Fiction films from the 1970s present fantastical, apocalyptic scenarios that make the consequences of exponential population growth and increasing demand for raw materials and consumer goods tangible. In Soylent Green (Richard Fleischer, 1973) set in New York in 2022 the population has exploded and it is unpleasantly humid and hot. Sweaty, homeless and hungry the film’s characters demonstrate that little remains of civilisation when people have to fight for the scarce food, soylent green. In 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002) a pandemic turns people into angry, zombie-like monsters inside 20 seconds. The remaining survivors subsist on cola and Mars bars.
Who owns the future?
Paralleling the responses to Limits to Growth, the Club of Rome’s remarkable environmental report from 1972, cinema history presents countless scenarios for the planet’s future as a complex, cohesive ecosystem that is robust, yet vulnerable. 50 years after the report’s publication, Cinema Ecologica takes stock: how were visions of our planet’s future portrayed during the preceding half century?
By Patricia Pisters19 May 2022
As philosopher Lisa Doeland states in an interview for Cinema Ecologica, the often rapid and total destruction of the world in many apocalyptic stories obscures the actually very gradual and historical destruction of species and lifeforms, which means humanity fails to recognise their passing. In that sense these are warnings. On the other hand, these doom-laden scenarios also spread the message that there is no solution to exponentially growing capitalist societies: if they end, so does everything else; immediately.
Other post-apocalyptic films present comparable visions of the inevitable end even though there seems to be some hope in resistance. Often the desecration of nature goes hand in hand with totalitarian forms of government. The wondrous French animation La planète sauvage (René Laloux, 1973) reduces humanity to the playthings of a race of giant aliens. The former manage to re-establish a living environment for themselves through resistance and cooperation. Kenyan science fiction film Pumzi (2009) from director Wanuri Kahiu, described as a ‘story about a girl in the future’, depicts a dystopian world on the African continent, 35 years after World War III. Living outside the underground, tightly controlled, high-tech city is forbidden, dreams are suppressed with medication and nature only exists at a virtual museum. The main character, who rebels, goes outside and plants a tree in the desert, thereby making it seem like not all hope is lost.
In Pixar’s animation Wall-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008), a single plant on an inhospitable world symbolises hope.
Snow Piercer (Bong Joon Ho, 2013) and Mad Max Fury Road (George Miller, 2015) are two other, remarkably energetic, exuberant films in which the worst predictions from the Club of Rome’s report have become a reality. In Snow Piercer, a technological solution to the climate crisis has caused a new ice age and the last surviving humans live aboard a train that endlessly circles the globe. Strict segregation is enforced between the poor, who live in terrible conditions at the rear of the train and the decadent elite amusing themselves at the front. It is impossible to not view the revolt that breaks out at the rear of the train as an allegorical commentary on the increasing global inequality. In the post-apocalyptic world of Mad Max Fury Road everything is also constantly on the move, driven by a chase scene across the desert set to Junkie XL’s music. The women’s rebellion against the tyrannical leader indicates the tempo and the necessity of revolt and change.
Alongside pessimism (“it’s too late already!” like Soylent Green) and activism (rebellion and revolt to arrive at new structures in post-apocalyptic stories), there are also films that demonstrate that we need to care for the earth much better in cooperation and co-creation with nature. In Silent Running (Douglas Trumbull, 1972) the last plants and trees are cared for by an astronaut and a few robots in a biosphere linked to a space station. The fantastic script was made a reality in the 1990s as depicted in the fascinating documentary Spaceship Earth (Matt Wolf, 2020) in which the ideals of the 1970s – i.e. seeking a better balance between nature, humanity and technology – become a scientific experiment. For two years during the 1990s, eight ‘biospherians’ were locked into Biosphere 2, a large atmospheric complex which includes every aspect of nature (a sort of Noah’s ark including an ocean, a savannah, all sorts of trees, plants and animals). The objective was to see what the requirements are to maintain atmospheric equilibrium as well as the other conditions that support life. The project failed because high concentrations of CO2 had to be pumped out and extra oxygen in. Yet it is precisely this failure that makes us contemplate the fate of our planet, Biosphere 1, the atmosphere of which is much harder to regulate artificially.
Co-creation with nature is also what experimental filmmaker Karel Doing’s ‘phytography’ technology allows him to do; literally filming the chemical processes occurring in plants. His latest film In Vivo poetically portrays nature, humanity and the elements, whereby the counting down and crossing off of the names of species simultaneously contains an ominous message. Finally, Janis Rafa’s films show the world from a non-human perspective: in Three Farewells and other short films, audiences can see the world from a dog’s perspective. Humanity has permanently abandoned its dominant position.
From warnings and calls for resistance to presenting new perspectives in co-creation with nature and observing the world from a non-human perspective, these are all responses to the notorious, 1972 environmental report that remains as current and urgent as it was 50 years ago.
Much in life is uncertain, but one thing is sure: climate change. Cinema Ecologica focuses on how film directors depict the relationship between humanity and the earth: from nail-biting disaster films to artistic meditations, from romantic nature experiences to astounding science fiction.