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John Scalzi – Hey, Who Put the Environment in My Science Fiction Flick?

Here’s a question from the mailbag that is tuned into current events:

Given what’s happening in the Gulf of Mexico right now, what are the chances that we’ll see movies in the future about environmental destruction or the collapse of civilization? Are there a bunch of dreary science fiction environmental lectures waiting for us?

I do think it’s pretty likely that in the future we’re going see science-fiction movies on these themes, although I think the proximate cause will be less about the oil spill and more about a gusher of another sort: Avatar, which was (at least nominally) an environmentally conscious science-fiction film and which, as we all know, brought in a couple of billion and change at the worldwide box office. There were folks who derided it for its environmental messages, just as there were people who derided it for its story — depictions of the native inhabitants of Pandora, etc. — but, in the end, it’s money that provides the lessons for the movie studios, and, in this particular case, the lesson would be this: environmental themes don’t (necessarily) hurt your box office.
Not only that, but environmental themes, and the commensurate
themes of environmental destruction, aren’t new in the science-fiction
field, as films from Silent Running to WALL•E
make amply clear. Science-fiction films have a running conversation
with contemporary culture about its anxieties, which is why the fifties
brought us radioactively mutated monsters; the sixties and seventies allegories
about racial tensions and overpopulation; and why, today, biological
themes, from zombies to genetic engineering, pepper the landscape.

concerns have been a constant theme in science fiction over the last
few decades; even if it’s not the top attention getter, the theme can
certainly add spice. Star Trek VI blew up a Klingon energy
factory (and the moon it was on) to create an environmental crisis that
gets the ball rolling for the rest of the film, which was not really
about environmental issues from then on. Blade Runner and The
, neither of which are directly about environmental collapse,
certainly wouldn’t be as cinematically evocative as they are if they
took place in a future in which the sun was allowed to peek out from
behind the clouds now and again.

Now, while the environment is a
favorite sci-fi-film motif, either directly or as a flavoring
to more direct themes, the question is whether the Gulf of Mexico spill will, in
itself, act directly as a motivator to filmmakers. My short answer: got
me. I do think the oil gushing into the gulf right now does
rub our nose in the fact that our favorite power source — oil — is getting
harder to find and that the risks in getting to it are higher. It also
points out that one of the consequences of our energy-dependent
lifestyles is the potential despoliation of nature. But these are not
things we didn’t know before Deepwater Horizon blew up, so,
unless science-fiction filmmakers go out and create a movie that
features an obviously analogous situation, it’s going to be hard to directly credit its

That’s rarely how these things work, in any event.
What the oil spill does is bring issues of energy acquisition and
environmental fragility to the forefront of our culture’s consciousness,
where they become huge shares of our national and international
conversation between ourselves. Those concerns, in a general sense, get
into our art: not just films but also books, music, television, video games,
and so on. Like I said before: science-fiction films have a running
conversation with common culture. If we’re thinking about it, it’s going
to show up in our science fiction. We’re definitely thinking about oil
these days, and what it’s doing to the Gulf of Mexico, its waters, its
beaches, and its wildlife. Directly or (as is more likely) indirectly,
we’ll see that reflected in what we see onscreen.

The challenge
for filmmakers will be to tap into those themes and anxieties without
making them seem like part of a lecture. Avatar and WALL•E succeeded
because, even though they made their points about the consequences of
environmental despoliation, those points supported the adventure stories
of their protagonists. In a film that’s not a documentary (and even
then, albeit in a different way), if you’re not entertaining the
audience, they’re not going to pay attention to whatever environmental
points you wanted to make anyway.

So to answer the question:
yes, you’re likely to see environmentally themed science fictions in the
future. We would have, even without the spill. Will they be dreary? If
they are, they won’t be in the theaters for long. And that will
be a lesson Hollywood learns quickly.

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