Monday, April 16, 2012

Early 21st Century Disaster Fiction

The 'situation on the ground' in the first decade of the 21st century was far stranger than even the most visionary 20th century science fiction writers ever imagined. As described by William Gibson in The Paris Review: "Fossil fuels have been discovered to be destabilising the planet’s climate, with possibly drastic consequences. There’s an epidemic, highly contagious, lethal sexual disease that destroys the human immune system, raging virtually uncontrolled throughout much of Africa. New York has been attacked by Islamist fundamentalists, who have destroyed the two tallest buildings in the city, and the United States in response has invaded Afghanistan and Iraq."

Climate change and the looming environmental disaster that scientists like James Lovelock warned about with such urgency did not really start making headlines, however, until the middle of the last decade. Hence, Hollywood - a cultural barometer for so many American societal issues - was, arguably, slightly ahead of the curve in its depiction of impending climate catastrophe. With a global box office take of more than US$500, The Day After Tomorrow was the most financially successful environmental disaster fiction of all time. Though certainly not a pioneering disaster movie - Hollywood has been entertaining America with stories about the end of the world since Cecil B. DeMille started making biblical epics in the early 1920s - The Day After Tomorrow was significant in the sense that it was possibly the first film to introduce the concept of imminent climate catastrophe to a mass audience. Al Gore's portentous PowerPoint presentation, An Inconvenient Truth, won the Oscar for Best Documentary in 2006, thereby demonstrating the desire of the Hollywood elite to be associated with fashionable causes. But, with only US$50 million at the global box office, it was The Day After Tomorrow that had a bigger impact on the general public. The political siren being sounded by the likes of Al Gore ahead of global climate talks by the G20 in Montreal in 2005 made the reckless destruction of New York by rampaging snow and ice seem reasonable - and cinema-goers bought into that fiction in their millions. The Day After Tomorrow will be remembered by me for an hilarious sequence in which Donnie Darko runs away from a fast-moving frost, only to escape a fate worse that frost-bite by locking the door! The message seemed to be: get better insulation.

Following Al Gore's reasonably successful polemic, earnest documentaries like the Leonardo DiCaprio backed, The Eleventh Hour, and the tactfully named, The Age of Stupid, preached to the converted (and alienated mainstream America) about the dangers of man-made carbon emissions and suddenly the end of the world didn't sound like nearly as much fun as it had done; apparently, remembering to turn the lights off and half filling the kettle wasn't going to be enough. Faced by insurmountable odds and lacking the power to directly affect the policies that govern power stations and the use of fossil fuels, political pressure waned, as did audience numbers and Hollywood interest in the subject. By 2008, the global political elite had bigger fish to fry in the form of a banking crisis, and, lacking direction and leadership, the environmental lobby seemed to flounder, struggling to find a cohesive, consistent narrative. That struggle for identity is exemplified by M. Night Shyamalan's well meaning, but confused and confusing 2008 film, The Happening, which wanted to say that 'nature will find a way to rid itself of irresponsible caretakers', but was so badly plotted it would have taken a Bertrand Russel to discern that message.

By the end of the decade, Hollywood, like the general public it seems, had moved on from climate change. This left the field open for more thoughtful and politically minded independent filmmakers, such as Australia's John Hillcoat, whose 2009 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel, The Road, is about as bleak a film as one could ever wish to see. About a boy and his father, struggling to survive in an Apocalyptic landscape, following a catastrophe - presumed to be environmental, although never specifically stated - there is no hope, there is no redemption. That story of desperation and despair did reasonable business in Europe but, perhaps unsurprisingly, failed to find much of an audience in the United States. It is a film that would never have been made in Hollywood today. But would a mainstream audience be willing to listen to its brutal message?


Blogger Paul said...

I’ve noticed recently that in both the recent Transformers and Avengers movies the tried and tested narrative of having some sort of ‘ultimate’ power source that the forces of evil are out to control have both included the insertion of the phrase “sustainable energy”. Of course the underlying environmental message of both films get somewhat lost after the second or third turbo charged mechanical mayhem carbon emitting action scene. But hey ho. I’m sure they wouldn’t have bothered with that phrase ten years ago.

Perhaps if Tolkein was writing today he would have Frodo wearing a USB key round his neck on which were contained the blueprints for a mythical wind turbine that could actually generate more electric than it cost to build…

2:44 PM


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