In the first few minutes of Jurassic World – 2015’s highest-grossing film until Star Wars: Episode VII blasted it into a galaxy far far away – audiences watched the film’s two youngest heroes travel by minivan, airplane, boat, monorail and escalator before arriving at the eponymous Disneyland-does-the-Mesozoic-Era theme park.
When the brothers walk into their VIP hotel room, the TV and lights are already on.
As we begin to meet other members of the supporting cast, we are told that one of them is the eighth richest man in the world, with investment interests including oil, telecoms and weaponised formerly-extinct creatures.
As we explore the park, we watch staff and visitors fly private helicopters, tap on cell phones, flock to food courts, tightly grip gift shop merch and gulp from cups destined for the landfill.
And all this before the directorial worship of Mercedes, Triumph, Samsung and Coca-Cola really begins in earnest.
With its 90s-nostalgia triggers, exhilarating CGI action and aching self-awareness (“no one’s impressed by a dinosaur anymore”), Jurassic World is a millennial-friendly movie the whole family can enjoy. Indeed, many, many families did.
And that is troubling.
Because, after its two-hour running (in heels) time, the film leaves us with two main takeaways: nature bites back, a lesson that will no doubt be forgotten by the film’s sequel; and women should probably lighten up, settle down and start having kids.
Cool story, bro.
Jurassic World is supposed to remind us of the danger in messing with nature, but it misses so many smaller, more realistic opportunities to show us what to do instead. And it’s not alone.
Our movie theatres are filled with stories that frame eco-irresponsibility – overconsumption, over-reliance on fossil fuels – as aspirational, cool or even just normal. At best, this gives we – the audience – tacit permission to let bad environmental behaviour go unexamined. At worst, it encourages us to copy it.
In its relatively short history, cinema has projected and reflected behaviour that has shaped the world off-screen.
The World Health Organisation is so aware of film’s ability to mould young minds that it has called for all films that feature smoking, including animated pictures, to be given adult ratings.
Researchers at the University of Michigan recently found that women who watch romantic comedies can become more tolerant of aggressive male behaviour like stalking.
And in a distant echo of a time when Hollywood mobilised its filmmakers to support the Allied cause during WWII, US Secretary of State John Kerry met with Hollywood studio heads this month to discuss how movies could help counter the Isis narrative.
Imagine what might happen if this same power to motivate behaviour change was harnessed for the planet; if the industry rallied its troops to fight a less tangible, but no less real, enemy threatening our very existence.
We’re not advocating a return to propagandistic cinema, but since filmmakers have always culturally educated, could they not try their hands at more earth-friendly lessons?
Yes, urgent, affecting, eco-conscious documentaries make a splash every few years (An Inconvenient Truth , Who Killed the Electric Car?, Food, Inc., Cowspiracy), but they have hardly acted as the social corrective we need. Eco-inspiration in film could reach much further, and change much more, if it went mainstream.
But you have to swim carefully in the mainstream, a noisy, competitive place where obvious green messages can quickly lose their potency. When we do get films with a more central green message, they’re often for kids (Fern Gully, Wall-E). Or they rely on problematic pre-modern Noble Savage stereotypes (Dances with Wolves, The Revenant). Or they are rendered unsympathetic in the hands of anarchic eco-terrorists (The East, Night Moves).
Turning every film into a moralising PSA would be too blunt a weapon in today’s culture wars; too easily dismissed by a fatigued audience, and not commercial enough for a business called Hollywood. The solution needs more stealth. Not green characters and action baked into the plots of major films, but gentle green nudges sprinkled around their edges.
Rather than insisting that Captain Planet joins the Marvel multiverse, or hoping that Avatar 2 will save mankind from itself, consider this:
- An intimidating fashion editor whose personal style revolves around a capsule wardrobe of just eight pieces of secondhand clothing.
- A Sandra Bullock vehicle that faithfully follows all the stations of the rom-com cross, but a cheery airline ticket agent upsells some carbon offsets before the inevitable tearful reunion scene.
- Your standard cinematic sweep of Times Square, only this time with a few billboards illuminated with environmental messages or perhaps shilling more eco-friendly products.
- Ben Whishaw’s prudent Q develops an electric car worthy of our post-modern Bond.
And don’t even get us started on animated features. Those folks can literally draw anything.
It doesn’t need to stop there. We could ask major award ceremonies to incentivise better behaviour. We could create an environmental Bechdel test to evaluate the green credentials of a movie. Minimum standards for marketers and prop masters deciding what product to place or which prop to use. Critics whose reviews consider representations of sustainability pro forma. A version of Final Draft (screenwriting software) that sounds an alarm each time the words ‘car’ or ‘steak’ or ‘shopping mall’ or ‘Adam Sandler’ are typed. (That last one is just for us. Seriously. Enough.)
We don’t need 10% of Hollywood films to be dramatic versions of an Al Gore PowerPoint. We need 100% of them to tell stories in which sustainable living is just part of the way the world works.
For an industry that is supposedly the flag bearer of progressive values, Hollywood needs to extend its moral imagination when it comes to greening the silver screen.
To be fair, the industry has made some attempt at environmental redress.
Long before Leonardo DiCaprio became Hollywood’s leading actor-slash-eco-activist, there was the Environmental Media Association – formed in the late 80s by a group of influential industry types in order to promote environmentalism in film narratives and production practices.
The EMA still exists today it recently recognised The Martian and Star Wars: Episode VII with the EMA Green Seal for efforts to reduce the environmental impact of their productions – but remains an insider’s initiative with limited public awareness.
It’s a laudable effort, but the biggest opportunity is to leverage the industry’s largest platform – the content itself – to model green lifestyles in honest and seamless ways.
Change can happen behind the camera. But far better if it happens in front if it.
Let’s step back for just a moment. Allow ourselves to be more charitable to today’s screenwriters, the directors who direct their movies and the producers who fund them.
And ask, what is the point of motion pictures in the first place?
If you think that films are here to deliver pure cinematic pleasure, a momentary distraction from the violent inevitability of planetary destruction, then perhaps screenwriters can be absolved of their unsustainable sins. They’re providing a valuable public service for which they should be thanked.
But, if you believe that the cultural conversation, of which film plays an increasingly dramatic role, is meant to reflect on the human condition, rendering the world on-screen in a way that feels authentic, then screenwriters and everyone involved in making movies today have much to answer for.
If incidental actions in scripts are there to help illuminate the inner life of a movie’s characters, then surely a few of our on-screen heroes, villains and supporting cast are at least thinking about how their actions will affect the planet.
If art is to imitate life, we may not all be eco-saints, but surely a few screenwriters have vegetarian parents. Or neighbours with a compost bin. Or a friend who has recently joined the cult of KonMari. Or are themselves part of a very real sharing economy, ride-sharing and occasionally Uber-ing rather than owning a car.
Screenwriters have no excuse. They should be able to write complicated and compelling characters who still give a shit about the planet, because so many of us do.
As for Jurassic World, it is Gray, the film’s youngest hero, who delivers a sweet and simple line that unintentionally calls for a better way, a meta-protest against the unsustainability rampant in his world and our own:
“I don’t want two of everything.”
Same here, kid. Same here.
How to watch a movie
There’s a good reason we’re not called Think About The Green Thing. Or Share The Green Thing. Or Write A Government Report On The Green Thing. We’re about doing The Green Thing.
So, to the film audiences of the world – the next time you sink into your seat at the movie theatre, or curl up on the couch to enjoy the streaming service of your choice, seek out the small moments of sustainability, and don’t give the writers a pass when you can’t find any.
To the screenwriters out there – please try adding a green lens to your creative process. Your words have great power and we all know, that comes with great responsibility.
Oh, and cinema owners, you’ve got power too – contact us to show the short film below before your screenings and do your part to make movie-watching more mindful.
Enjoy the show.