Green your screen – 10 top environmental movies

Autumn proper is finally here (recent mini heatwave notwithstanding) and the nights are drawing in – which means it’s once again possible to curl up in front of a movie without the guilty sting of having to draw the curtains against the sunshine.

With that in mind, I thought this week I’d pass along a few recommendations for films with an environmental theme.

Surprisingly, Hollywood and film-makers in general have been a bit lax when it comes to spinning tales around, or even merely touching on, the planet’s more pressing environmental concerns.

Scan the shelves at your local DVD rental store and it appears that while the end of the world is certainly nigh, it’s apparently at far greater risk from hostile invading aliens or shambling hordes of the walking dead than from, say, climate change.

So here are 10 films, in no particular order, which at least nod towards some of the all-too-real problems and challenges facing the natural world.

• Silent Running (1971)

In the not-too-distant future, mankind’s predations have ravaged Earth’s environment to the point that the planet is unable to sustain natural life and the very last forests are preserved in giant geodesic domes attached to low maintenance space vessels in orbit around Saturn. When the order comes to destroy them and head home, as a result of budget cuts, pastoral astronaut Bruce Dern instead kills his shipmates and makes a run for it.

Fusing the techno wizardry of 2001: A Space Odyssey with the growing environmental consciousness of the period, director Douglas Trumbull’s film might be short on logic but nevertheless has a heart as big as a mountain.

• Born Free (1966)

Based on a true story and beautifully shot in Kenya where it took place, Born Free follows the fortunes of Joy and George Adamson (played by real-life couple Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers) as they attempt to raise orphaned lion cub Elsa and eventually return her to the wild.

Heart-warming and cute it may often be, but it doesn’t shy away from some of the harsher realities.

Will Travers, son of the lead actors, is now the driving force behind the Born Free Foundation.

• Soylent Green (1973)

Back when Charlton Heston was in his Mr Apocalypse phase with films such as Planet of the Apes and The Omega Man, he made this excellent dystopian feature based on Harry Harrison’s perhaps prophetic novel Make Room! Make Room! in which a near-future Earth is ravaged by global warming and bursting at the seams with a human population which has spiralled beyond control.

Crops are failing on an ever-greater scale and, with mass starvation just around the corner, over-crowded humanity subsists on Government-dispensed soya crackers; the innovative new soylent green variety is apparently made from vast untapped kelp forests in the seas, but cop Heston follows a trail of clues to find the key ingredient might just be something altogether more unsavoury.

• Pom Poko (1994)

Japanese animation is leagues ahead of the rest when it comes to embracing environmental messages and themes, and few are as entertaining, imaginative and deeply moving as Pom Poko.

Inspired by the massive wave of post-war deforestation around Tokyo to make way for urban sprawl, the story follows the fortunes of a tribe of racoons taking a stand to defend their ancestral home in the forests of Taka against the rapacious humans and their bulldozers, some of them employing ancient magical powers to shape-shift and infiltrate the world of men while others push for an aggressive conflict.

• Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)

Following the fan-held conviction that odd-numbered Trek movies are rubbish and even-numbered are good, this one’s arguably the best of the lot with Captain Kirk and his crew returning to contemporary San Francisco to save the Earth of the 23rd century from being devastated by a colossal alien probe whose unanswerable signal is wreaking havoc.

It turns out that the probe is seeking to re-establish contact with an intelligence far older than man – whales, which have become extinct in that time, compelling the crew of the Enterprise (now aboard a Klingon ship) to travel back through time to secure a pair of humpback whales to a sing a song of humanity’s salvation.

As Spock rightly concludes: “To hunt a species to extinction is not logical.”

• The Emerald Forest (1985)

Another based on a true story, the film looks at deforestation in Brazil through the story an American dam engineer whose son is kidnapped by an indigenous tribe and raised as one of their own, while his distraught father frantically searches for him.

The human drama is front and centre, but The Emerald Forest takes time to consider the plight of arboreal tribes forced into contact with mainstream civilisation when their homelands are stolen and razed, leaving them little more than derelict human flotsam on the wave of ‘progress’.

• The Last Winter (2006)

An American oil exploration company’s efforts to construct an ice road into the pristine wilderness of northern Alaska is seriously hampered by the impacts of climate change, which is steady eating away at the integrity of the ancient ice.

Even as the resident environmental expert, assumed by the roughneck oil workers to be onboard solely to greenwash the undertaking, warns them that ‘sour gases’ are being released from deep under the permafrost , the crew of the remote outpost begin to suffer murderous mood swings and what seem to be bizarre hallucinations of the spirits of huge prehistoric mammals.

Director Larry Fessenden crafts an intelligent, moody horror that builds steadily to a starkly apocalyptic finale.

• Gorillas In The Mist (1988)

Sigourney Weaver stars in this bio-pic of seminal primatologist Dian Fossey, sent by the famed Dr Louis Leakey into Rwanda to study mountain gorillas.

The hugely impressive special effects give a real sense of the magnificence of the great apes, allowing the film to pack an even more effective punch as it looks as the toll taken on them by poachers and those in the employ of western zoos seeking fresh stock. Whatever your views on Fossey, and there’s no doubt she was a unique and uncompromising character, it’s impossible not to be moved by her passion for gorillas and her fury at what looked to be their imminent extinction.

• Silver City (2004)

Ostensibly a savvy political lampooning of George W Bush’s presidency (and Chris Copper is superbly believable as compromised political hopeful Dickie Pilager), Silver City is also a sharply observed look at the way environmental issues are handled by the US political system and media.

When Pilager accidently reels in a dead body while filming a green-themed campaign ad, the former journalist turned private eye who is hired to investigate any links between the corpse and Pilager’s political enemies begins to expose a rats’ nest of corruption involving lobbyists, big media, environmental plunderers in the form of mining interests and undocumented migrant workers.

• Baraka (1993)

In the tradition of Koyaanisqatsi (for which director Ron Frick was cinematographer) and Powaqqatsi, Baraka superficially works as a wordless travelogue contrasting those corners of the world and human life as yet untouched by McCulture with the frantic pace of urbanisation and industrialisation.

But it’s also a poignant mediation of our planet and is seldom more affecting than when it’s contrasting the wonders of the natural world, as frequently observed through time-lapse photography, with the raw devastation of deforestation, mining and other environmental exploitation. A mesmerising reminder of just how fragile is the interconnected eco-system of our little blue dot.


If I’ve missed out any of your favourites, do please take the time to let me know via the comments box below.

Happy, or at least informative, viewing!