From the Steven Spielberg-directed Jaws to James Cameron’s latest Avatar installment, Hollywood plays a critical role in how we see the natural world. Can it help us do more to save it?
Thirteen years ago, the world was introduced to Pandora, its sprawling abundance of wildlife, and its Na’vi humanoid inhabitants for the very first time. Millions flocked to movie theatres to witness Jake Sully fall in love with this captivating distant moon world, cementing Avatar — the work of world-renowned director James Cameron — as the highest-grossing movie of all time.
Since then, we have also been treated to an Avatar sequel, and, by the end of this decade, three more movies in the franchise will have graced our screens. But Cameron’s billion-dollar blockbuster comes with consequences.
In the last few years, a new phenomenon has emerged called Post-Avatar Depression Syndrome. It’s not medically recognized, but anecdotal evidence proves it’s very much a thing. And essentially, it refers to the realization that most of our real-life environmental experiences can’t match up to Pandora’s fictional lush landscapes. And all of the natural beauty that is left, well, it’s under threat.
But, in a way, bringing up these negative emotions is exactly what Cameron, a passionate environmentalist, was going for. And, if put to good use, these feelings really can help to change the future of our own planet.
Avatar is an example of how Hollywood has shaped our attitudes toward the environment — but this influence hasn’t always been used for good. Here, we take a look at how some of the world’s biggest blockbusters, and their directors, have impacted us and the way we treat the natural world.
Hollywood’s detrimental ocean impact
Three decades before Avatar’s first release, another movie held the same title of “the highest-grossing film of all time.” An American thriller set off the coast of Cape Cod, which sees one man-hungry shark unleash total chaos in a small seaside town. It was, of course, Steven Speilberg’s Jaws. Just like its predecessor, Jaws inspired real feelings toward the natural world. But it wasn’t anything like climate grief. It was more like revenge.
After the release of Jaws in 1975, fewer surfers entered the waters surrounding California for fear of shark attacks. This is despite the fact that the risk of succumbing to the apex predators, who are vital to the overall health of the ocean, is about one in 11.5 million (which makes it even less likely than being struck by lightning).
But even so, people were afraid. Jaws made them think that all sharks were blood-thirsty predators, queuing up for a taste of human flesh. But it wasn’t alone. In 2021, one study looked at more than 100 shark films, released from 1958 to 2019, and discovered that 96 percent portrayed the animals as a danger to humans.
One of the researchers on the study, Brianna Le Busque, told Mongabay: “What we found is that it was really consistent to how the news media portrays sharks. All of the films, apart from one, had sharks that were scary, that were biting people, or people fearing sharks. That was the really prominent thing: that sharks were scary.”
“I wasn’t surprised by that, but I was surprised by how many shark films there were, over 100,” she added. “And the fact that consistently sharks were portrayed in a scary way.”
But these movies didn’t just instill fear, they also drove action against sharks. In the years after Jaws’ release, shark populations fell dramatically. “The movie helped initiate that decline by making it sexy to go catch sharks,” George Burgess of the Florida Program for Shark Research told Ranker. The impact of these culls wasn’t just sad for the sharks, it was also devastating to the oceans. After all, sharks are apex predators, which means they play an important role in regulating food chains and maintaining delicate ecosystems.
Other ocean-focused films, like the Andrew Stanton Pixar animated feature Finding Nemo, have also encouraged practices that have hurt the oceans, even if by accident. Finding Nemo is about a clownfish that wants to return to the sea after being captured for life in a dentist’s aquarium. But even so, in 2003, demand for the capture of tropical fish skyrocketed. And just like with Jaws, the movie contributed to a significant fall in the global population.
Has Hollywood learned its lesson?
In the last few years, awareness of the world’s climate and ecological crises has risen. And even Hollywood can’t look away. Just recently, Spielberg expressed regret over the impact that Jaws had on the world’s oceans. In December, he said on the BBC radio program Desert Island Discs: “I truly and to this day regret the decimation of the shark population because of the book and the film. I really, truly regret that.”
Recently, more films have not only depicted the natural world in a more respectful way but also attempted to raise awareness of what will happen if we don’t do our part to save it.
The comet racing to destroy earth in 2021’s Don’t Look Up, for example, which was directed by Adam McKay, was a metaphor for the impending climate crisis, and the dangerous natural disasters (like drought, wildfire, and extreme heat) it will make more frequent.
Denis Villeneuve’s Dune series, the first of which also hit movie theatres in 2021, is about the relationship that human beings have with animals, technology, and nature on the fictional planet of Arrakis. And the premise of the Black Panther series, directed by Ryan Coogler, is the valuable and fruitful relationship that people can have with the natural world.
Alongside Avatar, all of these movies underline the message that our world is fragile, but we can, and must, do all we can to protect it. The impact on our mental health and perspective may be profound, but it’s what we do with those feelings that is important. And one way to put them to good use is to follow Cameron’s lead and support and engage with environmentalism and conservation in the real world.
In October, the director urged people to support the nonprofit Nia Tero, which works to support Indigenous peoples via Twitter. And in December, Cameron told Screen Rant: “Maybe a movie like this [Avatar: The Way of the Water] can make people feel connected to the ocean, and maybe that makes them think a little bit.”
“I’m not saying just send 10 bucks to Greenpeace,” he continued. “I’m talking about how we can work together to conserve this wonderful, beautiful, amazing thing that we have right here on planet Earth.”
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