Sunday, 20 December 2009

The stripped earth

This week I’ve been to see two movies with the same question at their heart, what might humans do when the earth is stripped of all life other than ourselves? The Road and Avatar may not appear to have much in common but in both the biosphere is a major character. The Road is a harrowing depiction of a world extinct of all life apart from brutalised human wreckage surviving on cans and other remains they find left over from before the disaster. The film is faithful to the brilliantly written novel and conveys something of the horror of a world without ecosystems. There’s no suggestion that humans are responsible for the change; we can speculate about super-volcanoes and asteroids but what matters is the experience of a world without life. I admire The Road and especially Cormac McCarthy’s spare, biblically inflected prose, but for me the story is riven by ecophobia and articulates some too-familiar Western myths. McCarthy writes frontier novels, Man against Nature. The Road finds redemption in love between the Father and Son, and in the Son’s love for humanity (the weak mother is jettisoned early).

Where The Road envisions a grey-brown dead world, Avatar discovers a planet brimming with green, filled with startling bioluminescent creatures suggestive of our ocean organisms. Having stripped Earth of life, humans are recklessly mining the new world, Pandora, and murdering the native People in the process. Critics have slammed the movie for silliness and sermons. The People talk a lot about the flow of energy moving through all living things. Helpfully, they can directly experience this flow by plugging into trees, birds, horses and so on with a bunch of tentacles growing amongst their hair (what a great idea, I thought – if we could tell stories that do that…). Needless to say, the Gaian sermons did not trouble me and since I watched the movie in 3D I was happily immersed in it throughout.

Avatar is another redemption movie, and again the redemption comes from a Great White Male. The filmmakers have not sought new stories; presumably the white-man-goes-native plot is supposed to allow us to identify with the hero and not the evil planet-destroying corporate men and mercenaries. Even so, the eco-message is sound and enjoyably conveyed. The cinema audience broke into spontaneous applause at the end. I guess it’s obvious that The Road is a ‘better’ movie than Avatar with stronger dialogue and acting, but Avatar will reach more people.

This week planet-saving talks collapsed at Copenhagen and the date environmentalists have focussed on for the past two or three years has gone and achieved worse than nothing. It’s telling that both movies started from the point of giving up on Earth’s ecosystems. The pristine perfection of Pandora (the planet in Avatar) recalls all those nature documentaries with David Attenborough voice-overs. I sometimes wonder if that’s the only Nature we learn to care about. The Road angrily wipes out our messy, compromised natural world altogether for a purer form of wilderness. I’m pretty excited to see ecology at the heart of our most mainstream movies, but what I’d really like to see now are films that make us care for the natural world as it is here and now, fractured and astonishing.


  1. Absolutely, Kathleen. The failure a Copenhagen makes that just the place to start - where we are, with all its screw-ups and flashes of joy!
    Thanks for the thoughtful reviews!

  2. Thanks, and we have a new decade beginning for that work to start. Happy holidays!

  3. Thanks for these reviews, Kathleen. In Avatar, the 'great white male' is rescued in the first place (from ravening dino-dogs of some sort) by a great blue female, and in one of the film's final scenes she is cradling the much smaller and weaker body of the white male in her arms.

    I haven't seen the film of The Road yet, but I have read the book. Interesting that you see it as 'riven by ecophobia'. I felt, rather, that the book, brilliant as it is, entertains a very deep thread of misanthropy. McCarthy allows tiny flashes of human compassion and his final image is one of beauty in nature - the trout in the mountain stream.

    happy new year

  4. Thanks for commenting, Caspar, and happy new year. You're right to moderate my comments on race and gender in Avatar - what happens to the hero at the movie's end also complicates things. Even so, that it takes a US marine to organise the natives' revolt makes me weary.
    McCarthy in The Road does seem to use absolute violence against man and nature to enable those compassionate flashes to break through the deep misanthropy and ecophobia. Perhaps I should have said that for me the ecophobia is articulated in the disaster itself followed by the representations of cold skies, death-trap forests and desolate sea, articulating both the old sense of the word (fear of home) and the newer sense (hatred of nature, via a parallel with homophobia I think).