Sustainability on Film

Words | Kelly Lindsay 

Image via Flickr 

Climate fiction, or ‘cli-fi’ as it’s often shortened to, is a genre of films which focus on the topic of climate change and global warming. These are often dystopian in nature, set in a doomsday future with the intent to scare us into action or suffer the apocalyptic consequences.

Sustainability sets new ground in cli-fi. Instead of being set in the future, we stay in the present, forced to reflect on the changes we can make to ourselves, rather than relying on a mass of others. Films such as Into the Wild (2007), Wild (2014), Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016), and Captain Fantastic (2016) are not simply wilderness retreats – they add insight to sustainability within the genre, while adding to the overall importance of cli-fi.

In the biographical film Into the Wild, Christopher McCandless is a radical who opposes his consumerist, nuclear family upbringing in the belief that it corrupted him. He retreats into the wilderness as a way to be reborn. But from a viewer’s perspective, the film is difficult to grapple with emotionally, as both the suburban and the natural scenery can be empathised with. On one hand, we can relate to Chris’s anger when asked to place his name on a thirteen year waiting list just to kayak down the Colorado River. Yet, we can also relate to his parents, who clearly love their son but have allowed the picture of the ‘perfect family in suburbia’ to cloud their decision making. In terms of sustainability, the film forces the audience to see both the pros and cons of the two worlds, which in turn triggers self-reflection on what we choose to live with and what we choose to live without.

Similarly, Wild follows a retreating protagonist who hopes to rediscover herself in the wilderness. The difference here is that the protagonist retreats to the wilderness as a punishment, as she feels she deserves to be bare and exposed. Her survival represents a forgiveness by nature. Surviving within nature in this film is both a solace and a reward. It offers peace and space against an ever-encapsulating technological world.

Conversely, Hunt for the Wilderpeople offers a parody to the role of sustainability in film. Critique is made at the authorities who try to enforce narrow-minded views on the ‘best environment’ for children – the nuclear family. Mockery of the authorities ultimately undermines the suburban world against the logic of the natural world, with the message being that man can never simply be left to be man. The laws of society will always over-regulate and impair individual freedom. Thus, the natural environment is shown to be better.

While Captain Fantastic incorporates similar comedy, it’s much like Into the Wild in that it pits two extreme worlds against one another. The characters in the film must ultimately find a middle ground if they are to find peace between both. Captain Fantastic teaches us that we cannot escape consumerism entirely, and that as individuals, it is upon us to find the ability to live sustainably by whatever means possible. Overall, the film suggests a version of trendy sustainability, while also setting a bar for it. In doing so, it prompts the audience to follow.

Finally, just as sustainability is important to widening the branches of cli-fi, its importance goes beyond the genre – to the medium of film itself. It shows us a way to change, and not by simply painting a portrait of a possible future if we don’t change our ways. It also appeals to popular culture, by using our still natural world and promoting a visual that can be aspired to and achieved. Sustainability as a cinematic theme offers new stimulation, and it sends a message much stronger than its predecessors.  


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