, Seagal embarks on a brutal voyage of stabbings, explosions, rope-whippings, etc. to show Caine the error of his ways. In some ways, this is a radical film, with Seagal blowing up the refinery for the cause; mass destruction for lofty principle has become taboo in American cinema post-9/11. You might consider Seagal among the most bad-ass “ecoterrorists” ever to grace the screen. However, one has to question the logic of an “environmentalist” willing to blow up a refinery—surely that would have as much deleterious impact as a spill.
The film ends with a curious PSA-style monologue from Seagal about how oil companies are holding cleaner technologies back because of greed. Unintentionally funny Seagal lines include: “I’m a mouse hiding from the hawks in the house of the raven,” and “What does it take to change the essence of a man?” Not a good film by any means, but it preaches an ecological message to a target audience that is definitely not “the choir.” (Mike Keefe-Feldman)
It was hardly a victory at sea for the producers of this shipwreck—a particularly wet-brained chapter in the ongoing odyssey of Kevin Costner’s apparently boundless ego. Though it eventually broke even in video rentals, this waterlogged movie turd—set in a turbulent Dark Age after the catastrophic melting of the polar ice caps—deserved every fathom of its descent to the bottom of the box office.
Shot off the coast of Hawaii, the film was plagued with stupid problems at every stage of its production. The cast and crew were stricken with sea-sickness, and to make matters worse, there were no restroom facilities for the 500-plus entourage on any of the nearly three dozen ships used on the production.
Accommodations on land—most crew members stayed in shoddy condos subject to temperature fluctuations of up to 50 degrees—couldn’t have done much to improve the sagging morale, especially with Costner himself staying in a posh $4,500-per-night oceanside villa with a retinue of cooks and personal servants. And that on top of his $14 million salary! (Andy Smetanka)
The Core (2003)
Big and dumb but kind of fun, The Core stars Aaron Eckhart and Oscar-winning Hilary Swank (man, what in the world went wrong with her career?) as members of a team of scientists sent to the core of the Earth to get it working again with nuclear weapons. Why did it stop working? Because some of the same scientists helped develop a “weapon for generating seismic events” that made it malfunction, switching off the planet’s protective magnetic mantle and laying it open to lethal solar radiation. Project Destiny (the earthquake weapon) seems informed by conspiratorial rumblings around the HAARP project (in short: meddling with the weather). Full of undigested (and indigestible) scientific jargon and humorously peppered by mispronunciations of the word “nuclear.” (Andy Smetanka)