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Cinema and the environment: spectacle of disaster

This article is over 14 years, 6 months old
Film representations of environmental disasters may fascinate audiences, but they gloss over class issues, writes Esther Leslie
Issue 2059
(Pic: » Tim Sanders)

Ecological catastrophe looms large on the contemporary horizon. Media commentators speculate about “extreme weather”, while melting glaciers, extinction of species through loss of habitat, rising sea levels and tsunamis are events familiar to us from news broadcasts and documentaries.

Irreversible changes appear to be in process and we live with the threat of much bigger changes, if we humans continue to live as we do.

It would be hard to claim ignorance of the existence and effects of global warming. Even if we do not seem to experience it directly in our own lives, there are barrages of images that play out all the possible scenarios.

Disaster films such as The Day After Tomorrow turn the devastating effects of global catastrophe into entertainment spectacle and have done extremely good business at the box office.

These films are a response to genuine concerns about the environment, concerns which are articulated in another very successful film, Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth.

Gore argues for renewable energy and carbon neutrality in order to “avert a major catastrophe that could send our entire planet into a tailspin of epic destruction involving extreme weather, floods, droughts, epidemics and killer heat waves beyond anything we have ever experienced”.

Indeed the climate change message has so permeated the social and political imagination that even Happy Feet, a mawkish tale about dancing penguins, takes the opportunity to convey a message about the dangers for Antarctica of over-fishing and global warming.

Hollywood films have long favoured “save the world” scenarios. In earlier times superheroes such as Spider-Man or the X-Men might be dispatched to rescue the planet, usually from the onslaughts of rogues who, like themselves, benefited from technological enhancement or scientific accident.

But superheroes are not called on to save the planet from these latest threats and salvation is not the theme o fthese movies. Rather it is the spectacle of absolute devastation that captures audiences’ imaginations.

The pleasure of the films lies in their rendering of the drama of catastrophe – New York under water, immense tsunamis wiping out California, the frozen wastes of Texas.

This is a new wave of disaster movies, a genre popular in the 1970s, but this time the disaster film’s concern with the mini-narratives of an all star cast in peril are downgraded in favour of a focus on the physical impact of the catastrophe.

Eco-crisis films, whether ostensibly live-action or animated, are all thoroughly permeated by new film technologies, notably Computer Generated Imagery (CGI), for which the ultimate test of its capacities is the convincing depiction of rapidly moving water and other elemental effects.

The films use the most advanced CGI to render turbulent, unstoppable floods as well as the vision of the whole Northern hemisphere immobilised under a sheet of ice, marauding tornadoes and acres of desertification.

The eco-disaster scenario allows these new technologies to show off their abilities in a heightened realism (which does not mean it depicts reality, for this is most probably “bad science”), delighting audiences as it terrifies them.

While cinema might be a place where warning bells are sounded, it is not currently the place where genuine solutions can be found.

Instead films, like governments, prefer to make climate change a moral issue, spreading the blame universally across the world. They are also spreading the consequences – perhaps the most unrealistic scene in The Day After Tomorrow is the spectacle of Britain’s royal family freezing to death in Balmoral.

If one thing is sure, it is that it is the poorest people in the world who suffer the worst effects of eco-crisis and the rich who find ways to protect themselves, including ways that will entrench the problems.

And what fails to find blockbuster representation are the environmental catastrophes, such as Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, whose destructivity is clearly amplified by economic inequity.

This is no surprise, given that the mode of film production itself is wedded to capitalism and the search for profits.

The solutions proposed by governments and think-thinks to offset eco-crisis are for the most part dull and do not lend themselves to on-screen representation – Al Gore’s documentary excepted.

Capitalist corporations have been quick to find ways in which consumers can be morally guilt-tripped into spending more to consume less, as they are persuaded into uncoordinated and individual salvation through organic food, sustainable building materials or non-sweated clothing.

This is the dull stuff that is meant to save the world, little by little. It would seem that our imaginations are invigorated by the large-scale elsewhere as we watch the apocalyptic doomsday scenarios play out.

Were we to break from our alienated separation – one small manifestation of which may be this fixation by screen fantasies – we could, in our real lives, bring about the ultimate change, not in the realm of climate, but a revolution in social and economic reality. This is our only chance to realign the relations between humans and the nature of which they form a part.

Esther Leslie is professor of political aesthetics at Birkbeck College, London

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