We are in Porto, Portugal, for an interdisciplinary international conference, and already we are impressed by the beauty of this old city. As usual, because I find seats on a passenger jet too uncomfortable to sleep, I used the time to catch up on some movies, including I, Tonya, with Margot Robbie’s Oscar-quality performance in the title role of the controversial, but undeniably outstanding figure skater, and Andrew Niccol’s recent science fiction neo-noir, Anon, which depicts an all-too-believable future dystopian society that is digitally saturated (and controlled), except for one — or perhaps a few — individuals who have mastered the art of eluding the all-encompassing web of digital surveillance, remaining ‘anonymous’, as the title suggests.
Both of these captivating films are worth writing about, but here I want to concentrate on another one that I viewed, because it exemplifies the approach to nature that has landed humanity in the ecological mess in which it is caught today, as well as marking the one side of countervailing discourses defining the arena of contemporary ecological discourse, namely Geostorm (Dean Devlin, 2017; Warner Bros).
The usual, boringly predictable Hollywood plot is hardly worth spending time on, but briefly, it involves the construction of a globe-spanning system of satellites called Dutch Boy (presumably after the legendary Dutch boy who saved Holland from being flooded by sticking his finger into a hole in a leaking dyke), controlled from the International Climate Space Station (ICSS). The reason for Dutch Boy’s construction by a large team of international scientists and technology experts, is for controlling the increasingly unpredictable and violent natural phenomena which accompany global climate change.
At an early stage of the narrative’s unfolding, there is international control of the Dutch Boy system, but this changes in favour of American control when the designer of Dutch Boy is relieved of his duties and replaced by his brother, who works for the US Secretary of State, because of alleged insubordination when he is instrumental in unilaterally neutralising a typhoon by means of Dutch Boy.
To cut to the chase: the Dutch Boy system starts malfunctioning, causing anomalous events such as a desert village freezing over and a massive hailstorm in Tokyo. Jake, the initial architect of Dutch Boy, is enlisted to intervene by his brother, Max, to restore the system, but predictably, sabotage is discovered at the highest levels of US government, motivated by the desire to control the Dutch Boy system unilaterally without international interference.
The rest of the story is the usual cops and robbers Hollywood fare, before the cowboy (Jake) saves the day, with the beautiful, admiring woman (scientist) by his side, in the process fulfilling the (usual) paternal promise to his young daughter, to do so.
What is interesting about the film, as already hinted at above, is its macho approach to the manifestations of climate change — it is the ‘shoot-from-the-hip’ approach, with ne’er a thought of perhaps changing to different, nature-friendly practices. In this respect it embodies the worst of American gun-culture — when there is a problem, even in the shape of an imminent ‘Geostorm’ (something that was rapidly being actualised by the malfunctioning system in the film, but ultimately prevented by Jake and his team) — ‘zap’ it before it gets out of hand.
There is even a scene early in the film that confirms this literally, when Jake arrives at a hotel for a meeting about his jurisdiction over the functioning of Dutch Boy, and the doorman recognises him as the techno-‘hero’ who saved the world from the cataclysmic effects of climate change. Looking at Jake with admiration, the doorman exclaims: “Zap…Zap…!”, indicating with his hands the imagined intervention of the satellite system in weather events when they go out of kilter. The message is clear: when the planetary meteorological system becomes a threat to humankind’s safety — as a result of human economic and technological stupidity, by the way, which caused catastrophic climate change in the first place — then it must be reined in by force.
There is a scene near the beginning of the film where one sees Dutch Boy in action: as a set of extreme weather conditions takes shape somewhere on Earth, Dutch Boy launches what seem like warheads aimed at the heart of the weather system, where they can be seen exploding one after the other. Zap, Zap! In this way the weather event is disrupted and neutralised through technology; which is a major theme of the film, by the way: if nature misbehaves, use technological force to bring her into line. Geostorm is truly a film worthy of everything Donald Trump represents.
In the introductory voice-over narration, by Jake’s young daughter, Hannah, she outlines the growing urgency for ‘taking action’ in the face of deteriorating climate conditions. Phrasing it in characteristically belligerent American terms, she observes that, when the climate had become intolerable, human beings decided “to fight back”. Needless to say, this is a distortion of the true state of affairs — nature never fought against humanity. Nature is just nature, sometimes inhospitable to human beings, sometimes accommodating them with her bounty. After centuries (since the industrial revolution) of abuse by humans, certain natural ‘Earth processes’ have reached the critical point where ‘tipping points’ could be activated, including catastrophic climate change, ocean acidification and species extinction (see here).
The most unfortunate thing about a film like Geostorm is that it is cinema, and as Walter Benjamin observed in the first half of the twentieth century already, cinema is a very powerful artform — even when it is bad cinema like this. The audiovisual nature of film, together with a narrative in which the audience is put in the position where the camera’s point of view ‘constructs’ their subjectivity in certain ways through ‘smooth’ Hollywood editing, has a powerful effect on their understanding of the narrative.
Relatively few people have the critical acumen to resist this cinematic force that is part and parcel of the medium; once you understand its workings, however, you can step back and judge a film according to its merit, or lack of it. And Geostorm, while participating in cinema’s power, misuses it ideologically by persuading audiences that nature is our enemy, and the only way to deal with her is to ‘put her on the rack’ (to wring her secrets from her), as Francis Bacon advised in the 17th century. Unfortunately his advice has come home to roost.
I could contrast the cinematic travesty that is Geostorm with a host of other commendable films involving humanity’s relationship with nature. Think of Luc Jacquet’s 2013 masterpiece, Once Upon a Forest, in which he uncovers the secrets of the forest as an intricate, albeit vulnerable ecosystem, or for that matter his earlier Oscar-winning March of the Penguins, which focuses on the life-cycle of a specific species of bird, both of which display a deep respect for the complex relationships among nature’s creatures.
Or I could recommend Love Thy Nature (another film I viewed during our flight), a 2016 multi-award-winning film directed by Sylvie Rokab and narrated by Liam Neeson. Contrary to the ideological trash concerning humans’ relationship with nature, dished out by Geostorm, the splendid cinematography of Love Thy Nature presents nature in all her beauty, while simultaneously reminding viewers of the extent of human alienation from nature in the present era. Nor does the director hesitate to highlight the indispensable need for humans to rediscover our essential connectedness with nature, lest our (as well as other life-forms’) well-being be fatally undermined.
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