from princess mononoke to soylent green, these movies will force you to think about our planet
Princess Mononoke, 1997
20 years ago, on 8 February, Princess Mononoke made its Australian debut. Miyazaki was still some years away from releasing the great international breakthrough Spirited Away, but already, English-speaking audiences were beginning to take note. Disney had just purchased the worldwide rights to distribute Studio Ghibli's entire catalogue, and those who did see Princess Mononoke were almost sure to become lifelong Miyazaki devotees — we sure did.
The story of a battle between forest gods and the humans who seek to plunder their natural resources was special because it was not, like most comparable Hollywood blockbusters, a tale of good and evil. The late, great Robert Ebert noted the film "avoids easy moral simplifications," just as one should in life.
FernGully: The Last Rainforest, 1992
Do you remember the first time you saw FernGully? Did you cry? Kids movie or not, it's hard not to be a little moved by the tale of charming rainforest creatures threatened by logging. These days, it's even more poignant. It was the first animated film Robin Williams agreed to appear in, only because of his passion for the film's positive environmental message. The movie was also one of Tone Lōc's earliest film credits; he contributed the weird, guilty pleasure tune If I'm Gonna Eat Somebody to the soundtrack. Can we call it a banger?
Almost a documentary, but a little too experimental to fit the genre, Koyaanisqatsi is better described as a sprawling collage of man and nature. The silent film takes stock of America; from its sprawling canyons to its housing projects and hotdog factories. The original score by Philip Glass has become so popular that in the years since its release, his Ensemble has toured the world playing it live in cinemas.
The title hints at the conclusion the film would like us to draw: 'Koyaanisqatsi' is a word from the Hopi Indigenous language of North America, meaning 'life out of balance.' One suspects director Godfrey Reggio and cinematographer Ron Fricke favoured the natural world, and found man too chaotic. Perhaps the message was little one dimensional, or sentimental, for some critics: man = bad, nature = good. But it doesn't feel too far off the mark these days.
Chinatown is an eternal favourite among critics: a few years ago, the Guardian went so far as to name it single greatest film of all time. It is certainly one of the most finely nuanced movies in the noir tradition. Jack Nicholson's detective JJ Gittes is a hero like no other, and the central mystery of Chinatown is quite unlike the usual murders of beautiful aspiring actresses unravelled in many neo-noirs.
Instead, the film draws from the California Water Wars: a political battle between the burgeoning Los Angeles and the people of surrounding farmlands over the precious resource in the early 1900s. In the film, Gittes unearths a similar plot to funnel water out of a valley beyond the city; leaving it barren and dry so it can be bought up cheap, only to be made verdant again and resold for profit. The environmental conspiring certainly wasn't a genre before Chinatown's release, so we can credit it with proving that films about the earth need never be boring.
Soylent Green, 1973
It's 2022, and New York is wildly overpopulated. We're warned that nothing runs anymore, nothing works. There are still people, but they're driven by something simple and animalistic: "they want Soylent Green," an artificial nourishment provided by the government. A rogue detective is following a trail of unsolved murders, which lead him to a dark discovery about the true ingredients of the food replacement — it's not made from plankton, as everyone's been told. Much like Chinatown, Soylent Green can be credited with convincing Hollywood that environmental themes make for great movies.