Ten Films That Shook The World
After Superstorm Sandy struck, Dawn Zimmer, the mayor of Hoboken, NJ, said: “The Hudson River came in and filled half of Hoboken like a bathtub. Indeed. If the 1954 Marlon Brando dockworker drama, On the Waterfront, which was shot on location at Hoboken, was made now, it might be called In the Waterfront.
Film, of course, cannot only record actual catastrophic events as they happen, but conjure up imagery and soundtracks that imagine and render calamities in fantastic form. Increasingly sophisticated big screen special effects can show a humanity out of kilter with itself and nature. In a dramatized, heightened ways the movie medium can express our dreams — and nightmares. Motion picture prophets are uniquely empowered to envision and depict humanity’s adverse impact on the environment in the science fiction, horror, post-apocalyptic and disaster film genres. In the spirit of Earth Island Journal’s special edition about the idea of the Anthropocene, I’ll call this the “Anthropo-Screen. Here’s my Top Ten List of movies, both features and documentaries, that explored our often-tumultuous relationship with the planet.
1. The Day After Tomorrow
Super Storm Sandy caused oversized waves to pound New York, resulting in floods, infrastructure collapse, and masses left in the cold and without power. Where have we seen this all before? Global warming runs amok in writer/director Roland Emmerich’s 2004 The Day After Tomorrow as a spectacular tsunami washes over Manhattan. In an eerie forecasting of similar extreme weather that would rock the metropolis eight years later, the radio reports: “There is a wall of water coming towards New York City, everybody get out! NORAD paleoclimatologist Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) — whose melting ice warnings have been ignored by Washington — crosses the continent to rescue his son Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal), while the city that never sleeps is submerged by surging seas. The Statue of Liberty is frozen over as another Ice Age is unleashed.
Kevin Costner starred in and produced the big budget 1995 futuristic extravaganza Waterworld, wherein the polar ice caps have melted and sea levels have risen, covering the continents. What’s left of humanity lives on scattered manmade islands, where dirt is a highly coveted commodity and which pirates called “Smokers raid. Some search for a mythic “Dryland that turns out to be Mt. Everest’s summit. Costner co-made two other 1990s epics dealing with environmental, post-apocalyptic themes, Rapa Nui and The Postman.
3. Island of Lost Souls
The 1932 classic Island of Lost Souls stars Charles Laughton as the creepy mad scientist Dr. Moreau, who tampers with the laws of evolution with weird experiments causing genetic mutations in the flora — including giant asparagus —and strange inhabitants of Moreau’s remote South Seas isle. Part human, part beast, they’re spliced together in “the House of Pain and overseen by Bela Lugosi as Sayer of the Law, which has the hirsute, hybrid creatures eerily asking in unison: “Are we not men? Based on H.G. Well’s 1896 sci-fi novel The Island of Dr. Moreau, this parable of man playing god was remade in 1977 and 1996, starring Burt Lancaster and Marlon Brando — who actually owned a Pacific atoll where eco-experiments were conducted.
During a presidential debate last year, moderator Bob Schieffer called the Cuban Missile Crisis “the closest we came to nuclear war. The people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki might beg to differ. Japanese atomic anxiety was projected into a cycle of postwar monster movies, most notably in the Godzilla flicks. US nuclear tests spawn a fire breathing, dinosaur-like creature of mass destruction that goes on a rampage, wreaking havoc on Tokyo in Tôhô Studios’ original 1954 version directed by Ishiro Honda. In the 1998 remake starring Matthew Broderick and directed by Emmerich, French nuclear blasts at Moruroa in the South Pacific generate Godzilla, who then attacks Manhattan.
People in the country that invented the A-bomb were likewise anxious about the power unleashed by atmospheric nuke tests and radioactive fallout. In 1954’s Them!, colossal mutated man-eating ants go berserk in New Mexico, site of Los Alamos, where the first atomic bomb was detonated. Them! co-starred Stuart Whitmore and James Arness and was nominated for a special effects Oscar.
6. The Day After
Mutually assured destruction was featured in 1960s classics, such as Stanley Kubrick’s wicked satire Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and Sidney Lumet’s gripping drama Fail-Safe. In 1983, the Cold War heated up as President Reagan scorned the Soviet Union as “the evil empire” before Mikhail Gorbachev took power. The ABC made-for-TV-movie The Day After graphically portrays thermonuclear war in horrifying detail. As Moscow and Washington face off, panicky people stockpile food and build fallout shelters. FEMA issues alerts, troops scramble, Minuteman Missiles and ICBMs are fired, sirens blare, pandemonium erupts in the streets, mushroom clouds appear, an atomic inferno incinerates Americans, cities are laid to waste. John Lithgow as Professor Joe Huxley and Jason Robards as a Dr. Russell Oakes co-star in this Kansas City-set film, which goes on to vividly depict the after effects of radiation sickness and Nuclear Winter.
7. The Birds
In Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 macabre masterpiece The Birds, the appearance of blonde beauty Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) at a California coastal town triggers mass attacks by flocks of birds on beleaguered, bewildered humans. The reasons behind the airborne raids on Bodega Bay remain a mystery. The recent HBO creep show The Girl, about Hitch’s supposed sexual harassment of Hedren, suggests a psycho-sexual interpretation. However, the master of suspense may have had something else in mind in this sinister adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s 1952 novelette. Perhaps The Birds is a motion picture parable about man out of balance with nature, wherein the animal kingdom strikes back at the consumer society for so blithely encroaching on the environment. During their aerial assaults, for instance, the winged creatures cause a gas station to blowup. In a trailer full of Hitchcock’s trademark sly wit, the filmmaker quips about man’s role in the extinction of various birds and turkeys being “the guests of honor at Thanksgiving dinners,” then wonders why a caged canary bites him.
8. An Inconvenient Truth
The Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth set the gold standard for eco-documentaries. The trailer ballyhoos this adaptation of Al Gore’s climate change warming lectures as “By far, the most terrifying film you will ever see.” Stark images illustrate the urgency of a planet in peril, showing the devastation produced by extreme weather and how Patagonia’s glaciers and Mt. Kilimanjaro’s summit appeared in the past, and the way they looked after substantial melting in 2005, when this documentary was made. Onscreen the former Vice President declares in no uncertain terms: ‘The scientific consensus is that we are causing global warming… Temperature increases are taking place all over the world and that’s causing stronger storms.” The prescient Gore even warns that due to an out of control greenhouse effect, Manhattan’s Ground Zero could be underwater — which actually happened during Hurricane Sandy. What nobody could predict was Gore’s making a killing by selling off Current TV in 2012 to Al Jazeera, owned by an oil rich sheikh.
9. The Dust Bowl
The two part series The Dust Bowl, by television’s greatest documentarian, Ken Burns, aired on PBS last November. In an interview Burns told me, the 1930s “Dust Bowl is the greatest manmade environmental catastrophe in the history of the U.S., if not the world… You had hundreds of dust storms for 10 years, an apocalypse of almost biblical proportions… [The Dust Bowl] is filled with cautionary tales, about human hubris, about greed… and lessons today about climate change.” One lesson is: “The government was the only entity that could offset the devastation Mother Nature was wreaking.” Burns cited FDR’s New Deal policies that rescue the Great Plains from the Dust Bowl’s desolation: “The surplus commodities programs that kept people alive; the WPA [Works Progress Administration], which gave people jobs and built highways, bridges, airports and high schools used to this day. They also planted… millions of trees… convinced farmers to try new ways of plowing… bought back land and turned it into grassland. They were the agency of a great deal of salvation,” while the Farm Security Administration documented the Dust Bowl and the recovery process.
The director who brought us thermonuclear holocaust in Dr. Strangelove also gave us the greatest sci-fi epic ever, 2001: A Space Odyssey. In Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 adaptation of an Arthur C. Clarke story, technology plays a dual role as both marvel and menace. Guided by intergalactic hyper-intelligent beings represented by perplexing monoliths that endow man with intellect, the species evolves from ape-like creatures to ascend towards the stars. En route to Jupiter, the super-computer HAL turns on the crew of the spaceship Discovery. The only surviving astronaut, Dr. Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea), battles HAL, which symbolizes an unnatural artificial intelligence that has thrown evolution out of whack. Upon winning, Bowman embarks on an outer space sojourn through the universe illumined by spectacular cinematic special effects. After living out his life span, Bowman is reborn as a Star Child crowned by cosmic consciousness, who triumphantly returns to Earth as a savior.
Let’s hope more attention is paid to our cinematic seers. Because, as a 1970 TV commercial for margarine noted: “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.