Monday, February 09, 2009

Ah, The Proverbial Low-Hanging Fruit!

For some reason, I can't let this one go. David Zax has a little column out there on the inter-nets which asks:

"What if [the Kevin Costner movie Waterworld] were an eco-parable whose message was ahead of its time?"

With all due respect to Mr. Zax and his correct use of the subjunctive, that's a pretty big "what if." He goes on:
[H]as Waterworld's moment finally arrived? The movie opens with an image of the globe as we know it slowly being swallowed by blue while a narrator explains that in the future, "the polar ice caps have melted, covering the world with water." Something similar, if less dramatic, is happening right now on Earth. Global warming is causing seas to rise (though the polar ice caps have little to do with it). In its 2007 report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projected a sea-level rise of between seven and 23 inches by 2100. While that might not seem like much, it could be enough to make a low-lying island untenable: Recently, the Maldives' new president announced his intention to buy land to relocate his entire nation if necessary.
Ok, for starters: the president of the Maldives can rest easy; Sting took care of that one. If you'd like to send him a "thank you" card, he can be reached at the following address:
England (probably)
Earth, Solar System (again, probably)
I'm pretty sure that will reach him. Now, where was I? Oh, right. Zax. Waterworld. Those of you who have been fortunate enough never to have seen this film only need to know that it's set in a future in which the earth (yes, our earth) has been covered by several thousand feet of water, presumably due to Global Warming. It's really unclear where Global Warming came up with all the water necessary to do this, but it's a wily foe. The film stars Kevin Costner, who in the film has evolved gills and (more remarkably) the ability to keep a straight face while portraying a man who has evolved gills. What have you got to say about it, Zax?
The first thing we see our hero do in the film is recycle: The Mariner (as Costner's character is known) has a device that transforms his urine into potable water, which he shares with a small potted lime tree. Even when in a bind, the Mariner insists on piloting his three-hulled catamaran solely with a renewable resource, wind.
The Mariner's enemies are the aptly named Smokers, pirates who chain-smoke ancient cigarettes and favor gas-guzzling biplanes and jet skis. Their leader, the militaristic Deacon (a manic Dennis Hopper), is staunchly anti-science, declaring that God made "both man and fish, and no combination thereof. He does not abide the notion of evolution!" The car that he wheels around his supertanker sports a "NUKE THE WHALES" bumper sticker, and he worships "Saint Joe" Hazelwood, pilot of the Exxon Valdez. An enemy of sustainable living—he heads something called the Church of Eternal Growth—he is obsessed with finding the mythical Dryland, which he plans to rape as soon as he gets his hands on it: "If there's a river we'll dam it, and if there's a tree we'll ram it," he sermonizes to his flock.
This is a pretty apt description of what's going on, so I have to conclude that Zax and I are talking about the same movie. The funny part is that he's using the above paragraph to make his case that it is a good movie, while I'm making the exact opposite contention. It's an awful movie. If you could go to prison for making a bad movie, Kostner never would have been free to make Swing Vote, unless it were filmed in the cell in which he'd be serving 136 consecutive life sentences, one for each minute of Waterworld. It is that bad.

Mr. Zax appears to be claiming that this is a good film because the above-described villains are a pretty clever characterization of Republicans. Don't you get it? They worship a dead guy, love chain-smoking, violence, and (most of all) pollution, and they don't believe in evolution! Ho ho ho! Zing. Nail, head, etc.

His central thesis here is that this was all somehow missed when the movie came out, since it was back in the hedonistic nineties, before everyone got hip to what was goin' down on Environment Street. I'm forced to conclude that David Zax is younger than I am.

You see, back in the 'nineties we had Republicans just like the ones we have today, and we also had environmentalists (though at the time all they would talk about was a supposed hole in the Ozone Layer), and we also had preachy science fiction films, most of which were better than Waterworld. The film wasn't ahead of its time, Dave. If anything, it missed the 'Mad Max' bus by a good decade.
Attempts have been made to give global warming a face—the polar bear, New Orleans—and eco-thrillers like The Day After Tomorrow have imagined what sudden climate change might look like. But the task of making people care about the future is tougher. And few things can make the future more vivid than a good science fiction movie. Is Waterworld such a film?
No. It is not.
[D]espite being a better movie than most people remember, Waterworld has its limitations as an eco-parable. It doesn't begin, as does The Day After Tomorrow, with a standoff between a climate scientist and a Cheney-esque symbol of corporate greed, nor does it issue an implicit ultimatum, as did last year's remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still (in which Keanu Reeves played an alien sent to Earth to assess whether humans could change their planet-abusing ways or whether they should simply be exterminated).
Wow. I'd like to take this opportunity to thank Zax for doing his part to keep the "Dick Cheney as a buzzword for anything evil" meme going. Thanks, Zax. Thax. Also, is that really what the remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still was about? Because in the original film, the aliens showed up to warn humans not to bring our waring ways into space with us, because if we did, we'd have this guy to contend with:
Yes, if you are wondering, it is an awesome film (by the way, I stole that picture from here). Like Waterworld, it was preachy science fiction, but it was anti-war, which is actually, like, a real problem, man.
In the end, what stymies the environmentalist who would tease a message out of Waterworld is this: It isn't grim enough. When the protagonists aren't in the middle of a swashbuckling set piece, they're patiently coping and demonstrating hope. "We'll just start over again," says that old inventor good-naturedly after his city is sacked. The film ends happily with the discovery of Dryland (Mount Everest, it turns out), an abundant paradise with cascading fresh water and galloping wild horses.
Dude, I'm trying to tell you: the message is there. On the surface. You don't have to tease the message out of the film, because anyone who is foolish enough to watch the movie will get it's corny message right in the first few corny seconds of the awful thing.

Sigh. Where am I going with this? I don't even know. If you've stuck with me through this whole thing, waiting for some kind of punchline, I haven't got one. Let me try to sum all this up, just to have it make some kind of sense:

-Don't watch Waterworld. No, not even ironically.
-Don't watch the remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still.
-Watch the original The Day The Earth Stood Still. It's awesome. Also, I'm pretty sure that Gort, the nine-foot, faceless robot could act the pants off of Keanu Reaves.
-On a related note, I would totally watch Bill & Gort's Excellent Adventure.
-David Zax has a funny last name, and I've been writing this whole time picturing someone who looks like this dude.

That is all. I'm sorry. I promise that my next post will be shorter.