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The green screen: Avatar, Moon and Wall-e

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Ecology is a recurring theme in science fiction, but two recent movies, Avatar and Moon, suggest mankind will continue to plunder its resources – both here on Earth and in alien worlds, writes Rory Olcayto

Post-Copenhagen, with no serious carbon reduction plan in sight, mankind’s ecological future is far from clear. Do we reduce dependence on fossil fuels? Do we turn to renewable energy production? Or do we invent far-out technologies, like orbiting space mirrors that deflect sunlight away from Earth?

If you believe that we invent the future by ‘making’ the stories we tell today, then perhaps two recent sci-fi movies can reveal how the next 100 years will unfold. Typically, given the film world’s tendency to tell cautionary tales, both suggest we fail to kick our fossil fuel addiction. Instead we go marauding, and this time to other worlds.

James Cameron’s Avatar, the highest grossing film of all time, and Moon, directed by British film-maker Duncan Jones have strong ecological themes. In Avatar, humans have arrived on distant moon Pandora, in search of the simplistically named ‘unobtanium’, a precious element that lies beneath the natives’ habitat, a giant ‘hometree’. Pandora is a Gaia-like conception, where all living things are in sync. The natives are giant blue humanoids called Na’vi and they communicate directly with the environment through tendrils in their hair that literally plug into other live forms and vegetation on the planet. Company outreach workers are sent out to convince the Na’vi to leave their home but the plan fails, humans are shown to be untrustworthy and all-out war is visited upon the natives by humans eager to harvest a precious resource.

But thing go badly for the humans in Avatar. Led by a rebel marine, the Na’vi win the war and send the humans packing. But just as the Romans took the occasional knock during centuries of relentless empire building, you know that if nature is to take its course, mankind will be back with bigger guns and the steely determination to get what it wants. Unobtanium will undoubtedly be obtained. That’s not what the film intends you to believe, but you know its true when the credits roll.

Moon is a much quieter, more intelligent movie, but it begins with a bang. A voiceover at the start asks ‘There was a time when energy was a dirty word. When turning on your lights was a hard choice. Cities in brown-out. Food shortage. Cars burning fuel to run. But that was the past. Where are we now?’

The answer follows soon after: fusion energy, the narrator explains, the energy of the sun trapped in rock, is harvested by machines on the far side of the moon and provides the energy needs of nearly 70 per cent of the planet. As with Avatar, Moon shows that mankind’s scientific endeavour is focused on invasion and plunder, rather than ecological harmony.

Yet, because Avatar (quite unreasonably) grants victory to the spear-throwing Na’vi, it has been hailed for its eco-conscious themes. Survival, the charity for tribal peoples, recently reported that forest dwellers in Borneo, and Kalahari bushmen in southern Africa, claimed Avatar was their story. One said: ‘The Penan people cannot live without the rainforest. The forest looks after us, and we look after it. The Na’vi in Avatar cry because their forest is destroyed. It’s the same with the Penan. Logging companies are chopping down our trees and polluting our rivers, and the animals we hunt are dying.’

Both Avatar and Moon show that environmental themes within popular fiction are maturing and accurately reflecting prevailing moods. In 2004, Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow, captured the emerging panic over climate change. It depicted the catastrophic effects of both global warming and global cooling in a series of extreme weather events, which usher in a new ice age and pretty much destroy humanity. The basic message was the Earth will respond in kind if we continue to abuse it. And it suggested there was virtually no time left to do much about it.

In Pixar’s 2008 animated feature Wall-E, the environmental message has moved on. Yes, we’re going to wreck the world, the film said, and turn it into a giant scrap heap. However, humans, at least, will be safe, living in luxury spaceships that cruise among the stars. It reminded us that perhaps we love our comforts just a little too much to give them up.

Now, a growing number of sceptics are beginning to question the science of climate change and politicians are refusing to agree global fuel rations. Given this, the altogether more arrogant vision of our future relationship with energy and ecology depicted in both Avatar and Moon is all the more prescient.

Cautionary tales

Avatar and Moon come from a rich tradition of films that play out man’s environmental preoccupations. Here are a few more.

Crack in the World, 1965
Scientists try to tap into the Earth’s geothermal energy by drilling through its crust into the mantle below. To reach the magma, the scientists detonate an atomic device at the bottom of the hole. As a result, half the planet breaks off, forming a second moon.

Silent Running, 1972
The Earth is a barren planet, the few remaining examples of plant life are preserved in a series of vast orbiting greenhouses. When an order is given to destroy the preserved flora, so the vessels can be used for commercial purposes, murderous tensions are stirred among the extraterrestrial forest rangers.

Waterworld, 1995
Global warming has melted the polar ice caps, causing catastrophic flooding. The surviving population live on large floating structures constructed of debris found floating in the ocean. When a drifter arrives carrying dirt, a near-mythical commodity, the search for dry land begins.

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