Fresh out of college in the mid-1980s, I predicted a trend that nowadays seems too obvious. AIDS, I told my friends, would spawn a new body of popular literature and movies. Wow, wouldn’t that be weird? This strange, horrible disease that nobody had heard of until a couple of years ago spawning meaningful human drama?

Now, after Tonys, Oscars and Pulitzers for Rent, Philadelphia and Angels in America, my crystal ball looks a bit like a plain old window. In retrospect, it’s obvious that the merciless AIDS epidemic and the human tragedies it’s created would become a fulcrum for meditations on morality, mortality and fate, as well as the fodder for simple heartbreaking drama.

But what about climate change? And for that matter what about all environmental issues? Yes, there have been some great documentaries on some environmental subjects (An Inconvenient Truth, Koyaanisqatsi and the second Yes Men movie). And a handful of decent Hollywood releases either revolved directly around environmental issues (Erin Brockovich) or touched upon them (Chinatown).

More often than not though, calling something an “eco-thriller” means it’s a bad action movie. And while AIDS brings out the best from artists capable of evoking human drama, the environment seems to highlight the qualities of schmaltz, pablum and embarrassing sentimentality.

Why is that? Please, tell me if you can figure it out. Meanwhile, let’s all take a moment to recognize how bad environmental movies can be.


5. Silver City, 2004

Indie director John Sayles has paired up with Chris Cooper in some great films, including Lone Star and Matewan. They should have stopped there. Silver City attempts to wind a satirical political mystery around Cooper’s laconic charm and an impressive ensemble cast. The result is a convoluted plot about resource exploitation, along with implausible characters, god-awful dialogue and a overly earnest send-up to George W. Bush. What’s wry is missed by most viewers; what’s direct is ham-handed.

If you want to see Sayles at his best in tangling together politics, society and the environment check out his 2002 movie Sunshine State, which foreshadows Florida’s real estate crash. If you want to see the worst John Sayles movie ever, watch the Clan of the Cave Bear (he actually just wrote that one), but Silver City comes close.

4. The Day After Tomorrow, 2004

Oh, I get it. Hollywood throws millions upon millions at Roland Emmerich because he makes comedies and doesn’t even know it. Emmerich left us rolling in the aisles over Independence Day. His upcoming blockbuster -- The End, which is about surviving Armageddon -- ought to be another really unintentional knee slapper, not to mention a rather profane one.

For anyone who’s paid attention to the scientific debate over climate change, The Day After Tomorrow is a bit more painful. Dennis Quaid is a courageous, athletic, good-looking scientist -- just as unafraid to leap over a crevasse on an Antarctic ice shelf as he is to hurl witty putdowns at a Cheney-like vice president. Quaid has figured out, just a tad too late, that global warming actually will result in very, very sudden global cooling. Now, he must risk his life to save his son.

The movie would be fine as mindless entertainment, under two conditions: 1) Don’t let it bother you that climate change deniers regularly hold up The Day After Tomorrow as an example of “climate change hysteria.” 2) Turn off all your critical faculties before viewing.

3. Fire Down Below, 1997

Kris Kristofferson runs an evil waste company that exploits the rural folk of Kentucky. But there is hope and now he’s here -- in the form of secret EPA agent Steven Seagal. He beats up the corporate goons. He even blows things up to prevent pollution. Clichés fly as fast as fisticuffs. Of course, he spurs the hot, righteous rural Kentucky woman to fall in love with him. On the other hand, Harry Dean Stanton's in it.

You already know the plot. So just watch this highlight in Russian. At least, some of the language is unexpected.

2. Category 7: The End of the World, 2005

Category 7 is sort of like Roland Emmerich on the cheap. It even has the less expensive of the Quaid brothers, Randy, in it.

It’s actually a bit more scientifically plausible than The Day After Tomorrow -- although “plausible” is a relative term here. The premise is that global warming has whipped hurricanes up to Category 7 (for comparison’s sake: Katrina had dropped from category 5 to 4 by the time it made landfall).

Other than bad acting (hey, it stars Shannon Daugherty), wooden dialogue and the usual disaster implausibilities, the problem is that Category 7: The End of the World is an unintelligible mess, jumping from subplot to subplot like an island-hopping hurricane. I think I dislike Category 7 less than I dislike The Day After Tomorrow. Still, when you get down to it, it’s a worse movie.

1. On Deadly Ground, 1994


Michael Caine runs an evil oil company that exploits the natives in Alaska. But, according to the trailer, “there is hope and now he’s here” -- in the form of Steven Seagal (yet again). Seagal beats up the corporate goons. He even blows up a rig to prevent pollution. Clichés fly as fast as fisticuffs. Of course, the hot, righteous Inuit woman cannot help herself but take off her clothes for him. Sound familiar?

The really excruciating part is at the end of the movie (which I’ve clipped here for your enjoyment). In his final monologue, Seagal sounds like the narrator of a very paranoid version of Who Killed the Electric Car.

Journalist Ken Edelstein writes the Media Mayhem column for the Mother Nature Network. He blogs about media, pop culture and the environment at


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