Lighting up the Screen – how energy issues are depicted in movies

 Even in the depths of one of America’s gloomiest recessions, movie theatre revenues are booming. Americans spent around $10 billion at the box office in 2009 (online WSJ), a record for domestic revenue. The recent success of James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) in becoming the first $2 billion grossing movie in history is testament to the fact that US and international audiences are heading to the big screens in droves. Part of this increase may, I suspect, even be due to the recession. Hollywood productions offer their audiences a temporary escape from the harsh reality of the economy. What does this have to do with energy production and consumption you may ask? In the build-up to the Oscars and the images of celebrities whose paychecks are now entirely divorced from reality, I reflected upon the fact that very little of Hollywood’s output deals with the reality of energy. When was the last time you saw Kiefer Sutherland fill up his SUV tank in the middle of a chase in ’24’ (okay, that’s a television series but the image is funny), or George Clooney pay an electricity bill?

The reason is of course that these mundane realities aren’t things that audiences wish to see or be reminded of. However, when Hollywood scriptwriters and directors turn their attentions to the issues of energy and sustainability, the results can be engrossing and thought-provoking. One of my favorite movies of all time, Chinatown (1974) deals with subterfuge and murder within the murky world of….water irrigation.  The Matrix (1999), which has been around long enough now to be regarded as a science-fiction classic, imagines a world darkened by a perpetual nuclear winter, in which the only energy source available to the conquering race of machines is that power output of the human body itself. Thus humans are harvested in pods for their energy output. I am sure that if Professor Webber was advising the Wachowski brothers he would point out the thermodynamic inconsistency in this idea; since humans need energy from food in order to generate that power output (else dieting would be a lot easier!!!).  Nevertheless, it makes for a cool story and enables Keanu Reeves to roll out his barely-human style of acting without a backlash.

The aforementioned Avatar attempts to illustrate energy and sustainability issues through the conflict between homo sapiens and the blue-skinned “Na’vi” humanoids of Pandora. We humans are depicted as pillaging the pristine environment of Pandora for a mineral called “Unobtanium” that sells for $20 million (in 2154 A.D. dollars) a kilogram. When the movie’s protagonist, Jake Sully, is being inducted in the tribe in his avatar form, he learns that the Na’vi believe that energy cannot be created, only borrowed. Their harmonious philosophy to energy conservation draws parallels with traditional Native American culture, which was ultimately bulldozed (for the most part) by Western settlers. As a result the movie has been taken by some to be an attack on American energy use and foreign policy. In my opinion, its too simplistic to call Avatar a “tree-hugger” movie, since it does raise the valid question of what we, as a Western society, are going to do when the fossil fuels of this planet are exhausted? Onto the next planet perhaps?

Back on Planet Earth, P.T. Anderson’s 2007 epic “There will be Blood” deals with the story of an early 20th century settler, Daniel Plainview (brilliantly played by Daniel Day-Lewis) who builds a fortune on oil prospecting, at the expense of everything else in his life. I encourage any of you who have not seen this movie to rent it, if only for the visceral scenes of oil drilling and mining, at a time when the concept of “health and safety” was about as alien as a blue skinned being. Probably the most memorable moment of this movie is when Plainview illustrates the concept of oil reserve drilling using  a series of straws and a milkshake. I confidently predict that a repeat demonstration by Professor Webber would be a Youtube hit, at least amongst the ETP community.

Sources:

McBride, Sarah, “Cinema surpassed DVD Sales in 2009”, The Wall Street Journal online, January 4th, 2010, Technology section.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Lighting up the Screen – how energy issues are depicted in movies

  1. bhgully

    Movies have such an incredible ability to evoke emotional, insightful feelings and lessons within us. Almost as incredible as the speed with which we can shed them after leaving the theater.

    This subject is very interesting to me both as an artist and an “energ-ineer,” and I’ve actually considered it quite a bit in the past. The amount of resources that would be required for such extensive, detailed set building, only to be demolished the next week, is staggering – and more examples aren’t hard to imagine. Yet, this behavior is entirely encouraged by our willingness to pay, as a society. As an artist, it saddens me the difficulty I see in my peers attempting to make a living in our modern society through any means of traditional art. It seems as if society has transferred these creative artistic interests – at least financially – primarily to the film and television industry; which is arguably much more energy intensive than painting and writing. This also seemingly coincides with a collective transition away from desiring intellectual & creative quality to more easily accessible, pure entertainment. We want minimal effort and maximum comfort, that much is clear. Thanks energy.

    But then isn’t any kind of art a waste of energy and resources? If we allow ourselves to think abstractly enough of a society that is counting its energy pennies (so to speak), shouldn’t art be one of the first things to go? And feeding artists? They aren’t contributing to society? What a terrible train of thought we have encroached upon now… Does art contribute to happiness more than Air Conditioning? Which is more deserving of our high value energy resources?

    I’m not trying to make a sound argument, as there are obviously a LOT of assumptions going into that, but food for thought/perspectives…

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