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10 Environmental Films That Will Get You Thinking, Big Time

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By Jody McCutcheon

We watch movies in part to escape life’s myriad problems. Ironically, the films we watch often chronicle life’s myriad problems. Some of our most powerful fears address environmental destruction, so naturally we all appreciate a good eco-themed film now and then. As the weather we’re enduring grows more extreme, and with a relative dearth of legit eco-films being released this summer, now is a perfect time for a “Top 10 Eco Films” countdown. Whether your taste is documentary, fiction or animation, this list of great environmental films offers something for everyone.

10. Silent Running (1972)

“What’s gonna happen if these forests and all this incredible beauty is lost for all time?” asks Bruce Dern’s protagonist, Freeman Lowell, in Silent Running. Made when the environmental movement was just finding its legs, the story concerns a small colony of ships floating through space, carrying bio-domes filled with the last vestiges of Earth’s natural ecosystem. The scariest thing about the film isn’t imagining a world without green forests or clean water or healthy ecosystems. No, the scariest thing is the indifference that greets Lowell’s aforementioned question. His colleagues appear totally non-plussed by the ecological apocalypse gripping the Earth. How does one fight a problem when no one acknowledges it?

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9. 9 (2009)

Produced in part by Tim Burton, this computer-animated journey by not-quite-human life forms across a blighted, recycler’s dream of a landscape deserves mention here for its striking visuals and big heart. A Terminator-esque plot–the film’s soft point–tells the tale of technology, fed up with its subordination to humans, staging a mutiny whose final, apocalyptic stage is the release of toxic gas that destroys all organic matter in its drifting path. The scientist responsible for the devastating technology alchemically transfers the various compartments  of his soul into nine burlap-bodied “stitchpunks,” who end up becoming nature’s salvation. 9 is a film which believes that humanity wields the power to not only destroy the cycle of life, but also resurrect it.

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8. Erin Brockovich (2000)

This Academy-award-winning, Steven Soderbergh-directed docudrama chronicles one woman’s relentless crusade against corporate pollution. Julia Roberts plays the eponymous paralegal who engages corporate giant Pacific Gas & Electric on behalf of a community poisoned by a chromium 6 leakage. At the time, PG&E’s $333 million settlement payment was the largest ever paid out in a direct action lawsuit in US history. As a critically favored, box-office success, the film reached a vast audience–meaning scores of people heard the film’s crucial message that, in the eyes of the law, corporate pollution will not be tolerated.

Erin-Brockovich

7. An Inconvenient Truth (2006)

This Davis Guggenheim-directed Academy-award-winning documentary is a celluloid version of the slideshow presentation former US Vice President Al Gore has given countless times in his ongoing campaign to educate people on the issues of global warming and climate change. The film has been a great success in this regard, raising public awareness more than any scientific paper ever could, and arming the environmental movement with fresh ammunition. Global warming and climate change may indeed present serious threats to planetary health, and one very inconvenient truth is that what the film predicted over 7 years ago is now coming true, faster than expected.

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6. Soylent Green (1973)

Richard Fleischer’s seamless crossover between science fiction and hardboiled detective thriller sees a murder mystery playing out in a near-future world of mass pollution, global warming, dying oceans, overpopulation and massive wealth divides–in short, just another shadow of ecological neglect looming large over the state of human health and welfare. The envisioned technology of 2022 is laughable, certainly not enough to save the ravaged environment. One of two Charlton Heston vehicles included here, Soylent Green makes perhaps the most odious statement of the films on this list: When the rest of the planet’s food supply is ruined, we will turn to ourselves for sustenance.

Soylent Green stair grab

5. Logan’s Run (1976)

This list wouldn’t be complete without the inclusion of a film depicting life under a dome, that old symbol of protection from a poisoned environment. Loosely based on the 1967 novel, the film adaptation of Logan’s Run presents a domed, technologically dependent society of hedonists in the year 2274, whose daily needs and responsibilities–food, reproduction, death–are regulated by computers, freeing the people up to engage in regular orgies and other pleasurable recreations. In order to balance resources and population, everyone is expected to die on their thirtieth birthday, with a promise of “renewal,” which of course is hooey.

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4. The Day After Tomorrow  (1983)

This is the film that Al Gore predicted will become a global reality if carbon emissions aren’t curbed, fast.  A Paleoclimatologist named Jack Hall is working in Antarctica and  discovers that a huge ice sheet has suddenly broken off, which will in turn trigger a massive climate shift that will affect the entire world. Meanwhile, his son Sam is in New York and notices that it has been raining non-stop for the past 3 weeks. A series of weather-related disasters begin to occur over the world, and finally, the penny drops–everybody realises the world is entering a new Ice Age. In a panic, the world population begins moving to the warmer climates of the south. Possibly something you may want to do soon too, given the long, freezing winters already hitting the northern hemisphere….

Jake-Gyllenhaal-in-The-Day-After-Tomorrow-2004-Movie-Image

3. Planet Of The Apes (1968)

This Oscar-winning classic is the second Charlton Heston film to grace this list, making the crusty, ex-NRA president the default top lead man of eco-themed films–at least those mentioned here. (Anyone looking to contend the title would have to pry it from his cold, dead hands.) Human cosmonauts crashland on what turns out to be a fortieth-century Earth desertified by nuclear catastrophe and dominated by apes. According to Ape Scriptures, humans left alone to breed in great numbers will turn fertile lands into deserts. This apparently leads to devaluation of the human species, to the point that they’re wildlife in the eyes of apes. How low can we go?

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2. WALL-E (2008)

An animated film that’s much more, this instant classic packs a WALL-op. Against a backdrop of catastrophic human mismanagement of the planet, WALL-E is a trash-collecting robot that rummages through a garbage-heaped landscape in the year 2805. Technologically dependent humans live on starliners in a state of relatively inert, morbid obesity, totally disconnected from nature and the environment. Pretty dark for a Disney production, perhaps, but the film sends a powerful message about our species’ effects on the planet via waste management and environmental neglect. A lack of dialogue eliminates language barriers, giving the film global appeal.

WALL-E

…and at Number 1– The Road Warrior (1981)

George Miller’s Mad Max trilogy (or Mel Gibson’s, if you’d prefer) isn’t a direct commentary on environmental issues, yet it argues that civilisation has become addicted to fossil fuels. The middle instalment provides a skeletal history of the mythology’s dystopian backdrop: the world has run out of oil, causing a breakdown in social order and corresponding return to a savage, survival-of-the-fittest state, an asocial rural sprawl of food- and fuel-scavengers. While terrific road chases and shocking violence offer cinematic spectacle for the action crowd, The Road Warrior’s futuristic vision of a junkyard landscape with no hint of green is now the standard-bearer for post-apocalyptic sci-fi (see 9, WALL-E, etc.).

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