1979’s The China Syndrome was produced at a time when the nuclear industry lacked stringent safety and oversight protocols. The screenwriters took a cue from news headlines to write their fictional thriller. But when a partial meltdown occurred at the Three-Mile Island nuclear facility a few days after the release of the film, the movie came to stand for the evils of nuclear power in the mind of the public. Despite subsequent overhauls of nuclear regulation, long-term opinion has continued to be influenced by the movie in ways the film-makers never dreamed of. In similar fashion, when looking at how energy is treated in films, we can see snapshots of not only our historic relationship with the resources that power our world but the viewpoints that helped shape public opinion as well.
Consider 1922’s Buster Keaton short comedy The Electric House. The movie was made when electricity was beginning to emerge as a common source of power. Households across America were being electrified and many viewed the new technology with guarded anticipation. Throughout the movie, Keaton used electrical gadgetry to great comic effect; he visually balances a line between whimsical (and attractive) efficiency and unexpected results. This played well to moviegoers, who were fascinated by the promise of these labor-saving devices but also a bit fearful of how they’d actually work. Today, of course, we’re still enamored with electrical gadgets and still worried they may take over our lives (hence using the term “Crackberry” for a Blackberry cell phone).
Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926) shows a very different view of energy. From the opening images of clean and efficient pistons or the wonders of a modern energized city to the hellish sequences of enslaved power workers, it is clear Lang is conflicted about the role of technology. Despite its promise to transform life, energy comes at a cost. In the midst of an industrial accident, for instance, the hero of the film sees an electrical generator change into the ancient god Moloch, who requires costly sacrifice. And in the famous transformation sequence, rings of electricity pulsate around a robot, transforming it into a woman that misleads workers into destroying the systems that maintain them. Lang seems to be issuing a warning: we can never master energy, only serve it. Such a negative view would appear time and time again in the following decades.
Although it’s a stable energy source and a source of jobs for many Americans, coal has seldom been portrayed in a favorable manner by screen writers. From How Green Was My Valley (1941) to Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980) and Matewan (1987), the industry is portrayed as dirty, dangerous, corrupt, and in favor of profiteering over community involvement. Not only is coal shown as environmentally degrading, but as an impetus towards the need for unions and protection for workers. If Metropolis showed the hellish situation of energy workers, coal movies pushed the need for reform. Despite our continued reliance on it, coal, of course, does come with huge environmental and health costs.
Nuclear energy has also had poor representation in recent films. The China Syndrome (1979) was mentioned earlier, but The Day the Earth Stood Still(1951), which voiced the fear of the universe after humans developed atomic power, and Silkwood (1984), a whistle-blower film about a nuclear fuel rod manufacturing plant, were equally influential in voicing concerns about the nuclear industry. Back to the Future (1985), on the other hand, showed a positive spin in that society, over time, can develop more advanced and simpler technological solutions, such as nuclear fusion. In the movie, a tremendous amount of electricity is generated by a banana peel and some other garbage scraps in what looks like an average kitchen appliance. Nuclear fusion, by the way, still lacks a design for a viable commercial fusion energy plant despite more than 50 years of research. We’re a long way away from a power plant the size of a Mr. Coffee.
Oil, of course, became a national focus after WWII and has become a particularly hot topic in recent films. Although it was initially portrayed favorably, the rampant petroleum development of the post-war period led to films like Wages of Fear (1953), in which the lives of four men are sacrificed to the needs of an oil well blow-out. Likewise, Giant (1956) visually portrays the contamination of an upscale family by the dirty business of oil. Later apocalyptic films like Mad Max (1979) or The Road (2009) portray the imagined results of our current addiction to fossil fuels. More complicated representations are seen in Syriana (2005) or The Kingdom (2007), that show the public the corruption, intrigue, social unrest, and confusion created by global oil markets. The positive role of oil offering freedom, as in “road” movies like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) or Easy Rider (1969), has changed to oil as a political weapon, such as the burning of the Iraqi fields in Jarhead (2005). Oil is shown as wealth, as seen in the corporate takeovers in Network (1976), and it is a source of corruption and degradation, as experienced by Daniel Day-Lewis’ character in There Will Be Blood (2007). Despite the fairly mundane day-to-day work of an average oil company worker, the villainous and corrupt Texan or Saudi Arabian oilman is as enduring a cliche as the image of the American cowboy.
Finally, there are futuristic films, like Star Wars (1979), Blade Runner (1982), Wall-E (2008), Star Trek (2009), or Tron: Legacy (2010) that envision future sources of power. Wall-E, in particular, contrasts the outmoded system of solar collection, as performed by the robot Wall-E in his world of trash-filled over-consumption, with the futuristic, unexplained power source used by the robot Eve and her world of cleanly efficient space travel, with its equally dangerous tendency towards over-consumption. And films like Monsters, Inc. (2001) demonstrate a need for energy, no matter what the cost (in this case, from the screams of children).
Each of these films is an artifact of its time, and each is an artifact of self-image. From brazen self-determination or social collapse to eventual energy transcendence, energy in the movies is a reflection of how we see ourselves. There are obviously many energy documentaries as well, but they usually don’t present the same kind of spin that fictional films show. Ultimately, the fables we created about ourselves decades ago are as revealing as the fables we create now.
NOTE: While researching this article, I discovered that there was a recent event in Austin TX covering the same topic. You can see their webpage here and read the twitter feed from the event here. Apparently great minds think alike 😉