As part of my exploration into the role of popular films in the environmental movement, I had to go back to the beginning -- 1973 -- when one could argue the environmental film was born. In that year, two groundbreaking films were in production -- Chinatown and Soylent Green.
Both are widely known as two of the best films of all time and because of this fact they are rarely discussed in the context of the environmental movement. But I feel that it's important to revisit them as they shed light on a subject that all too often devolves into a tedious scholastic presentation of facts and figures.
The "environmental film" as we know it today is in most every instance a documentary -- Inconvenient Truth, 11th Hour, Who Killed the Electric Car, Food, Inc., Crude, The Cove. All excellent films. All important films.
But there is something about fiction that gets under your skin in a way that a documentary never can. These films reach a more primal part of the brain and though neither of them are ABOUT the environment per se — they are both murder mysteries — they clearly present the deadly aftermath when nefarious forces exploit the precious resources that make life on earth possible.
These films are also dark. REALLY dark. And after a decade of having fluffy green lifestyle shoved up our noses like some sort of eco-fabulous crack, it's high time we take a cue from these great cinematic masterpieces. It's OK to tell the ugly truth and sometimes the best way to make your point is to NOT make your point, but instead rely on the dramatic tension of a story well-told.
I highly recommend Netflixing Chinatown and Soylent Green, which I think were a formative part of the '70s environmental zeitgeist. Remember this was the decade that brought us Earth Day, the EPA, solar panels, Save the Whales, and a crying Indian who almost single-handedly stopped roadside dumping. Environmentalism was alive and kicking back then, and maybe it had something to do with these two films. Here's a quick summary of each:
Chinatown was the first in a planned trilogy written for the screen by the legendary screenwriter Robert Towne whose script won the Academy Award and is widely considered "the perfect screenplay." The story is based on the water disputes in Southern California in the teens, and the dirty politics which deprived farmers of water while securing a future supply for the City of Angels. The sequel The Two Jakes, which looked into the dirty politics of oil in California, was made but wasn't a hit. And a third, on the California land grab, was never made.
The film was directed by Roman Polanski and is credited with firmly establishing Jack Nicholson in the A-list pantheon.
A sci-fi thriller sent in 2022, this movie paints the bleak reality of a planet completely overpopulated and far beyond its capacity to feed its teaming masses. Fruits and vegetables are only wistful memories, and New York City is in a constant state of chaos as people fight for rations of the nutrition wafers manufactured by the Soylent corporation. A detective is on the run as government officials attempt to keep him from disclosing the secret ingredient of a new "Green" wafer... yes, humans! Starring Charlton Heston.