Pop Culture: The Green Invasion

From eco-friendly films to progressive podcasts, Plenty picks the best in summer entertainment

Natural Born Thrillers


THE CATCHIEST MOVIE TUNE in 2005 wasn’t the Oscar-winning “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” but the opening ditty for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Jolly, disembodied voices sing: “So long and thanks for all the fish; too bad it had to come to this.” Huh? It’s only gradually that we, the audience, realize that it’s our smarter fellow mammals—the dolphins—bidding adieu before they leap out of the sea and into space, a well-mannered but final exodus that happens because humanity has trashed the earth. The dolphins’ song is one of those tunes that you can’t expunge from your memory. Not only is it dead-on funny, it’s also emblematic of the clever ways science fiction movies can tackle big ideas like overpopulation and environmental devastation.

Rewinding to the ’50s, a B-movie like Gordon Douglas’s Them (1954) addressed the potential horrors of radioactive testing by offering a very simple “What if?” scenario. What if a radiation leak resulted in giant, sugar-addicted ants that terrorized humans—and turned the tables on the balance of nature? Them and other ’50s-era sci-fi flicks helped articulate America’s atomic-age jitters. Less than a decade after Hiroshima, the notion that messing with nature (even in the name of peace) could have dire consequences was nothing less than radical.

Environmentalism took off in the ’60s and ’70s, and sci-fi films picked up on the movement’s underlying fears and concerns. In Silent Running (1972), Douglas Trumbull’s futuristic dystopia, humanity has eradicated all of the trees on earth, so forests are cultivated in domes orbiting Saturn. When the government orders Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) to destroy the far-flung nature preserve he tends, Lowell rebels. This grumpy tree hugger is unwilling to commit herbicide and goes ballistic, taking human lives to save his leaves. (Note the conservationist’s name: Free-man. No one ever described ’70s sci-fi as subtle.)

The following year saw Richard Fleischer’s overpopulation saga Soylent Green. Set in 2022, the movie depicts 40 million people coexisting in New York City alone. Natural foods are scarce—a serving of strawberries costs $150. As the New York homicide detective Thorn (Charlton Heston, who radiates the curdled ’60s idealism that sets the movie’s tone) pursues a murder investigation, this thorn in the establishment’s side (subtlety again!) uncovers a truly grotesque state secret: the unnamed ingredient in the government-manufactured, synthetic, crackerlike foodstuff is human tissue. Well, that’s an extreme form of recycling—and Soylent Green should have provided enough of a message of future doom and gloom to scare much of the American moviegoing public, er, green. But it’s only a movie, it’s only a movie . . .

Even the Star Wars and Star Treks of the film world have ecomessages. (Not to mention box office influence: In 2001, the New York Times reported that six of the ten all-time top-grossing films were sci-fi.) In the hugely popular Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), the U.S.S. Enterprise crew travels back in time to save the nearly extinct humpback whale. Live long and prosper: now that’s a green idea for Hollywood to savor!

Thelma Adams is film critic for Us Weekly.

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Issue 25

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