Discovering good movies, one bad movie at a time

In honor of Earth Day, the Alternate Ending team is celebrating movies about the environment and the marvelous, fragile planet we all share with a Top 5 Environmental Movies episode. Environmental films come in all kinds of different flavors: flatly message-oriented activist documentaries like An Inconvenient Truth, thematically-charged features like the eco-fable Avatar, or movies where environmental themes just hang around in the background, such as Erin Brockovich.

In the Worth Mentioning segment, Carrie brings Split (2016) to the table while Rob shares another James McAvoy flick Victor Frankenstein (2015).

Tim missed on the recording fun, but here were his picks and the reasons why:

5. Erin Brockovich (2000)
“Social issues buried inside a crowd-pleasing thriller centered around movie stars” is a surprisingly robust genre: Silkwood, The China Syndrome, Norma Rae all present themselves as obvious forerunners to Steven Soderbergh’s glossy, enormously palatable story of a foul-mouthed single mother who unexpectedly takes on a huge corporation and wins. This is far and away my favorite of all of them; Julia Roberts is actively terrific, and the script is a snappy, joyfully sarcastic bit of old-fashioned Hollywoodiana.

4. Still Life (2006)
Jia Zhangke’s Golden Lion winner doesn’t show up much in discussions of the director’s most important films, but it very much should. It’s a quiet, semi-documentary sideways glance at how natural and human environments can be equally fragile in overlapping ways, and a thoughtfully dubious portrait of China’s eager race to maximize industrial development at the cost of its history.

3. Pom Poko (1994)
Studio Ghibli has an enviable store of some of the finest environmentalist stories in the history of animation, and if you told me Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind was their best work in this area, I would be powerless to argue against you. My favorite, though, this is visually dynamic fable about nature rousing itself to resist the implacable crush of suburbanisation, using creative character animation, wit, mordant melancholy, and a healthy dose of mysticism to hit us from every side.

2. WALL·E (2008)
Whatever can one say? From the opening images of Earth awash in an endless sea of trash, right up to the joyful triumph of the end credits sequence, I can’t name another movie so didactically committed to its environmentalist themes while being so beautiful, funny, and fun alongside it. The exploration of a ruined planet in that opening 10 minutes would be enough to get on this list without anything else.

1. Koyaanisqatsi (1982)
“Life out of balance” – “a state of life that calls for a different way of living”. Maybe it’s new-agey hippie tosh; I honestly don’t care. Without a single word of dialogue, Godfrey Reggio’s pageant of hectic, deadening modern life contrasting with the sweeping grandeur of the U.S. Southwest could not possibly make a stronger, more transporting argument about the things we’ve lost in the transition to a highly technocratic society. Ron Fricke’s cinematography and Philip Glass’s score are two of the utmost treasures of 1980s cinema.

Tim also apologizes for not having seen Cane Toads: An Unnatural History


An Inconvenient Truth (2006)
Avatar (2009)
The Day After Tomorrow (2004)
Food, Inc. (2008)
The East (2013)


Promised Land (2012)
Erin Brockovich (2000)
Snowpiercer (2013)
WALL·E (2008)
Avatar (2009)


Koyaanisqatsi (1982)
WALL·E (2008)
Pom Poko (1994)
Still Life (2006)
Erin Brockovich (2000)

19 Responses so far.

  1. Not Fenimore says:

    Going by my trusty “first movie to pop into my head” standard, the answer is Avatar. And I’m not too unhappy about that.

  2. Caleb says:

    1. Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind
    2. Princess Mononoke
    3. Wall*E
    4. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
    5. Avatar


  3. WBTN says:

    Lemme see

    1. Wall-E
    2. Chinatown (I guess? One of those Erin Brockovich cases where it’s mostly in the background. Good movie, though)
    3. Koyaanisqatsi
    4. Safe
    5. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (gotta put a Miyazaki movie on a list when I can)

  4. Caleb says:

    If I’m being honest though I’d probably bump Avatar off the list for Happy Feet as the better film, but Avatar just feels too iconic to this “genre” not to get some recognition.

    I’m also excluding all of Disney’s wonderful nature films somewhat arbitrarily on the grounds that they were mostly repackages of Planet Earth episodes.

  5. Diane Wolfe says:

    Never Cry Wolf
    Silent Running
    An Inconvenient Truth
    The Wind (1928)
    March of the Penguins

  6. Tyler "Bio" Rodriguez says:

    Well I feel the pool of good movies about the environment are fairly small. Best one I feel is Princess Mononoke, though most if not all Miyzaki films fall into the same category I just feel Mononoke did it best. I would include Wall-E but Andrew Stanton has always said its not about the environment it was just an excuse to have a barren Earth, although it does work well as one even if it was not intentional.

  7. Paul says:

    So there are other environmental movies i like better, but since no one has mentioned it yet: Star Trek IV: The Journey Home.

  8. Hunter Allen says:

    I was gonna say Soylent Green, but… sold.

    Though I suppose Moana is my new favorite.

  9. Yourself says:

    1.) Godzilla vs. Hedorah
    2.) Grizzly Man (more about nature than “the environment” but idk)
    3.) Princess Mononoke, which originally struck me as preachy, but on rewatch is obviously just animist Goetterdaemmerung.

    I thought about trying to logic in some stuff like Jurassic Park 3 or Tremors but I’d never think of them in the same breath as The China Syndrome or The Happenin’, so it seems more accurate to say I just haven’t enjoyed 5 environmental films.

  10. Stevie says:

    Difficult. Given that we’re celebrating Earth Day, I’m naming films that emphasise the importance of preserving the biodiversity of our planet and place that theme front and centre.

    1. An Inconvenient Truth – Too obvious, and I think all the films below are better than this, but it gets free points for being non-fiction. Plus, it scared the bejeezus out of me the first time I watched it.

    2. WALL-E – The best parts of this film have nothing to do with the environment whatsoever, and the last third of the film which puts this theme upfront is the weakest part. Nonetheless, can’t ignore that sand-blasted hellscape for the entire opening third, and the rampant commercialism that caused it to begin with.

    3. April and the Extraordinary World – It is an alternate version of our world, but it’s still unambiguously Planet Earth. Like 80% of the film is set in a smog-filled planet of death. Not a single frame goes by without reminding you of the poisoned earth that is left behind. Bonus: it sets the entire adventure into motion and remains the focus of the story.

    4. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers – An incredibly small part of an incredibly large movie, but Tolkien was very much a traditional environmentalist, and this theme at least survived the Jackson adaptation process. Look no further than the scorched earth of industrial Isengard and Treebeard’s mourning of his lost brethren. Bonus: The Battle of Helm’s Deep is still pretty damn badass.

    5. Princess Mononoke – A Miyazaki film was always going to end up here. While Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is better, and Spirited Away has that one bit with the river god, Mononoke is singular in that it is not full-on anti-progress, but rather pushes for sustainable development, which to me, is a nice thought.

    Honorary mentions:

    Mad Max: Fury Road – In terms of sheer quality, it’s number 1, no contest. However, despite the toxic environment being more of an issue here compared to the previous instalments of the series, the overthrowing of the patriarchy takes greater precedence. Plus I have to minus points for all the fuel-guzzling cars and the sheer failure of resource management that is the waterfall.

    Avatar – An eco-fable alright, but it is unambiguously set on a fictional planet, which I will gladly dock points for (My excuse for LotR, Middle-Earth was always Planet Earth to begin with, going by Tolkien.)

    The Happening – For my favourite Bad Movie about the environment, it was never a contest. The Day After Tomorrow is too dull, and while Ferngully: The Last Rainforest has its moments, it is not as deliriously entertaining as this top-to-bottom misfire.

  11. Billy the Kid says:

    I nominated this for best religious movie, now I’ll nominate it for best environmental movie: Noah. A hero struggling to save the world from the ravages of man has never been portrayed more powerfully than in Darren Aronofsky’s film.

  12. I’m going with the Friz Freleng cartoon “Lumber Jerks”.

  13. Alex Frith says:

    Mad Max 2: the Road Warrior (especially for the oil dependency subplot)
    Nausicaa (which I slightly prefer over Mononoke, but both are great)
    Grizzly Man
    The Thin Red Line, for making the continual point that nature is eternal; human concerns such as war are ephemeral
    Kong: Skull Island (hey, I don’t have to justify myself, that’s your guys’s job)

  14. sting606 says:

    Finding out Pom Poko’s on Tim’s list makes me regret his absence. What I’d give to hear him discuss the use of testicles as weapons at length.

    • Carrie Jarosinski Carrie Jarosinski says:

      Haha! Sharing in your sadness, I think his school craziness ends in April. So, he should be back to his regularly scheduled teste banter next week.

  15. Not Fenimore says:

    I like how Rob is becoming a hipster. “Well, Wall-E is good, but other people will pick it, so…” That’s what you guys hired Tim to do, I thought. 😛

    And as a Canadian: we like our burgers just normal. (Which, I think, is about the same degree of cooking as Americans use.)

    Also also – you managed to use both my handle and my name during the episode, which was funny.

    • Carrie Jarosinski Carrie Jarosinski says:

      @Not Fenimore

      It’s like, “that band I love sucks major now, because sooooo many people listen to them now.”

      And thanks for confirming that Canadians are just, less rude. “They love burnt meat…” Seriously…

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