Eight Great Films About Nature
by Thomas Giblin (he/him)
culture & lifestyle writer
Cinema has always been fascinated with the power and mythology of the wilderness. Prototypical tales of the conflict between people and nature have always been narrative devices, from Victor Sjöströms 1928 film The Wind to the 2012 cult classic Piranha 3DD. In staging stories against the dramatics of the wilderness, the natural world becomes a metaphor for humanity. The melancholy transcendence of natural beauty evokes humanity's fervent obsession to conquer all that's before us and the non-conformism of going where no one has gone before. But nature is still an untamed beast that fights back against the human world – it's violent and indifferent.
Born out of the New German Cinema, Werner Herzog is a singular storyteller whose depictions of nature are torn between spiritualism and existentialism. He revels in its beauty and hostility, with the epic Fitzcarraldo being a testament to Herzog's desire to challenge nature itself.
The film's production was a bloodbath, as Herzog sought to recreate Carlos Fitzcarrald's feat of transporting a steamboat over an isthmus that connects two rubber trade routes in Peru. In transporting a 320-ton steamship over a hill, trouble blossomed; death, dissent and dysentery were commonplace. Famously, a chief from the Machiguenga tribe offered to kill Herzog's muse Klaus Kinski, as his erratic behaviour saw him clash with the cast and crew. Despite the film's troubled production, Fitzcarraldo is an extraordinary vision where nature violently morphs into an allegorical landscape of obsession and ambition.
Weathering with You (2019)
Makoto Shinkai, labelled "The New Miyazaki", a comparison he rebuffs, became an international phenomenon with Your Name, the third highest-grossing anime film of all time. Shinkai's luscious and vibrant photorealistic style has made his films an event on the filmic calendar and the subject of 'aesthetic' TikTok edits.
Weathering with You, inspired by the impact of climate change on Japan, features the story of Hodaka Morishima and Hina Amano – the latter has the power to control the weather. The film has sparked fierce debate, with some critics arguing that it's pro-global warming, downplaying the effect of climate change for the film's narrative. What isn't the subject of contention is Shinkai's worldbuilding – never has Tokyo's sky and scenery looked so magical. Each frame is startlingly beautiful, allowing any viewer for just under two hours to escape into a heartfelt dreamland that shimmers and thrills.
When thinking of acclaimed director Bong Joon-ho's filmography, Okja is often forgotten and ignored in favour of Parasite, Memories of Murder or The Host. Despite its giant Netflix-backed $80 million budget (his largest to date) and a stacked cast including Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Jake Gyllenhaal and Steven Yeun, Okja hasn't had the cultural impact expected from the Korean auteur. It's not my favourite Bong Joon-ho film, but I can recognise its brilliance as a thought-provoking sci-fi that's sweet, funny, scary and sad.
The film, a life-affirming green parable of Mija and her superpig, is ambitious, sometimes tonally uneven, but it disguises itself as another fantasy creature Disney film. You're gearing up to watch a cute film about a pig but are confronted with the horrors of corporate greed, 'ethical' consumption and animal cruelty. Parallels are drawn with Spielberg's E.T. However, Bong Joon-ho's films are a genre in themselves, with Okja being a must-watch for any animal lover.
The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961)
Six years after the release of The Day the Earth Caught Fire, Val Guest co-directed Casino Royale, a James Bond parody film that's best left banished to history. The 60s were an era of kitsch, but don't let The Day the Earth Caught Fire's campy title fool you. The looming existential threat of the Cold War permeates the cultural psyche. America and Russia, through reckless atomic testing, have altered the Earth's axis, and disaster ensues: a sweltering heatwave.
The film, an early example of sci-fi cinema tackling ecological concerns, presents the collapse of society in stark black-and-white, resisting pulpy genre urges. Grounded through the washed-up journalist Peter Stenning and the newsroom of the Daily Express, The Day the Earth Caught Fire feels startlingly contemporary. Its shrewd use of special effects means the film has aged kindly; its depiction of London as a withering wasteland is horrifyingly visceral.
Koyaanisqatsi (try pronouncing this) is a non-narrative documentary that has no conventional plot. Instead, we're shown slow-motion and time-lapse footage of natural landscapes, elemental forces and modern civilisation. Edited together as a grand symphony of life, with one of the most epic and original soundtracks ever, the film is a sensual feast, best experienced on the biggest screen possible or high with friends.
One of, if not the greatest animated films ever made, WALL·E, a story of a sentient robot left to clean up a waste-covered Earth, is Pixar's finest hour. From Andrew Stanton, WALL·E is a stunning swan song of love that still moves and dazzles me as it did upon my first viewing as a spiky-haired 8-year-old.
It's a marvel of visual storytelling when two silent lumps of metal can make you cry, but the film's depiction of Earth's destruction at the hands of a corporate monolith is hypocritical. Disney, whose parks are a symbol of unsustainability, uphold a system of corporate greed where the earth is exploited for profit. Is this the film's genius – to disguise pro-environmental and anti-consumerist messaging in a film about two robots falling in love?
First Reformed (2017)
Filmmaker Paul Schrader has always been preoccupied with masculinity - from his collaborations with Martin Scorsese to his contemporary works. Taxi Driver (a film he wrote) is considered one of the greatest films of all time, but his newer works such as The Canyons and Dying of the Light have disappointed. First Reformed, however, is a return to form – a revelatory tale of Pastor Ernst Toller, a tortured man undergoing a spiritual crisis.
Toller has a haunting encounter with a radical environmental activist and his pregnant wife, causing him to deteriorate as the world around him decays. The film, influenced by Schrader's adoration of Ozu, Bergman, Tarkovsky and Bresson, is an uncompromising vision that mortifies and transcends. First Reformed stares into the abyss of existential ecological terror, an epiphany of suffering.
Chernobyl, the world's worst nuclear disaster, has been dramatised in dozens of films, television shows and video games. But HBO's Chernobyl is the most harrowing. The event, a catalyst for the dissolution of the Soviet Union, is uncanny in its detailed recreation of Pripyat, the now abandoned city which housed the plant workers. Stark green fluorescent lighting, jarring wallpaper patterns and looming brutalist apartment towers capture the sickly atmosphere of dread.
Despite embellishing and inventing certain events and characters, namely Ulana Khomyuk, Chernobyl is a haunting nightmare. Its vision of the systemic breakdown of the truth terrifies – there is no comfort in death. An invisible threat is made visible - each fleck of dust radiates with the violence of a knife thrust. Bureaucrats are reprehensible, a product of a system which has dug its own grave. An event like Chernobyl was inevitable. Valery Legasov, the nuclear physicist tasked with leading the commission into the disaster, states that every "lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later, that debt is paid." Whilst this line is a narrative invention, it's a chilling reminder of the cost of lies.