Why is it important, now as much as ever, to study the world in an inter-disciplinary way? Keele Film Studies lecturer Neil Archer goes in search of the links between science, film and television.
We live, to use the increasingly well-worn Chinese proverb, in interesting times. The headline on my preferred news site yesterday morning warned of the risk to human society through the damage to biodiversity. The Extinction Rebellion movement is currently gaining pace in its efforts to roll back the effects of our consumption and climate-ruining omissions. Schoolchildren are going on strike to protest against the environmental misdeeds of their parents’ and grandparents’ generation, demanding a liveable future. At the same time, as all this is going on, Keele recently welcomed Sir David Attenborough, to inaugurate the new Life Sciences laboratories to which the great man has given his name. For the many who heard him speak on May 3rd, it was an opportunity to celebrate this special occasion, but also to hear him address the present-day and future concerns with which so much of his life’s work is intertwined.
This is also, of course, the 70th anniversary of Keele University: an institution with a rich tradition of inter-disciplinary thinking and study. As confirmed last week, this is also a university committed both to principles of sustainability, and to acknowledging the very real threat of climate change. In this spirit, then, I felt inspired by Sir David’s visit to comment on its particular relevance to my own field of enquiry: in this case, Film Studies. To borrow a term from the life sciences, I wanted to consider the symbiotic potential of thinking across the disciplines of the sciences and the humanities. What is my debt to science as a researcher into film – but also, how might the study of film and other screen media benefit our understanding of science? This is hardly a random question. Sir David, it hardly needs underlining, is the living embodiment of these so-called ‘two cultures’, to use C.P. Snow’s famous phrase, working in sync.
One of the pleasures of Sir David’s visit was to see the number of students thronging the Westminster Theatre auditorium, and the corridors of the Chancellor’s building, just to see or hear the man in the flesh. This was no doubt a testament to the nonagenarian’s tireless activity in the promotion of natural history, and more recently, his energetic campaigning for environmental and climate action. But I suspect it owed mostly to the fact that, above all, Attenborough is a media superstar. For many, his is a voice and face synonymous across several generations with a certain kind of television: absorbing, ceaselessly curious, visually beguiling investigations into our planet, and the challenges faced by its flora and fauna. Indeed, Sir David’s work in this area across seven decades has helped shape the way many of us view the world.
As part of the talk given at the end of his visit, Sir David spoke of the transformations he has seen, and helped to promote, in his field of television: ‘Natural history broadcasting’, he said, ‘has changed beyond recognition in the last 50 years. We can film in the dark, high altitude, at the bottom of the sea. The world has never been shown in so much detail’. From my viewpoint as a researcher and lecturer in film and television, this was a reminder that our world, its diversity, and the increasing threats to it, are not simply things out there waiting to be recorded, ready to be viewed with the naked eye.
For example, one of the BBC’s most recent offerings, Earth from Space, continues the tradition initiated in the late 1960s by the Apollo lunar missions: hitherto ‘impossible’ photographs of the remote Earth, that compel the viewer to see our world in a wholly new way. As media history shows us, part of the work of nature documentary is to find ways of representing things to us that we wouldn’t or couldn’t see otherwise, often with huge implications. The process in Earth from Space, whereby various data from satellites and cameras is put together to create composite pictures seen from afar, enables us to identify and make sense of wider patterns, from which we can then make inferences and assessments. And it’s from this process, in conjunction with other approaches, that we can better analyse – amongst other things – how human action is impacting on the ecosystem.
One of my points here is that looking at the technologies through which we see always involves analysing and understanding the ways we mediate images, and why we do so. This is central to what many researchers into film and media do: exploring the significance and impact of different ways of seeing. The types of innovations to which Sir David refers, from one point of view, simply add to the spectacle of the shows on which he and others work. Developments in camera miniaturization and quality of recording mean that we can now see, in effect, from the visual point of view of animals themselves. We can swim with fish, crawl with turtles, and fly with flocks of birds. But such developments are also important, epistemologically, philosophically and ethically, because they deviate from the anthropocentric viewpoint that has for centuries dominated the way we see the world.
In the contexts of a climate change and challenge to biodiversity which is also anthropogenic, we can understand the significance of such technological shifts: to use the theoretical parlance, we can think of these approaches as ecocritical. And these aren’t limited to nature documentaries; they crossover into more mainstream fiction films. Animated family films such as Happy Feet and Peter Rabbit, both of which had CGI supplied by the Australian VFX company Animal Logic, make use of similar non-human viewpoints; whether it be the view penguins hiding from other avian predators in the ice, or rabbits escaping from homo sapien hunters down their burrows.
This latter point raises a question pertinent to my most immediate concerns as a researcher of – in my case – popular narrative cinema. We all know that, as a mass medium, television and film have the power to communicate messages about the environment and the climate on a bigger and, potentially, more dramatic scale. The high profile of documentaries like Al Gore and Davis Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth, or the Leonardo Di Caprio-produced The 11th Hour, have encouraged some commentators to talk about a ‘greening’ of Hollywood in recent years. But is it too fanciful to talk about the role played in the ongoing discussion around, and response to, our climate emergency, on the part of Hollywood blockbusters?
This is precisely the question I ask in an upcoming piece for the American Journal of Cinema and Media Studies.* As I ask in this particular essay, what role can mainstream science fiction cinema have in reflecting on and informing us about climate change and the politics around it? By the same token, to what extent do such films obscure these contexts, and to what effect? And what sort of fiction films, if we are to meaningfully and productively engage with the contemporary climate crisis, might we wish to make?
One of the key problems confronting filmmakers wanting to make dramatic fiction out of climate change is the issue of temporality. As plenty of commentators have noted, from a planetary or ‘deep time’ perspective, anthropogenic climate change is sudden and rapid; yet from from a human-centric perspective it is slow. And when changes are suddenly noticed – record summer temperatures, species loss, the fracture of the Antarctic ice shelf – these ‘overnight’ events betray many decades’ impact, and are by then irreparable. Hence the familiar adage that we will all agree on the need to respond to climate change only when the tipping point has already passed. From Hollywood’s perspective, though, slow process does not make for such great drama.
One approach then in cinematic fiction is to situate the effects of climate and environmental breakdown as having already happened. This is an approach taken by some ‘apocalyptic’ films such as Soylent Green (1973), the two Blade Runner films (1982, 2017) or, in a slightly subtler way, Children of Men (2006). Such films can shock, though by their own nature they often avoid narrating the process through which this point is reached. When films strive to narrate the process of climate change, though, it can be even trickier. Roland Emmerich’s 2004 film The Day After Tomorrow set a new precedent in terms of its willingness to identify and address the causes and impacts of anthropogenic climate change, and had climate scientist Michael Molitor working on the film as an advisor. But in condensing the accumulated effects of long-term climate change into something that happens almost instantaneously – as the USA is plunged into a new Ice Age, sending its residents heading to Mexico as refugees – the film also laid itself open to accusations of over-dramatization and exaggeration (conveniently so, perhaps, from the perspective of climate-change deniers).
In a slightly different way, other films have dealt with catastrophic climate change as something simply to be avoided or run away from. As I argue in my essay, an important task for ecocritical film scholars is to highlight the work these films do, why they do it, but also what is so potentially problematic about them – and in turn, how such narratives might be reconceptualised for the immediate contexts of ongoing climate disruption and, as is often the case, widespread political inaction.
Using popular film to dramatize leaving the Earth is, in fact, an idea almost as old as the medium itself, dating back at least as far as George Méliès’s 1902 film Le Voyage dans la lune. One of science fiction’s attractions is its capacity to imagine and realise the as-yet unseen. As noted above, this can be in the form of dramatically-realised disaster or other end-of-the-world scenarios. But science fiction has also, and I suspect more appealingly, encouraged a more utopian side; whether this be in the depiction of ‘strange new worlds’ (to quote Star Trek’s Captain Kirk), or the fabulous high-tech means of getting to them. More recently, this imagination has come closer to present-day contexts, and has turned to envisioning the steps we might take to leave our planet; more often than not, with anthropogenic climate change, or some vaguer allegory for it, lurking in the background.
This sets the stage then for films like The Martian (2015), with Matt Damon terraforming the Red Planet; or for recent TV series such as Hulu/Channel 4’s The First, about the first human mission to Mars, set in a speculative near future of over-population and resource scarcity. In another example, a film like Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014) sends its crew away from a blight-ridden and asphyxiating Earth, through wormholes and in search of new habitable planets, before settling in the type of centrifugal space habitat dreamed up by Princeton physicist Gerard O’Neill, in his 1974 article The Colonisation of Space. Interstellar’s revolving cylinder-in-space, as it happens, is not too dissimilar to the silver ring orbiting the browned-out, overpopulated planet in Elysium (2013) – only in this case, less as a new frontier for its surviving (western) Earthlings, but rather an idyllic gated enclosure for the mega-rich.
Films like The Martian are made with technical advice from NASA, for which the films act as adverts for the agency, providing soft power potential and putting it in the window for greater Congressional funding. Colonization of the moon, with a long-term view to reaching Mars, is a stated aim of NASA in this century. NASA did not work with Nolan on Interstellar, but by making astronauts in the renascent space agency the film’s heroes, the film is in sync with NASA’s aims and investment in space colonization. Outer space really is the new frontier: indeed, it’s the only one left, given the crowded, used-up state of our Earth. But in the pursuit of such cinematic dreams – invariably, of course, those of First-World protagonists – are such films taking the easiest course of action? As the environmentalist George Monbiot, another recent visitor to Keele, opined, Interstellar is at once one of the most inspiring, despairing and defeatist of recent films, in its tacit recognition that saving the planet we already have may be beyond hope.
Avoiding potentially irreversible climate change means living more sustainably, which means reducing our present levels of consumption: all this in the contexts of an expanding global population. This requires systematic change and effort, including a vast reduction in our personal carbon footprints. The oxymoronic term ‘sustainable development’ highlights the challenge of squaring our desire to consume with our obligation not to. This runs against millennia of human activity, and even (some have said) the universe’s inherent physical drive towards entropy (aka the second law of thermodynamics). The sci-fi satire Downsizing (2017) encapsulates this malaise, with its premise of humans reducing themselves to doll-like size, living in miniature communities with a fraction of environmental waste and omissions. But what starts as a utopian plan to save the planet takes a different shape, when people realise miniaturization means living like rock stars for a fraction of the costs. The dream of sustainability in turn becomes a nightmare of non-stop, pint-size consumption.
In Downsizing, then, miniaturization is highjacked by property dealers and, eventually, crooks looking to cash in and live the (six-inch) high life. Disturbingly, though, do these more overtly satirical films, like Downsizing or Elysium, offer a more likely vision of what we might call out ‘post-terrestrial’ future? Other environmentalist thinkers such as Martin Rees and Naomi Klein have highlighted both the potentials, but also the dangers, of geo-engineered ‘techno-fixes’ to the planet’s woes, such as seeding the atmosphere with clouds, or building reflective satellites to bounce back the heat of the sun. As both their opponents and their supporters point out, such ‘solutions’ to rising temperatures will be a challenge to control, to regulate fairly, and will most likely be exploited by the wealthiest nations – with possible disregard for any knock-on effects elsewhere in the world.
In terms of wanting to leave the Earth and try out other planets, though, or live ‘off-world’, nation states may have increasingly less say in the matter. This is especially so when vastly more wealth and power is consolidated in individuals than in governments; the latter already confronted, in a time of austerity, with the economic impacts of climate disruption. The world’s richest man, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, has been funding his own space exploration programme, Blue Origin, for several years now; as has Elon Musk with his SpaceX company (Musk recently carried out a successful test for carrying crew to the ISS, and hopes to send a mission to Mars). Richard Branson, alongside offering rewards for geoengineering technologies, has also nurtured long-term dreams of carrying people into space – albeit, in this instance, for no more than quick sub-orbital flights. Will extra-terrestrial environments become (to use Klein’s term) the privileged, and no doubt well-defended, ‘Green Zones’ of our future?
It’s not merely anecdotal to point out that, in terms of their space-faring dreams, both Bezos and Musk have a mutual point of inspiration: both men are huge fans of Star Trek. When real life starts to reflect the adventures of science fiction film and television, we need to pay close attention to the latter. One challenge for popular cinema, in fact, if it is not merely to throw fuel on the fire, is to make the adventure of climate-change deceleration as exciting as inter-planetary travel. This may be the greatest mission of all. Just hopefully not our last one.
*For further reading, see Neil Archer, ‘Transnational Science Fiction at the End of the World: Consensus, Conflict and the Politics of Climate Change’, Journal of Cinema and Media Studies, 58.3 (Spring 2019)