Dr. Ellen Moore Explores Environment & Movies in New Book

The book looks at the presentation of environmental issues across seven genres of film.

Ellen Moore is a self-described “film buff.” The UW Tacoma senior lecturer is also passionate about communication, particularly how messages about the environment intersect with portrayals of sexuality, ethnicity, and gender in mainstream movies. Moore found a way to combine her interests in her new book “Landscape and the Environment in Hollywood Film: the Green Machine”. The cover of Dr. Moore's new book.

The impetus for the books stems from a paper Moore wrote a year-and-a-half ago in the journal Environmental Communication. “I looked at the messages family films like WALL-E, The Lorax and Happy Feet send to children about environmental problems and their solutions,” said Moore. “These films tend to start out realistic but, by the end of the film, the studios were so focused on a happy ending that the movies became unrealistic. That got me interested in wanting to know how different genres handle environmental issues.”

Moore chose to focus on two to three films across seven genres including: spy thrillers, eco-thrillers, science fiction, Westerns, superhero, drama, and animated family films. “This book is more of a textual analysis, a study of the industry and the movies themselves but it is not a book that looks at audience reaction,” said Moore.

The depiction of environmental issues tended to differ across genres. One of the films Moore analyzed was Quantum of Solace. The movie is part of the James Bond franchise and features a villain who claims to be an environmentalist but is really the driving force behind a drought in Bolivia. “In spy thrillers we see what we call ‘individualization of the problem,’ ” said Moore. “Things like drought and climate change are very complex but they’re typically solved in these types of films by one person—typically a white, upper class male.”

In her book, Moore discusses three superhero films—Iron Man 2, The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises. “The superhero genre doesn’t allow for a discussion of environmental problems and tends to focus on solutions,” she said. Moore also noticed these films tended to rely on something called “technopia.” Moore defines the term as “the promise of future technologies that will save all of us from environmental catastrophe.” What is so interesting, she notes in her book, is that superhero films present the white, male,  industrial-capitalists (in this case, Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark) as the people who will deliver these sustainable technologies.

UW Tacoma Senior Lecturer Ellen MooreWoven throughout Moore’s book is Hollywood’s struggle to balance profit with a desire to tell stories that include realistic portrayals of issues like climate change. “Studios are in a bind: they want to cover environmental issues but they don’t want to depress audiences or lose money in the lucrative world of merchandising,” she said.

This conflict is evident in two movies Moore discusses: The Lorax and WALL-E. The latter focuses on a robot whose job it is to clean up a waste-ridden and abandoned Earth. Pixar—the company behind the film—was once owned by Apple founder Steve Jobs. The movie’s message about the dangers of unchecked consumerism runs up against the film’s numerous references to Apple products. “The ultimate take away is the world is in trouble but Apple is not part of the problem,” said Moore. Instead, Apple positions itself as a large part of the solution, which is an intriguing message given what is known about the environmental impact of computer manufacturing around the globe.

The 2012 adaptation of Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax sticks pretty close to the source material. The book and the film’s central theme is one of conservation. In both versions an entire forest is cut down to make “thneeds” or products no one really needs. “I walked away feeling pretty good about the movie,” said Moore. “Unfortunately, the film’s producers decided to partner with over 70 different companies on a range of products including a hybrid SUV which ultimately provided a contradictory message to the child audience. “

Moore’s book led to the creation of a course at UW Tacoma. In the spring of 2018 she will begin teaching a class titled “Ecology, Inequality, and Popular Culture” (TCOM 312). Both the course and the book are part of a larger plan to open up the field of cultural studies to discussions about the environment. “Cultural studies have always focused on things like how people of color are portrayed in the media or how gender is represented in the media,” said Moore. “I think there’s room to talk about how environmental issues fit with existing discussions about inequality within the discipline and I hope my work helps the conversation to progress.”

Visit Dr. Moore's website to learn more about her work in the field of environmental communication.

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Written by: 
Eric Wilson-Edge / July 21, 2017
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or johnbjr@uw.edu

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