Given my penchant for teaching the environmental humanities through popular culture, I could not resist recommending these two movies, currently in theaters, as films that contain smart perspectives on the environmental crisis.
Wall-E, the latest Pixar offering, is about a trash-compacting robot whose discovery of a green plant holds the key to the human return to Earth. Though I cringed at the previews that I saw months ago, my fears of a sugar overload–cute robots in space save the world!–went unfulfilled. Wall-E is not only a sophisticated, lovely piece of digital animation, it is also a smart critique of the way consumer media distract us from what really sustains a good life. (Yes, the animators get the irony.) Though it is a film Wendell Berry could love, it is neither cranky nor pastoral: the key to Earth’s future lies in knowing which artificial intelligences to trust. Once that decision is made, it allows humanity to clear away the garbage of the past and “go down to the ground,” as Peter Gabriel’s theme song says.
(Note: The review of this movie on Slate takes it to task for being anti-fat. While the demonization of fat is a serious problem, I think the reviewer misses the point. Humans have become infantilized by life in space, where low gravity and automated services have turned them into big babies. The movie makes this point visually in several places. The problem is not that people have become fat, but that they’ve become incapable of standing on their own feet, literally. When they finally realize what’s happened, they don’t behave like stereotypical fat people in Hollywood movies, who are lazy, stupid, and ridiculous. They react with resolve, courage, and intelligence.)
I plan to try this movie with my students as soon as possible because if fits their interesting combination of low level of denial and high frustration with apocalyptic rhetoric. They want stories that show them how to behave toward a world that is already less than pristine, but still beautiful and valuable. Wall-E provides an excellent model of beginning again after you’ve tried to run from your garbage. “Stiller Life, with Robots.”
This film is more subtle in its green issues, but as A.O. Scott of the New York Times has pointed out, it borrows environmental themes from J.R.R. Tolkien and Hayao Miyazaki. The action begins as an elf prince denounces modern human civilizations as rapacious and destructive, repudiating the ancient truce between us and his people. Essentially, he goes to war for environmental reasons, and much of what he does would be classified as ecoterrorism by the current administration if it weren’t otherworldly in origin. At one point, Hellboy is forced to choose between saving a human infant and a rampaging plant elemental that is, he is told, the last of its kind. Though he chooses to save the infant and, ultimately, oppose the prince, Hellboy is left at the end of the movie wondering whether he chose the right side.
Like Wall-E, this film is a brilliant visual exposition of the world under our feet that we take for granted at our own peril. Instead of robots and spaceships, Hellboy has cthonic creatures and magical objects, but in both cases the fantastic, as a mode, is used to represent the nonhuman powers–technological and ecological–that we exile from consciousness even as we depend on them to sustain the world.
It’s interesting to see how the environmental crises are forcing sci-fi and fantasy together as both genres comment on our inability to escape responsibility, despite their common reputation as escapism par excellence. When I teach these films, the problem of escapism and responsibility is the angle I would hit first.
I’d be interested in hearing about anyone else’s approach to teaching these films, or films like them.