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Monday, 24 October 2016

New Situations, Old Problems, Softened Impact - Part 3

Once again, I'm splitting this into a series of blog posts, as what I've got to say about this multi-part quirk in the creation of fiction would create an uncomfortably long post. So I'm splitting it into as many parts as it needs.

The title this time isn't very self-explanatory, at least I don't think so. It's the way that settings may change or new settings may be revealed, but the issues many stories tackle are just the same. This is true for oral tales, books, comic books, films, television productions, and video games. In the first part, I discussed racism, and how its fantastic or distant portrayal could create a disconnect with racism as it still manifests in the real world. In the second subdivided part, I covered polytheistic and monotheistic religions and how their portrayals and subsequent impact vary. In this entry, I'm looking at environmental issues.

Environmentalism has become a prevalent subject in fiction and in documentaries. Global warming, deforestation, acid rain... There are any amount of both impartial views and scare films surrounding these. But environmental messages stretch back quite a way in books, television and films, and how they approach it has likewise varied. In this post, rather than looking at a large number of different approaches, I'll be looking at a few and contrasting how they spoke to me about the issues they were tackling. I'm taking them from the realm of film, as they're one of the most readily-accessible and easily-absorbed media of today, and hold clear and powerful examples.

Environmental themes can be interpreted in several ways, but for this entry I'm taking the type where humans are affecting Earth's environment through things like greenhouse gas figures, adversely affecting animal numbers, and deforestation in search of either timber or even mineral or field resources. The most recent film to make use of this element is Avatar, an epic CGI extravaganza from the pen/camera of James Cameron. It portrays (in a fashion very like Disney's Pocahontas) the struggles between a heavily industrialized humanity and the native primitive population of another unspoiled planet, with some Gaia Hypothesis mysticism thrown in. Its take on environmentalism, while mixed in with themes similar to those inspired by the historical exoduses and persecutions of Native Americans, sways heavily towards the preservation of the natural world, even at the potential cost of an entire race that threatens it. In a very non-subtle and preachy way, it treats humans as an invasive pest species to be turfed out.

The 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still also takes this angle, switching from the original's theme of nuclear apocalypse forestalled by an outside agency to a cold evaluation of humanity's overall destructive effect on the environment. It is also highly unsympathetic to the majority of humanity, showing them as contemptible and brutish with a few exceptions where life experience, curiosity or innocence drives them beyond a primal base. Klaatu as depicted in the remake is also highly unconvincing as a saviour for humanity, coming off as someone who is both quick to judge and easy to influence, making the message become corrupted as much of the film is told from his side. Like Avatar, its environmental subtext is delivered in a preachy way, and subsequently fails to drive home anything but a despondent cynicism related to humanity's future and ability to grow.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are many works by Hayao Miyazaki, who has very firm views on humanity and the preservation of the natural world. While Nausicaa of the Valley of the WindPom Poko, Castle in the Sky and Ponyo show these themes strongly, his most nuanced and decided expression of his environmental feelings is Princess Mononoke. Set in Medieval Japan, when modern gunpowder weapons were just beginning to be introduced, it shows its environmentalism through both a clash of cultures in the Emishi princes Ashitaka and the Honsho population of Irontown, and the conflict between the humans led by the ambitious Lady Eboshi and the Kami and Yokai (or "Mononoke") of the forest. The film's resolution is in stark contrast with Avatar, with the main conclusion being a truce between humans and the supernatural, with Ashitaka leading the humans towards finding balance while his new friend/love San tends to her natural forest realm.

A film that I enjoyed, and that tells these themes in a recognizable way, is The Day After Tomorrow, a film by Roland Emmerich that uses humanity's unwitting influence on the climate as a backdrop for a personal tale rather than the be-all end-all of the story. The basic premise is that global warming has triggered violent climate shifts that have triggered a new Ice Age following a thermohaline shutdown. This does place humanity as the main cause, but it also shows how humans pull together in the face of such a terrible event. It also just tells the simple story of a father's journey to save his son, and that son's struggles to survive in the growing snow and ice. This presentation makes the entire scenario seem real, and thus drives it home with a bit more force.

Strangely enough, environmentalism hasn't softened over the years it's become part of the recurring thematic material used by writers in all media, but their differing ranges of nuance and bluntness had provoked different reactions. From the likes of Avatar and the new The Day The Earth Stood Still, it comes across as someone shouting off-key through a megaphone, which always makes me want to cover my ears rather than listen. With the original Princess Mononoke and The Day After Tomorrow, the message feels more gently and skillfully delivered, and you feel like you're listening to something important. There are other films of its like out there, such as Emmerich's similar but later 2012, the fairly morbid The Road, the pinprick message in the fourth Star Trek film, and many more - but the four I've mentioned above show the two extremes that have come to dominate, and I leave it to you to judge which can best change our ways, and shift our beliefs.

Next week is the start of a hiatus from this particular series, as I head off to BristolCon. My next post will be about my experiences there, and my impression on what's going on.

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