Box-Office Films You Didn't Know Were About Environmentalism

By Garry Westmore 

Though there’s a plethora of incredible documentaries about environmentalism, rarely do eco-conscious fiction films come along. And when they do, their messages are often guised in some way: in their promotion or marketing, or the content of their narratives. You've seen these films before; gawked at their bleak post-apocalyptic landscapes on the big screen, your mouth stuffed with popcorn. These are the box-office films that toe the environmental line.

Avatar

One of cinema’s highest grossing films, Avatar broke ground in the near-forgotten world of 3D film, and made leaps and bounds with CGI and motion capture technology. In terms of story though, Avatar is an old hat. It’s a futuristic riff on the story of Pocahontas. It treads similar ground to films such as Dances With Wolves and The Last Samurai – that of the white westerner (or earthling, in the case of Avatar) who finds himself living among native peoples, and turning against his own people to help defend them. There’s just a lot more transmission of consciousness into giant blue bio-avatars and alien dragon riding in Avatar. 

Although it’s a familiar story, director James Cameron retells it in spectacular fashion and with obvious parallels to the treatment of our own planet and a shameful history of industrialised or imperialist nations praying on more ecologically mindful indigenous cultures. In Avatar, Cameron warns against ruthless capitalism in the form of a mining company plundering a distant planet, and the dangers of coupling callous profiteering with a military-industrial complex, as in the film’s climax, the home-tree of the Na’vi is blown to pieces because of the profitable resources beneath it.

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

It’s no wonder hippies in the sixties took to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy – as well as its anti-fascist sentiment, it begins and ends in the humble town of Hobbiton, where little Halflings hang around smoking pipes. Anyone who has read or seen Peter Jackson’s LOTR trilogy will know just how idyllic the Shire is and how much effort went into the physical building of the Hobbiton set - with Hobbit homes built into the landscape amid undulating hills of green grass.  

Throughout the trilogy as Frodo and Sam attempt to take the ‘one-ring’ and destroy it in the fires of Mount Doom in the not-so-picturesque land of Mordor, they make constant reference to wanting to return to the Shire. However, along the way it becomes obvious that there will be no Shire unless they complete their task. When we realise the White Wizard Saruman has been enlisted by the Dark Lord Sauron, Jackson ensures we’re horrified by Saruman’s destruction of Isengard’s gardens; levelling trees and mining the grounds to help build an army. Saruman’s logging of the nearby Fangorn Forest too comes back to haunt him when the forest’s inhabitants, the Ents (living trees of sorts) later seeking revenge.

Jackson picks up on and enhances Tolkien’s association of evil with blighted landscapes. The Kiwi director links the industrial nature of war mongering with the destruction of nature itself. 

Places like The Shire and Rivendell – picturesque locations where human habitation and nature exist in harmony – are held up high, with viewers invited to look favourably upon such equilibrium. Whilst evil and darkness are associated with a scorched earth and foreboding, polluted skies. 

Wall-E

Before watching Wall-E, you could be excused for believing it’s just about a lonely but cute-as robot. But the Pixar animation is so much more; it wears its concerns on its sleeves. The first fifteen or so minutes of Wall-E are almost entirely without dialogue, as the little worker bot zooms among the rubble of a deserted, dust-filled city, collecting garbage and turning it into compact blocks in an attempt to clean up. It seems like a futile act from the looks of the towers of garbage blocks Wall-E has already built though. That is until he finds the slightest hint of life in the form of a tiny green sprout.

The Pixar team make some interesting choices from here on in. Wall-E’s one new ‘friend’ is a cockroach, a creature usually despised by most but presented here as a cute survivor in a largely lifeless world. Wall-E ends up going off-planet, and there finds out what has happened to mankind: they’re all living on the permanent spaceship equivalent of a P&O Cruise; and have become so dependent on technology that they’re all overweight, disconnected from one another, and do very little. The story ends up being about getting mankind back to earth to restore the order of mankind. Though the film is highly optimistic in its perception that once the world has been destroyed, there will still be hope to restore it, the message is still clear that it’s far from ideal that mankind brings the planet to such a point in the first place.

Mad-Max: Fury Road

With all its action and over-the-top super-charged vehicles, it can be hard to recognise any of George Miller’s Mad Max instalments as environmentalist films. After all, so much of the films promotion and coverage focussed on the vehicles (take this dedicated Vehicle Showcase website, for example), and in a post-apocalyptic future, Miller presents a world where fossil fuels and the machines they keep running are still very much coveted.

But Mad-Max: Fury Road doesn’t celebrate this attitude so much as it presents it as absurd. We’re invited to scoff at these excessive machines and those that pilot them. It’s hard not to laugh when Miller unleashes vehicles like The Doof Wagon – a truck covered in guitar amps and helmed by a chained up guitarist busting out metal rock riffs on a fire-shooting guitar.

For all the discussion around the film’s unexpected heroine and feminist leanings, it’s easy to miss that Fury Road has an environmental message, too. Amid all the car chases and explosions, Furiosa is actually seeking out her homeland, a promised land she remembers as the ‘green place’. Meanwhile, back at The Citadel she just escaped, the film’s bad guy Immortan Joe lives high above his hapless citizens in a mountain fortress equipped with an aquifer plant, from where he also controls the one resource even more precious than diesel fuel: water.

Fury Road hints that the preservation of environment is essential in preventing world catastrophe. But perhaps more clearly, it conveys that when all is said and done water and greenery will be more important than anything else. And sadly, those precious commodities may too be taken control of by power-hungry individuals and groups, if and when our planet reaches such dire straits. Bleak. 

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Garry Westmore is a Melbourne-based writer, educator, screenwriter and editor.