I remember seeing a short film in elementary school—this would have been in the mid to late 70s—in which an elderly man tends a greenhouse in which he is carefully cultivating what may be some of the last plants on the planet. The air outside the greenhouse, the air in the "real world," is toxic—it is absolutely essential that the plants be kept in this controlled environment. And the key moment of the little film comes as a gang of idiot kids throw rocks at the greenhouse, breaking the glass and killing the plants, and the man is devastated.
Maybe I'm overly sensitive, but I was devastated by this, too, even as a little kid.
They liked to scare the crap out of us in school, us Generation Xers, which makes me suspect that school is where I also saw Soylent Green for the first time. Whether it was at school or not, though, I certainly digested the film at just the right age to have had it seared into my memory—watching the film again today, while I recognize that it's pretty preachy and hammily overacted by Charlton Heston, its imagery of a dying, overcrowded planet still scares the crap out of me.
Even though the realities of global climate change have become far more certain and far better understood than they were when I was that sensitive little kid, there's nothing in today's cinema that even approaches the horror of those two movies, one an educational short (I think) and the other a cheesy B flick.
Disaster movies have been a staple of the cinema since at least 1933's Deluge, the first disaster talkie, which depicted tidal waves devastating coastal California and New York City. That film's catastrophes were initiated by earthquakes, but disasters of nature (volcanic eruptions, asteroid strikes, and so on) and disasters caused by humans (plane crashes and towering infernos) first started coming together in futuristic nightmares of ecological collapse in the years immediately after the first Earth Day, in 1970. Oh sure, humanity's disdain for the power of nature is at the root of, for instance, the many movies throughout cinematic history about the Titanic sinking, as well as the slew of 1950s flicks about radiation-created monsters, but those disasters were localized. Logically enough, it was only in the wake of the sudden popular realization of the impact of humanity's activities upon the entire planet that we began to see films that suggested the planet as a whole was in major trouble.
And yet, considering the vast potential for calamity presented by overpopulation and global warming, surprisingly few films have been produced that address the issue directly—even in the 1970s, when public consciousness about the matter reached a fevered new height. The 1971 enviro-disaster film Silent Running, about a spacebound scheme to save the last of Earth's plantlife, posits a nuclear war, not a runaway greenhouse effect, as the reason for the death of the planet's ecosystem. A year later, though, it was human abuse of the environment that had led to the worldwide food shortages in the little-remembered (and justly so) film Deadly Harvest, about an American farmer defending his crops from starving hordes.
And the year after that comes the film that still represents the epitome of global human-induced cataclysm: Soylent Green. For all its problems on an artistic level, it remains a potent nightmare on many other levels. Visually, the sickly yellow tinge to the film, signifying a year-round, global heatwave, is oppressively effective. Thematically, there's real power in all that goes unspoken and taken for granted in this world of diminished expectations and extreme deprivation, until small moments reveal all: how a bit of stolen beef can reduce an elderly man—who remembers the good old days of abundance—to tears; the spectre of a sandy Gramercy Park hosting the tented "tree sanctuary" that shelters a few wan specimens. The image of Heston's cop vaulting over people sleeping on the staircases of his apartment building—and all that it implied about the suffering of so many—is one that stuck with me from childhood. The subtle pointedness of other aspects of the film only became clear to me upon adult re-viewings: as a little girl, what it meant for attractive women to trade their self-determination for the comforts of hot showers and $150 jars of strawberries and a life of concubinage was lost on me; as an adult woman, everything from the bald, blunt term for these women—"furniture"—to the thoughtless ease with which they give themselves over to the demands of men chills me to the bone.
But almost immediately after Soylent Green, the fears of global climate change became background, or metaphor, or both. The cheery dystopia of the goofy Logan's Run, from 1976, is the result of a campaign launched long before to deal with overpopulation. 1977's beautiful and eerie The Last Wave uses global-warming tropes of constant rain and an energy crisis as the backdrop for an allegorical exploration of cultural genocide between indigenous peoples and European descendents in modern Australia. In 1979's Mad Max and its 1981 sequel, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, oil shortages—a tangent to global warming—are the underlying cause of the social unrest in Max's world.
Worry about human-induced climate change all but disappears from film in the 1980s—perhaps as nuclear war enjoyed its last hurrah as a cultural bugaboo—before returning as mere backdrop and setting in the 1990s and into the early 2000s: Freejack, from 1992, is set in a near future in which pollution and the disappearing ozone layer have ruined human health, prompting the rich to reach back in time to the relatively clean late 20th century for robust bodies to harvest for organs. The not-as-bad-as-you-think (but not-as-good-as-it-should-be) Waterworld, from 1995, takes place on a far-ish future Earth flooded by the melting of the polar ice caps. In 2001's A.I, rising sea levels have submerged New York City.
Only two films of the last 15 years deal in any overt way with issues of climate change and how it will impact global civilization, and neither is terribly incisive. The Fire Next Time, an American TV miniseries from 1993, follows the travails of one family in 2017, when climate change sees Southern California aflame, oil at a shocking $60 a barrel, and a major hurricane devastating the Gulf Coast; one subplot explores the social upheaval that comes with massive waves of illegal immigrants pouring over the Mexican border in search of cooler climes. If audiences were shocked then by such a grim vision of the future, the scary thing today in this otherwise banal drama is how much sooner such economic and cultural disorder has come to pass, and how good we seem to be at ignoring it. Even the recent attempt to peddle global climate change as Hollywood disaster porn—in 2004's The Day After Tomorrow—doesn't seem to have moved American society to face these new fears for our future, if only in the theater, where we've confronted so many other terrors.
The Matrix, from 1999, might be the best example in recent years of how we have, perhaps, come to accept dramatic climate change over the whole planet as a given, something to be taken for granted, and perhaps something we can do nothing about. The idea that humans might deliberately blot out the sun to starve the enemy machines of energy, as we learn has happened in the early days of The Matrix's human/machine war, is a unique one, yet it is not treated as impossible or unexpected; of course humans could and would do such a thing. And the Soylent Green-esque concept of the dead being fed to the living is dispatched in just one line of dialogue, an homage to the older film but also indication of just how accustomed to such ideas the audience had become. Does it even horrify us anymore? I wonder...
It's ironic that in the same week in which Time magazine headlines its global warming cover story with a big dramatic "Be Worried. Be Very Worried" (April 3, 2006), the animated kiddie flick Ice Age 2: The Meltdown is released, and to huge and enthusiastic audiences, no less. From a newfound near panic—or at least serious awareness—of human-caused global climate change to the concept of disappearing glaciers as a vehicle for cartoon slapstick, the best it seems we can hope for is that Western society is meeting a tremendous threat with a kind of schizophrenia. Whether we begin to see an upsurge in movies specifically about how global civilization will meet this challenge may well indicate how ready we are to do so.