Lights, camera…conservation? That’s right – often, behind their glitz and glamour, Hollywood movies have a strong environmental message. And, if you think about it, what better way to get a lot of people to take note of an issue than by making it the star of the show?
There’s no denying Hollywood’s tastemaking power. Consider, for instance, how many girls were named Bella in honour of the Twilight heroine, or the generation of young men who, following the release of Trainspotting in the ‘90s, bleached their hair to look like Sickboy.
In the same way, films that carry a strong message are often taken to heart – and Hollywood’s moguls have a long history of using their clout to get audiences thinking and acting. In the 1970s, for example, Jack Nicholson took the starring role in Chinatown, a film which pitted his character against those who wished to corrupt the water supply. The result – a new awareness of the importance of a clean water supply!
Jaws, a story about a giant Great White Shark that terrorises a seaside community, had moviegoers paralysed by fear in 1975, when it tapped into one of the most primal of human fears. To the dismay of many environmentalists, Jaws cemented a perception that sharks are human-culling machines, a perception that remains largely entrenched nearly four decades after the film’s release, in spite of the fact that shark attacks – relatively speaking – are pretty rare, and the fact that humans are not, in fact, part of sharks’ normal prey.
The film had a dual impact: it initiated a precipitous decline in shark populations due to a spike in the number of shark ‘kill tournaments’ as fishermen aspired to catch a trophy shark. On the other hand, it also encouraged new studies of sharks. Prior to the release of Jaws, very little was known about these marine predators but, with renewed interest in the species, increased funding for shark research became available. In the final analysis, says Robert Huerter of the Centre for Shark Research in Florida, US, Jaws was a positive thing for the science of sharks because it elevated the public’s interest in these animals.
Silkwood, a 1983 drama starring Meryl Streep and Cher, was inspired by the life of Karen Silkwood, a nuclear power whistleblower and labour union activist who died in a suspicious car accident while investigating alleged wrongdoing at the plutonium plant where she worked. This line was continued with the release of Erin Brokovich, starring Julia Roberts in the lead role; the story of a single mother who discovers that a local water supplier has been knowingly supplying water which is contaminated with a carcinogenic substance.
Happy Feet highlighted the impact that fishing has on animal wellbeing, in particular the plight of penguin populations from commercial overfishing in the seas around Antarctica. The film took some creative licence – while some penguin species such as the Galapagos Penguin are endangered, not all species are threatened, and penguins generally pay little attention to human visitors. But it successfully highlighted the dangers of depleting fish stocks, something more people are now aware of. What’s more, it directed its message at children, who are bound to use their nagging power to encourage their parents to adopt more environmentally friendly behaviours.
Finding Nemo was another film which focused on marine environmental awareness. The animated film showed the impact of human intervention on wildlife in the ocean and the negative effect this has, including the fact that Nemo, a small clownfish, was taken by a diver out of his natural habitat, the practice of explosive mines being placed underwater creating danger for marine wildlife, and the capture of thousands of fish from oceans.
Director James Cameron’s movie Avatar was intended as a lesson to humankind to stop damaging the environment and what the consequences would be of abusing the planet’s resources. At the time of its release it was the most expensive movie ever made and went on to surpass Titanic in terms of gross revenue and, certainly, it raised public awareness of the impact of human ravages on our planet.
More recently, The Promised Land, starring Matt Damon, centres on the controversial dangers of fracking. Damon, an outspoken critic of fracking, came under fire for having a transparent agenda. The film was further panned when it was revealed that it was financed by charter members of the OPEC cartel. To add insult to injury, the film was not particularly well received by either critics or movie-goers!
Next time you dismiss movies as just a bit of mental candyfloss, think again – could there be a link between Nemo and your new recycling habit?
Hollywood celebs making a difference
It’s the trendy thing to pay lip service to environmental issues, but few Hollywood stars manage to live up to high environmental standards – with a few notable exceptions; a handful of A-listers really do walk the talk and make a difference.
Actress Natalie Portman – in addition to her work with the One Voice Movement and Global Green USA – has taken a personal interest in the plight of Rwanda’s mountain gorillas. In 2007 she hosted a documentary called Gorillas on the Brink which focused on how environmental changes have threatened the lives of these highly endangered animals. Portman practises what she preaches in her own life too: even her engagement ring is apparently eco-friendly, and made from recycled platinum and conflict-free diamonds!
Australian actress Cate Blanchett is another celeb who has actively taken the plight of the environment to heart: not only is her home eco-friendly, running as it does on solar power and reusing rainwater, but together with her husband (both are co-artistic directors of the Sydney Theatre Company) she is intent on making the Sydney Theatre the first off-the-grid theatre in the world. Blanchett is also the face of the Australian Conservation Foundation’s ‘Who on Earth Cares?’ initiative, which encourages people to fight the effects of global climate change.
Actress Darryl Hannah has long been at the forefront of the green movement in the US, vociferously protesting actions counter to her beliefs. She also hosts a weekly web series, DH Loves Life, where she talks about sustainable solutions.
Tired of seeing her fellow Hollywood stars pretending a concern for the environment while stepping out of environmentally unfriendly limos and SUVs, actress Penelope Cruz set about changing the way Hollywood travels with the establishment of the Red Carpet/Green Cars campaign, which encourages celebs to travel to red carpet functions in environmentally-conscious hybrid cars and sustainable fuel vehicles. A number of high-profile celebs have supported her campaign including George Clooney and Brad Pitt with the ‘green car line’ at the Oscars reputedly growing larger each year.
After having a baby, actress Jessica Alba launched The Honest Company, which produces organic, non-toxic, eco-friendly products for mothers and babies, after discovering that so many baby products contain toxic substances and chemicals that can hinder development.
There is no doubt that people are influenced by these so-called opinion leaders and that celebrity support of the environmental issues raises the profile of the challenges facing our planet.