copyright 2010, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 52, summer 2010

Film and ecology

by Stephen Rust

Robin L. Murray and Joseph K. Heumann, Ecology and Popular Film: Cinema on the
Edge. New York: SUNY Press, 2009. ISBN # 9780791476789.

In 2007 the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group comprised of thousands of scientists and politicians, reached a consensus:

“anthropogenic warming of the earth’s atmosphere is unequivocal.”[1]
[open endnotes in new window]

Across the socio-cultural spectrum a slow but perceptible shift in the cultural logic of ecology is underway in response to climate change—an environmental meta-risk already impacting everything from energy and water to war and migration. Global society today is characterized by what British sociologist Anthony Giddens terms “Giddens’ Paradox.” In his 2009 book, The Politics of Climate Change, Giddens explains that

“since the dangers posed by global warming aren’t tangible or visible in the course of day-to-day life … many will sit on their hands and do nothing of a concrete nature about them.”[2]

Ironically, as our awareness of the situation facing the planet has deepened over the past decade, so have our environmental problems. Hybrid car sales are up, recycling is hip, and the television networks have increased “green” programming to exploit audience awareness of environmental issues. Yet while millions in the Maldives, Bangladesh, and Alaska have already begun moving to higher ground more carbon dioxide is released each day into the atmosphere than at any point in our history. Formally situated to offer audiences a space to both escape from and engage such complex socio-ecological issues as climate change, popular films, argue Robin L. Murray and Joseph K. Heumann, serve as “indicators of real changes worldview.” Demanding the critical attention of media scholars interested in understanding the relationship between film and culture, ecocriticism has become important than ever. A timely and significant contribution to the growing field of ecomedia studies, Ecology and Popular Film: Cinema on the Edge explores the explicit and subtle portrayals of socio-ecological issues at play in a wide range of popular films.

The success of Roland Emmerich’s disaster film The Day After Tomorrow (2004) and Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth (2006) has resulted in a tidal wave of cinematic responses drawing on audiences’ increasing awareness of the convergence of global warming and globalization. In August 2009 alone, for example, no fewer than twelve environmental documentaries (Food Inc., The Age of Stupid, The Cove, etc.) were playing theatrically and in December James Cameron’s Avatar re-imagined the 3-D blockbuster. In the introductory chapter of Ecology and Popular Cinema, however, Murray and Heumann argue that eco-films and the film industry producing them are permeated by a tendency to disregard ecological aspects of the urban worlds in which most of us live and a failure to interrogate the ecological impacts of products “essential” to everyday life, from concrete to electricity. While some individuals in Hollywood have worked to promote sustainability (e.g. Al Gore’s carbon offsets and “greening” of the 2007 Oscars), such efforts mask the fact that the motion picture industry remains “responsible for a significant amount of both air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions,” according to a 2006 UCLA Institute of the Environment study. Labeling a popular film “environmental” because it overtly represents environmental ideologies often masks problematic issues at play in a text that can undermine the intended message. Ecology and Popular Film explores the ecological tensions between text and subtext through eleven chapters organized around close readings of a diverse collection of individual films that signify changes in the U.S. cultural context and its ambivalence attitude toward environmental concerns.

In their introduction, Murray and Heumann develop a methodology of film eco-cinecriticism capable of illuminating the “ecological themes underpinning more obvious surface readings,” by situating themselves within Lawrence Buell’s definition of second-wave eco-criticism, which began in the mid-1990s when the concerns of ethnicity, gender, and postmodernism brought about a shift the focus of environmental literary criticism from analyses of traditional nature writing toward a broader focus on more diverse representations of the interweaving of nature and culture. Informed by debates within eco-criticism, the authors align themselves with Patrick Murray, who defines environment not only in its material sense, but as “as a fundamental feature of the ideological horizons of literary works.” This poststructuralist move serves two purposes. First, it provides firm theoretical grounding for reading a film’s ecological imagery and themes as historically situated rather than universal and “natural.”

Second, it explains the benefit of building on the work of David Ingram, whose 2000 book Green Screen: Environmentalism in Hollywood Cinema, remains the seminal text of eco-cinecriticism. Although their discussion of Ingram needs fleshing out (especially his discussion of melodrama), Murray and Heumann zero in on his term “film vert,” which describes films that offer overt representations of environmental ideologies. Examining ecological concerns, they argue, requires more teasing out to get below the surface—a reminder that “environment” and “ecology” are not perfectly synonymous.

Choosing The Day After Tomorrow as a test case, Murray and Heumann contend that film’s depiction of global warming science is so hyperbolized and narrative so filled with plot holes that it becomes laughable rather than informative. Challenging those who see the film as a stirring representation of humanity’s impact on the environment and the conflict between science and politics, they argue that the film invalidates its own assertions “because they rest on irrational emotional arguments rather than rational and logical evidence.” Unfortunately, because I would love to read their take on it, the authors do not reference Yale’s Anthony Lesierowitz’s, a risk perception analyst and director of the school’s Climate Change Center, who in a 2004 article in the journal Science concludes that a global audience research survey demonstrates that particularly in the United States the film

“had a significant impact on the climate change risk perceptions, conceptual models, behavioral intentions, and even voting intentions of moviegoers.”[3]

Murray and Heumann’s most important contribution to the development of ecomedia studies comes when they move past their surface reading of The Day After Tomorrow in order to situate it within a tradition of eco-film that begins with Soylent Green (1973), the first film to exploit global warming as a plot device. Adapting Joseph Meeker’s definition of the literary eco-hero, Murray and Heumann explain that ecological and eco-comic disaster films from the 1970s forward are driven by two different kinds of heroes: tragic pioneers and comic community builders. The Day After Tomorrow, however, develops a new type of eco-hero in its white male protagonist Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid), in whom the qualities of the tragic pioneer and comic community builder intertwine. Like Theo in Children of Men (2006), Jack makes an epic journey not to save the world, but to save only those who mean the most to him as an individual.

Chapter 1 examines the tension between ecology and spectacle on display in oil-themed films from the Lumière’s 1896 Oil Wells of Baku: Close View to the 1968 John Wayne vehicle Hellfighters. Framing environmental disaster as cinematic spectacle, such films both articulate and obscure eco-disaster. Chapter 2 reads films bound up with the environmental politics of the New Deal Tennessee Valley Authority, Pare Lorentz’s The River (1936) and Elie Kazan’s The Wild River (1960), to explain how documentary and feature film similarly employ affective imagery and audio to valorize government-sponsored dam projects as the most environmentally effective solution to the management of the Mississippi.

Chapters 3 and 4 consider the ecology of “home” and the representation of urban places and spaces in Mark Singer’s haunted yet hopeful documentary of New York homeless living in abandoned subway tunnels, Dark Days (2000), and Alex Proyas’s neo-noir Dark City (1998). In both films the motifs of darkness and home suggest to the authors

“that the best way to solve environmental problems, both rural and urban, is to construct narratives that intertwine humans with each other and their environments.”

Chapters 5 and 6 trace the development of the eco-hero described in the introduction. Soylent Green (1973), “a blatantly environmental films whose rhetoric rests on nostalgia,” introduces the trope of the tragic pioneer, a hero who sacrifices himself in the quest to save humanity. Eight-Legged Freaks (2002) presents an opportunity to explore “how images of the eco-hero have changed as our cultural context has evolved to allow us to laugh” at satire of serious eco-drama while still portraying such environmental concerns as the dumping of toxic waste.

Chapters 7 looks at Clint Eastwood’s lone environmental Western, Pale Rider (1983) discussing the effectiveness of eco-terrorism as means of combating corporate exploitation of natural resources. Chapter 8 examines the impact of the automobile on culture through a reading of the Fast and the Furious films (2001, 2003), which highlight the ongoing ecological transformation of urban landscapes long since “de-naturalized” by modernity.

Chapter 9 returns to one of the key claims made in the introduction, that film’s environmental themes are often at odds with their production processes. Portraying the impact of stunt work on the human body, the 1978 Burt Reynolds vehicle Hooper illustrates

“how both human lives and ecology are seen as expendable in this filmic world, as long as movies make enough money.”

Chapter 10 contrasts the role of the eco-hero in the zombie apocalypse film, 28 Days Later (2002) and its sequel 28 Weeks Later (2007). Evolutionary narratives of human survival in the face of apocalypse, both films ultimately argue that human survival rests ultimately on humanity accommodating itself to nature rather than seeking to control it.

The tension between the global and the individual comes full circle in the book’s concluding chapter on An Inconvenient Truth, which argues that

“like eco-disaster films from the 1970s, Gore’s film argues most powerfully when it draws on environmental nostalgia . . . [for a] pure, untouched, and unpolluted past.”

Not only does the film draw on such universal eco-memories as the photos of Earth shot from space during the Apollo missions, Gore’s personal nostalgia is also aligned with environmental messages. He reflects on his suffering over the loss of the 2000 presidential election and feels renewed by a trip to the Caney Fork River, claims that his son’s automobile accident inspired him to begin writing Earth in Balance (1992), and while visiting his family farm recalls when his mother read him Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Murray and Heumann explain how the film succeeds through its integration of personal and universal nostalgia, arguing that

“the scientific slide show on display coordinates with the personal experiences Gore reveals . . . to skillfully frame global warming as a problem we share but can solve together.”

In other words, Gore is an eco-hero who offers audiences a powerful point of identification through which to link their concepts of the individual and the global.

Recognizing that each of these diverse films remains problematic at the textual level, Murray and Heumann conclude that as a group they

“may inspire ecological action because they reveal much about the current state of environmental politics.”

Similarly, it is this reviewer’s belief that Ecology and Popular Film will inspire literary and media eco-critics to continue a conversation sure to shape the future of both fields.


1. See, for example, Jeffrey Kluger. “What Now for Our Feverish Planet?” Time (April 7, 2009). [return to text]

2. Anthony Giddens. The Politics of Climate Change. London: Polity, 2009.

3. Leiserowitz, Anthony A. “Before and After The Day After Tomorrow: A U.S. Study of Climate Change Risk Perception.” Environment. 46/9 (Nov. 2004).

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