Earth Day watchlist: 5 fun environmental movies that totally rock

Photo of Wall-E
Pixar Animation Studios/Courtesy

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Happy Earth Day! Even though today isn’t the only time of the year when the state of the planet occupies our minds, it’s important to take this day as an opportunity to practice gratitude and celebrate the beauty of the world we’re lucky enough to call home. Movies have proven a great instrument to amplify environmental issues, such as climate change, conservation, sustainability and wildlife protection. There are plenty of new and old documentaries that brilliantly examine the natural world, but documentaries aren’t everyone’s (reusable) cup of tea — instead, let’s look at some fictional films with strong environmental themes that you can watch during your Earth Day celebration.

“Wall-E”

We start with the classics: If you haven’t recently revisited this touchstone of your childhood, now’s the time to do it! Pixar’s “Wall-E” brings us into an empty city, a dust-filled hazy space teeming with trash. The scenery shows the embers of human life, but the human race has left its own planet to rot, leaving an unassuming, industrious robot (our protagonist, Wall-E) and his steadfast cockroach friend to compact the trash and clean up the mess. Meanwhile, humanity has become addicted to leisure, delivering a poignant critique of corporate consumerism.

On one hand, “Wall-E” is a brilliant, clever ecological parable, but it’s not all capitalist doom and environmental gloom; in the subplot, it also goes through the motions of a gentle romantic comedy with the arrival of Eva. Eva and Wall-E communicate mostly through beeps, whizzes, buzzes and chirps, but the feelings they relay are crystal clear. Even in a world of junk, art and love endure, and “Wall-E” is one of those wonderful movies that only improves with age.

“Erin Brockovich”

In the titular role, actress Julia Roberts plays a young single mother who finds herself in the middle of a heated legal battle and a contamination conspiracy. Based on a true story, Erin winds up with a job at a legal firm, working for attorney Ed Masry, played by the great Albert Finney. While examining medical files, Erin discovers evidence that the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) is involved in the poisoning of the water supply in the small town of Hinkley, California, causing devastating illnesses among the residents.

 Roberts is a delight, charming audiences with her character’s endlessly engaging compassion, wit and rough edges. For all its gripping legal jargon, “Erin Brockovich” finds its strongest moments when it explores the strong ties of community and Erin’s uncompromising passion to advocate for the people of Hinkley.

“Snowpiercer”

“Snowpiercer” is epic in every sense of the word. In his English-language debut, auteur Bong Joon-ho creates a future where a misdirected effort to stop global warming instead freezes the world. The narrow survivors of the human race live aboard the Snowpiercer, a globe-trotting train stratified by class: Poor people choke on soot in the back cars while the wealthy dance and eat lavish meals.

Revolution is in the air as Curtis (Chris Evans) leads a group of angry, impoverished people through the increasingly decadent carriages, and the action in the film is brutal, wicked and awe-inspiring. Evident from his Best Picture winner “Parasite,” Bong has a penchant for allegories and parables, and “Snowpiercer” is no exception, delivering an exciting critique of class disparities and belated action against climate change. 

“Silkwood”

“Silkwood” is without a doubt the most dramatic, sobering movie to make this list. Directed by Mike Nichols, the film fictionalizes the true story of Karen Silkwood (Meryl Streep), a nuclear power station worker who was killed in a mysterious car accident. “Silkwood” follows Karen as she discovers that her employers have blatantly ignored safety standards, subjecting her and her coworkers to dangerous levels of radiation. The film firstly tackles issues about capitalism and workers’ rights, but it also broaches enduring environmental questions, such as the nature of a nuclear power industry.

If that’s not enough, Streep’s costars are Kurt Russell and Cher the latter winning an Oscar for her dramatic supporting role as Karen’s lesbian friend. It’s not a perfect movie, and it’s definitely not a casual watch, but “Silkwood” rewards the strong of heart, packed with great performances and a compelling, deeply human story.

“Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind”

Hayao Miyazaki’s movies are like topographic maps, etching out the peaks and valleys of the human experience with marvelous detail and layers of meaning. As a result, many of his movies deserve to be on this list, but “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” delivers the most convincing case. The film springs forward into the future after an apocalyptic conflict has ravaged the majority of the world’s ecosystem. We follow Nausicaä (Sumi Shimamoto), a young girl from the Valley of the Wind with the ability to speak with insects, and the film tracks her journey to restore peace on a devastated planet. As expected from Miyazaki, the film is exquisitely realized and suffused with wonder. 

Maya Thompson covers film. Contact her at [email protected].