Representing Radiation in HBO’s Chernobyl

HBO’s Chernobyl (Mazin, 2019) has been met with near unanimous critical and commercial success since its release. The programme is a caustic and at points genuinely terrifying excavation of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. It unveils the intricacies of how this event came to pass, as well as the crushing political and practical turmoil of how it was, and indeed wasn’t, handled. The less journalistic and more human aspect of the programme also triumphs. The programme allows time for some deeply affecting and hauntingly contemplative moments. Soldiers tasked with the shooting of stray animals around Pripyat stands out in particular here. What is perhaps most striking about Chernobyl however is just how good a job it does of making radiation scary. & be assured, nuclear radiation is very scary.

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Chernobyl’s flaming reactor

Chernobyl is on fire. Every atom of Uranium is like a bullet penetrating everything in its path; metal, concrete, flesh. Chernobyl holds over 3 trillion of these bullets. Some of them will not stop firing for 50,000 years.” – Dr. Legaslov (Jared Harris)

Jared Harris’ whispering intensity as Dr. Legaslov goes some way to conveying the dramatic and apocalyptic nature of unbounded nuclear radiation, but the programme cannot rely on Harris all together. This presents some representational hurdles for the series to overcome. Nuclear radiation is both invisible and silent, which makes it rather a difficult spectre to represent and capture in an audio-visual medium. Moreover, radiation operates on timescales that are discombobulatingly dwarfing compared to the scalar limits of human existence. Chernobyl will continue to be fatally radioactive for 50,000 years. Let’s put those 50,000 years in context:

  • 2,500 years ago – Alexander the Great burns Persepolis
  • 4,500 years ago – The Pyramid of Giza is completed
  • 7,000 – 10,000 years ago – Transition is made from nomadic hunter gathering to farming and permanent settlement
  • 20,000 years ago – The last ice age
  • 30,000 years ago – Neanderthals become extinct

50,000 years is an almost unimaginable amount of time to grapple with; it houses almost the entirety of human history and is really on the limit of what we know of ourselves and our lineage. Nuclear radiation comfortably sits within these scales. Some nuclear waste has a half life of closer to 100,000 years, as detailed in Michael Madsen’s Into Eternity: A Film for the Future. The dizzying scalar discrepancy between something that’s so small we cannot see it, yet exists densely across deep-time, speaks to the steady encroachment of hyperobjects in the contemporary moment. Industrial modernity has created a series of ‘objects’ that are massively distributed across space and time, yet near impossible to see. Climate change is also a hyperobject, wherein small things (car journeys) and big things (the natural accruement of oil in the ground) are inextricably linked. Hyperobjects, a term and concept coined by Timothy Morton in his book by the same title, offer an instructive window into the reality of human/earth interactions in the 21st century, yet present huge representational challenges for commercial and artistic productions. As Legaslov rightly notes; ‘the atom is a humbling thing’. Chernobyl is an interesting case study in how to harness and convey the haunting force of hyperobjects, in this case radiation.

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Left to right: Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård), Valery Legaslov (Jarred Harris) and Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson)

An impenetrably black chunk of rock lurks on the floor outside of the flaming reactor as firefighters attempt to douse the flames. A firefighter picks it up, moments later his hand is melting. This unnerving spectacle of the seemingly inert yet vibrantly deadly rock returns throughout the programme. These graphite rocks are now the most dangerous substance on the planet; so radioactive that over 90 seconds exposed in the same 5-metre radius will be fatal. The chunks of graphite, which now litter the area around reactor 3, are used by Chernobyl to distil the hugely spatially and temporally dispersed nuclear threat into one spatially contained and temporally contemporaneous object. We are given a plaintive impression of the radioactive dust that spreads across the continent, haunting detail of the staggering (if criminally tardy) efforts to evacuate and ecologically annihilate all forms of non-human life surrounding Chernobyl (for thousands of square kilometres), yet the existential horror of nuclear radiation seems to finds form most profoundly in these rocks.

The most striking of these sequences details the efforts to clear the roof above the reactor, described by Boris Shcherbina as the most dangerous place on Earth. Roof ‘Masha’, as they refer to it, contains so much radioactive graphite (12,000 roentgen per hour) that even lead-lined robots cannot withstand exposure to it; ‘that amount of radiation penetrates everything, the particles literally shred the circuits in microchips apart. If it’s more complicated than a light switch…Masha will destroy it.’ Following a historically mind-bending scene showing lunar robots clearing out two of the less-radioactive roofs, the task of clearing Masha comes into fruition.

To address the taxing task of conveying an invisible and silent threat, Chernobyl layers this haunting scene with a distinctly sci-fi sensibility to convey the other-worldly horror of it all. The sequence itself reminds me of the lunar monolith sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey. In Kubrick’s film the eerie vibrancy of the black monolith is as enticing as it is scary; the astronauts approaching it slowly, cautiously and ultimately fatally. An uncannily similar lithic entity seems present in Chernobyl. The graphite on the roof is a black rock that is at once inert and also alive with a deadly alien energy that increases with intensity as the soldiers approach, exactly like the monolith. Furthermore, the soldiers’ make shift lead armour suits have the same sort of clunky retro-aesthetic charm as the space explorers of Kubrick’s film (seen below). Moreover, the gradual increase in intensity of the roentgen metre’s clicking through Chernobyl‘s soundtrack seems evocative of the rising cacophony of choral warbling found in the 2001 sequence.

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Lunar Monolith Scene, 2001: A Space Odyssey

To walk on roof Masha is perhaps as close as any human has ever got to walking through an utterly alien zone. Couple this with the cognitive extraction necessary for thinking through the sheer deadly force of these rocks, it seems unsurprising that the programme falls back on science fictional referents here. Both the monolith and these rocks exist on timescales that dwarf the human, yet are inextricably tied to the human. Science fiction provides a robust and familiar framework for thinking through the unfamiliar. Chernobyl‘s depiction of radioactive rocks sees this representational strategy in action, where the aesthetic line between historical fact and science fiction become blurred.

Watching Chernobyl invites us to look back not just into deep time, and Soviet history, but also into our current moment. How might we look back on ourselves in a hypothetical HBO mini-series made 40 years from now entitled Climate Change? All of the technology in the world exists to switch to carbon neutral renewable energy, yet we still do not do so. All the science informs us of the unprecedented scale of the situation, and the urgency to act, yet many highly polluting countries (such as the USA) still do next to nothing. We are living in a moment of disaster not too different from Chernobyl; borne of industrial carelessness and worsened by a lack of appropriate response. Who might be the Dyatlov’s of the future? Can the blame so easily be portioned out?

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A Chernobyl scientist in the flooded depths of the facility

Legaslov’s closing speech powerfully tells us that each lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth; ‘what is the cost of lies?’ In the 21st century and beyond each action we take, be it airplane journeys, beef burgers or the clothes on our back, incurs a debt to the planet. Chernobyl, while ostensibly about the nuclear disaster of 1986, seems a blueprint to think more carefully about the environmental disasters unfolding around us right now. Just as the bio-soldiers have to encounter the deadly graphite rocks that haunt the reactor’s buildings, we too have to engage with the geological agency and deep timescales we find ourselves bound up to in the Anthropocene. Just as radiation is impossible to see without mediation, so too are the rising temperatures and collapsing ecosystems of our planet; the individual human can only experience small slithers of this larger hyperobject at a time. When watching Chernobyl we should certainly think of 1986, but it seems more pressing to simultaneously ruminate on the present day global environmental crisis. Chernobyl is not just a haunting account of the USSR’s 1986 nuclear disaster, but a cautionary window into the coevolving disaster of the Anthropocene.

What is ecocinema? A Case Study Analysis with Jim Henson’s Labyrinth

What exactly is ‘ecocinema’? It’s a question I get asked, and ask myself, rather a lot. When I first started researching ecocinema I had assumed it would simply be films with obviously themed ecological concerns and messages. An Inconvenient Truth, Chasing Ice and Cowspiracy sprung to mind as good examples of this. However, while eco-documentaries such as these are most certainly a vital and important part of what constitutes ecocinema, they are but one facet of a more complex whole. The term ecocinema was coined in 2004 by Scott Macdonald in Towards an Ecocinema. At a similar time David Ingram also explored the idea of an ecological cinema, using the term as a means of certifying if a film had an emphatic environmental message. As time has gone by the uses and understandings of the category have become more complex. While a more traditional, earlier, form of ecocriticism was seemingly concerned with identifying if something did or did not have a positive ecological message, ecocinema now has expanded its scope towards films that are perhaps not self-evidently about nature.

As Willoquet-Maricondi argues in Framing the World, films that at face value might not be ecologically oriented ‘nonetheless offer us needed perspectives on the relations between the human and nonhuman’ (Willoquet-Maricondi: 2010, 3). This human/nonhuman paradigm sits at an unprecedented crisis point in the context of a rapidly warming climate at the start of the 21st century. As Timothy Clark argues – ‘The Anthropocene brings to an unavoidable point of stress the question of the nature of Nature and of the human. It represents, for the first time, the demand made upon a species consciously to consider its impact as a totality upon the whole planet’ (2015, 16). By way of an example, an extremely hot day in Australia last year resulted in the death of 1/3rd of the countries flying fox population, who fatally succumbed to heat exhaustion. It’s staggeringly sad to consider, but anthropogenically induced climate change is killing animals, unsettling ecosystems and straining the balance of life as we know it. 

In these troubling times I am interested in understanding and investigating the ways in which human/nonhuman relations are structured and evoked through cinema. What might cinema be able to do from an ecological standpoint, and what ecocritical perspectives and meanings might be lurking under its surface? My own research looks at contemporary science fiction cinema from an ecocritical perspective. Today however I want to simply demonstrate how an ecocritical analysis allows for new meanings to be unlocked from films that might not appear to be self-evidently environmental. Films both consciously and unconsciously produce ideological meaning pertaining to how humans relate the environment and the creatures that inhabit it. Sean Cubitt’s analysis of Lord of the Rings in his book EcoMedia is a great example of this. Cubbitt highlights the ways in which creatures like the Balrog are the consequences of the dwarves ‘delving too deeply’ into the belly of the mountain, releasing ancient monsters analogous to our own excavation of toxic fumes from drilling for oil. The ways in which the film stages the Ents, who are attuned with their environment, against Saruman, who is an industrious power hell-bent on cutting down every tree and burning every village, further points towards the way in which ecological meanings are layered into the narrative. These films stage the “good” races and characters as those who are sustainably in harmony with their environment and the “bad” as those who relentlessly consume the landscape’s materials. While Lord of the Rings might not be self-evidently about nature, it can be read as ecocinema through the constellation of eco-perspectives it produces. “A wizard should know better!” bellows Treebeard upon seeing the deforested desolation of Fangorn, suggesting that perhaps humanity should know better in turn.

labyrinth ludo ecocinema

Jim Henson’s now cult classic Labyrinth was a firm favourite of mine growing up. Today, in considering it through the ecological imperatives of living on a dying planet, it is my hope that new ways of understanding the film might be unearthed. What stands out in my fond childhood memories of the film are the fantastical environments it takes place in. Whether it’s the long shots of the seemingly endless corridor’s of The Goblin King’s maze, the “helping hands” that catch Jennifer Connely’s Sarah as she plummets into the oubliette or the alarming secretions from “The Bog of Eternal Stench”, it’s clear that Labyrinth’s landscapes are as memorable as its inhabitants. In re-watching the film recently I was struck by the agency and vibrancy lent to these environments and objects that, outside of the context of the film, are often considered inert or in some manner lifeless. Upon entering the labyrinth Sarah sits down exhausted, unable to figure out how to progress. A small worm wearing a scarf looks over at her. “‘Allo” it says, much to Sarah’s shock, and my own continued delight. In chatting away with this worm, who asks her to “come in and meet the Mrs.”, Sarah is reliably informed how best to progress. What’s of further interest is the moss that lines the walls in these scenes, it wriggles around with a chthonic curiosity as it considers Sarah as she sits nearby. Lidded eyes open and close on the ends of this moss, lending a sense that the labyrinth itself is considering her. Rather than the environment simply being a backdrop to a human story, there’s a sensuous impression that the non-human world is as alive and agential as the film’s protagonist, who is only able to progress by conversing with the tiny creatures of this fairytale land.

worm labyrinth

Of all environmental backdrops, stones and rocks might be considered the most lifeless and dull. As Jeffrey Cohen astutely puts it in Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman; ‘Despite relegation to a trope for the cold, the indifferent, and the inert, stone discloses queer vivacity, and a perilous tender of mineral amity’ (2015: 6). Interestingly enough Labyrinth seems curiously attentive to the vivacity of the lithic; stones play a particularly important role in the film that seems of reverberative relevance to humanity’s new found geological agency, as per the Anthropocene context. When Sarah uses a piece of chalk to draw arrows, indicating where she has come from, the stone slabs are lifted up by critters beneath them and rotated around. Gigantic Easter Island-esque faces carved into caves shout out to Sarah and her companion Hoggle; “turn back!” “you’re going the wrong way!” In doing so we’re again invited to consider the ways in which the world around us is alive, acting on us as we act on it. Ludo’s kinship with the rocks is perhaps the best example of this in action. Ludo, a gigantic bear-like creature, is able to howl and seek help from boulders, rocks and stones, which he calls his “friends”. The friendship between Ludo and the rocks lets them cross the foul bog unscathed, and helps them defeat the weaponised goblins in Jareth’s castle. Donna Haraway argues that in the turbid times of the Anthropocene and the Capitalocene we need to ‘make odd kin’ (2016), that is, make unexpected partnerships and allegiances with other forms of life. Ludo’s urge to make new friends, and his seemingly hereditary kinship with the Earth itself, seems a great example of such an act of odd kin making. In the unlikely friendship between stones and a monosyllabic bear new ways of navigating the world through a sense of interdependency and ecological entanglement are revealed. The vastly expanded scales of geological and temporal thinking required in the Anthropocene runs the risk of emphasising separations between the human and the inhuman, at the expense of nurturing material intimacies between them (Cohen: 2015, 9). Labyrinth’s seems to bridge the yawing gap between stones, Ludo the bear and Sarah the human to present them in mutually beneficial couplings. As Cohen argues, ‘Stone is primal matter, inhuman in its duration. Yet despite its incalculable temporality, the lithic is not some vast and alien outside. A limit-breaching intimacy persistently unfolds’ (2015, 2). Henson’s howling bear is one such limit-breaching window into accessing the lithic.

The ecological perspectives of the narrative are not locked purely to its vibrant boulders. Much like the way in which Saruman’s Isengard and Sauron’s Mordor are presented as barren wastelands, Jareth’s castle is industriously framed in turn. His goblin army operate huge mechanised constructs which spew steam and belch black smoke. Jareth’s poisoned peach works as another example of this goblin king’s use and abuse of natural resources for his insidious purposes. The “bad” characters are those that are burning materials and weaponising matter, whereas the “good” are those like Ludo and Sarah. Making friends with stones is represented as a more ethical approach to living in the labyrinth than manipulating matter to your own means and ends.  In the Anthropocene human beings have made a marked impact on the biosphere and the rock fossil record. If we were perhaps able to attune with stones, and understand their importance in the way that Ludo does, then better ways of co-existing with the Earth might be found.

labyrinth hyperobject

There’s also a anticipatory sense of hyperobjectivity to Henson’s labyrinth. In long-shots of the maze it stretches out interminably to the horizon; a kaleidoscopic patchwork of corridors and sequestered keeps. Timothy Morton, in Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology at the End of the World argues that in the Anthropocene context humanity is confronted with objects that are ‘massively distributed across space and time relative to humans’ (2013, 1). Global warming is a hyper object, something we can only experience in slithers at a time. An unseasonably hot day is a slither of the hyper object of global warming, as is the aforementioned mass-death of Australia’s bat population. ‘For what comes into view for humans at this moment is precisely the end of the world, brought about by the encroachment of hyperobjects, one of which is assuredly Earth itself, and its geological cycles demand a geophilosophy that doesn’t think simply in terms of human events and human significance’ (Morton: 2013, 7). Without attuning with the rocks and the creatures that inhabit the twists and turns of the eponymous dungeon, Sarah would have failed to navigate her way through to Jareth’s castle. Labyrinth, in presenting its own hyperobject (and no, I’m not talking about David Bowie’s codpiece), and in unfurling a means of navigating it precisely through thinking and acting beyond the human, announces itself of playful relevance to the post-anthropocentric demands of a warming climate. 

Ultimately, Labyrinth can be seen to pay attention to creatures and forms of life that are almost without exception nonhuman, and often wonderfully peculiar. This realm is awash with all manner of life, from cantankerous doorknobs to rambunctious fox-knights. In doing so the film can be seen to notice and focus on the role and agency of that which is not human. Making friends and collaborating with these strange environments and folkloric creatures is situated ethically within the text as the best way for navigating the confusing topographies of the labyrinth’s hyperobjective meanderings. Such a standpoint resounds nicely with the renewed urgency for humanity to collaborate and consider the effects of anthropogenically induced climate change on the nonhuman natural environment. When our carbon emissions are warming waters in the North Sea, which is killing sand eels, which in turn is causing puffins and guillemots to starve, new ways of existing with the nonhuman become imperative. As Tsing, Swanson, Bubandt and Gan argue, in the Anthropocene, ‘we must share space with the ghostly contours of a stone, the radioactivity of a fingerprint, the eggs of a horseshoe crab, a wild bat pollinator, an absent wildflower in a meadow, a lichen on a tombstone, a tomato growing in an abandoned car tire. It is these shared spaces, or what we call haunted landscapes, that relentlessly trouble the narratives of Progress, and urge us to radically imagine worlds that are possible because they are already here’ (2017, G12). 

Labyrinth seems to literalise a lot of these claims and ecological considerations of co-existing in haunted landscapes. It imagines a fizzingly vibrant world filled with peculiar spaces and phantasmic creatures. Moreover, it emphasises the need to share space and make kin with them. In doing so Labyrinth announces itself not just as an example of ecocinema, but a text that finds itself entangled quite specifically with the geological and ecological intricacies of living and dying with one another in the Anthropocene. While we may not be able to commune with stones like Ludo, we can certainly be more attentive to the space(s) we share with them. Willoquet-Maricondi argues that ecocinema helps us ‘understand the place and function of humans in relation to the nonhuman world’ (2010, 2), Labyrinth instead complicates the place and function of the human in relation to the nonhuman world. In doing so it raises ethical questions about how best to live in the distorted, seemingly labyrinthine, realm of the Anthropocene. 

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and the Ethics of Extinction

Volcanoes explode, people get eaten and dinosaurs wail with agony as much as they roar with anger in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, the latest entry to the now 25-year-old Jurassic Park franchise. This is by no means the finest entry into the series of enduringly entertaining, but increasingly sub-par, Jurassic Park films. Corny dialogue, shameless plot exposition and an overlong runtime drag down Fallen Kingdom’s stronger and more unique aspects. For instance, the gothic horror vibe achieved in the film’s closing half is an interesting and fun genre twist, covered in nice detail here by Den of Geek. However, spooky mansions aside, what particularly struck me about Fallen Kingdom is its constellation of extinction events, all of which seem of relevance to the impending extinction events of the contemporary moment. Just as we have entered a new geological era in the so called Anthropocene, with a 6th mass species extinction looming furtively on the horizon, the Jurassic World franchise supposedly has entered a new era in turn. Indeed, Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Ian Malcolm prophetically tells us “We have created a new era. Welcome to Jurassic World”. Loyal to the words of Dr. Malcolm, one of the core concerns of the film is the means by which we should navigate the ethics of this extinction, be that our own or the dinosaurs’. This platform for ruminating on the notion of mass species eradication is of staunch pertinence to the pressures of the Anthropocene, which calls for us to consider the possibility of humanity’s self-perpetrated extinction, and the collective extinction of 99% of all over other organic life.

dinosaur volcano anthropocene

Fallen Kingdom sees Isla Nublar’s de-extinct dinosaurs faced with re-extinction as the island’s volcano becomes active, threatening the lives of all its inhabitants in the process. This faces humanity with a troubling question; should we save the dinosaurs? Or, should we leave them to die and consolidate our footing at the top of the food chain in the process? Given the disastrous consequences of human/dinosaur entanglements seen in every other entry to the series, it is clear that letting these creatures die out would prevent further calamities to the human populous. The opening half of Fallen Kingdom, rather than seeing humanity’s war against these creatures, as per the hunting sequence in Jurassic Park: The Lost World for instance, situates the dinosaurs as endangered creatures needing our help instead. Rather than the dinosaurs immediate threat being their human captors, as in the previous installments, the threat here is of a distinctly environmental tenor. Isla Nublar’s volcano is spewing ash and lava at an alarming rate, facing the dinosaurs with eradication if they are not evacuated.

Claire Denning (Bryce Dallas Howard), formerly a top brass manager of Jurassic World who pioneered the creation of hybrid dinosaurs at the park, now somewhat ironically works as an advocate for dinosaur’s animal rights, campaigning for their evacuation in a tritely millennial non-profit milieu. She enlists Chris Pratt’s Owen Grady to return to the island with her to save these dinosaurs from volcanic destruction, using his bond with the last remaining velociraptor “Blue” as emotional leverage. There’s a specifiable representational twist to the climactic action seen in the film’s opening half. Rather than dinosaur hunting human, or human hunting dinosaur, we see human and dinosaur under threat from the same source. Both are running from the pyroclastic flows spewing from the mountainside, with huge chunks of stone and lava falling around them as they make a mad dash for the ocean. The paradigm of hunter vs. hunted that the other Jurassic Park films have variously toyed with is not just shifted, as it was in The Lost World and Jurassic World, but eradicated entirely. There is no ecology when the world is on fire, and Fallen Kingdom makes this immediately and viscerally clear in its opening half wherein humanity and de-extinct dinosaurs are placed on a plateau of ecological significance in the face of the volcano’s fury.

In the Anthropocene we are told that humans are now geological forces, occupying timescales foreign to the miniscule nature of our own existences. In Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom we see this clashing of timescales through the very fact that dinosaur and human now stand side by side, but more pertinently we see that both are under threat of extinction from climactic conditions. Just as the dinosaurs were killed by climate change, we are now proffered images of the human and the dinosaur under threat from environmental conditions dramatically shifting. This is a stark reminder that in the Anthropocene the environment is perhaps a bigger threat to our existence than a pack of velociraptors or boisterous anklyosauruses. In the Anthropocene we must negotiate our entanglement with deep pasts and speculatively fiery futures, and Fallen Kingdom serves these up for us through dinosaurs and volcanoes respectively.

The film is quite clearly cleaved into two distinct acts. The first of which closes with Owen Grady, Claire Denning and their band of helpers leaving the island with a cargo of rescued dinosaurs. A sad sequence announces the end of this first half, with a diplodochus crying out for help as it is engulfed by ash, our protagonists looking on helplessly from their boat as it and a wealth of other creatures are consigned to their fate. From here on in the film falls back into more familiar territory, redolent of earlier franchise entries. The rescue operation’s funding body is revealed to have less ethical concerns than was first intimated. Rather than saving the dinosaurs for the sake of protecting their unlikely, and no doubt precious, existence, they wanted the dinosaurs alive for economic reasons. A bidding war for the rescued dinos takes place in the underbelly of Benjamin Lockwood’s (James Cromwell) mansion in America. Russian arms dealers and an assortment of other nefariously avaricious men are seen to place hefty bids on these creatures until the inevitable happens…they escape.

lion dinosaur anthropocene

What was hinted at in the title of Fallen Kingdom’s predecessor is now rolled out wholesale, we’ve moved from Jurassic Park to Jurassic World. We see a T-Rex facing off against a lion at the zoo, and a velociraptor greedily eyeing up a suburban vista in the film’s closing moments. Dr. Malcolm’s supposedly “new era” is revealed in these images. But really there’s nothing new about these images at all, they fall back on the same rhetoric of humanity vs. dinosaur that these films have historically, and no doubt very entertainingly, revolved around. While Fallen Kingdom hinted at a new paradigm of human/non-human interaction in the tectonic uproar of Isla Nublar, it is clear that the ethics of this extinction encounter are quickly forgotten for the familiarity of the franchise.

Each of the Jurassic Park films has been concerned with extinction, centering this theme around the collision of species from deep geological pasts and the contemporary moment. Often this is quite puckishly portrayed, the sequence in The Lost World where a T-Rex eats a suburban dog to the escalating shock of its owners comes to mind in particular here. The contrast between humanity’s domination of the animal kingdom in the contemporary moment nicely contrasted against our inability to tame those creatures we’ve hubristically resuscitated from the fossil record; it’s unlikely to see a T-Rex situated in Donna Haraway’s companion species mold. Fallen Kingdom, at least in brief part, takes this collision of species a tad more seriously by centering it on the ethical dilemmas of extinction and animal rights. In short, is it right to keep a dinosaur from re-extinction if it threatens us with extinction? The film provides no satisfying answer to this, and seems to quickly forget the question in favor of claw-slashing and jaw-chomping mayhem. But the question is certainly there, and it’s a question of haunting application to our time. By way of comparison, we might ask whether it is it right for us to continue drilling for oil when oil spills and carbon fuel burning threaten many different species’ survival. I can provide no satisfying answer to this, and in many ways this article has similarly ignored the question in favor of claw-slashing and jaw-chomping mayhem. Either way, it’s instructive that the latest entry to the franchise changes its imagination of disaster around debates central to the Anthropocene. Fallen Kingdom momentarily ignores the franchise’s long established paradigm of hunter vs. hunted, to a view of extinction looming for both players as a result of disastrous climactic change. Whether we call this era “Jurassic World” or the “Anthropocene” is in many senses irrelevant, both involve deep world history and the contemporary moment colliding with disastrous consequences drenched with the threat of mass species extinction.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi’s Animal Ethics

Star Wars has a long history with cute little creatures, and the latest entry into the franchise is no different. Where Episode 6 played host to a forest moon full of miniature bear-like Ewoks, now in Episode 8 we see Ahch-To occupied by the off the richter scale bonny little Porgs. While most critical and academic attention given to Star Wars’ cuter characters/creatures has been to focus on their cynical narrative instalment for merchandising potential, they also provide a unique staging post for thinking about how humans relate to the more-than-human, in this case animal, world. *spoilers abound ahead*

Porg Last Jedi

Whereas The Return of the Jedi’s Ewoks worked as a sub-textual analogy of native inhabitants rising up against their colonial oppressors, the puffin-like Porgs of The Last Jedi serve a rather different function. Moreover, Porgs are not the only fantastical creatures to get screen time and accumulate narrative weight in this film. There’s Luke Skywalker’s utterly bizarre sea-cattle, which he milks for their bracingly flavoured greenish-blue milk, Crait’s dazzling crystal foxes (known as Vulptices) and Canto Bight’s space-horse Fathiers. Never has a Star Wars film felt so teeming with new creatures. Now, while there is quite clearly a huge amount of merchandising around these animals (well, the sea-cattle perhaps not so much), I am more interested in what their appearance in this franchise tells us about how Hollywood is imagining human(oid)/animal encounters.

In a particularly illuminating scene from The Last Jedi Chewbacca finds himself about to tuck into a delicious meal of spit-roasted Porg. He’s sat around the fire and each time he goes in for a nibble a Porg pops up to look mournfully and whimper up at him. Paralyzed by guilt he is unable to take a bite. The joke is repeated about 3 times, and it’s funny every time. He omits a characteristically mournful howl and abandons his supper, much to his chagrin. This begs the question, is Chewbacca a vegetarian now? Perhaps even a vegan? On the one hand this scene is installed to give the Porgs a little bit of extra screen time for a couple of cute-creature related gags, which can’t hurt merchandise sales. However, on the other hand it layers the ethics of animal consumption underneath the surface of the text. Chewbacca’s troubled relationship with the Porgs doesn’t end here; they proceed to migrate onto the Millenium Falcon – nesting in its alcoves and munching on its wires in the cockpit. What are the ethics involved with taking a native sea-bird creature away from its home planet and local habitat? At best, they are rather troubling. The film is certainly more interested in giving the squawking little guys more screen time than continuing the animal ethics of Chewbacca’s abandoned roast dinner. Luckily they are great enough for their continued presence in the film to be nothing short of a pleasure.

Fathier last jedi

While The Last Jedi seemingly abandons the initial ethics of this Chewie-Porg encounter, the film’s treatment of Canto Bight’s subjugated species of Fathiers is more coherent in its ethical leanings. Interestingly, the sequence on Canto Bight has been one of the most bemoaned by fans due to its somewhat tangental and non-consequential nature. While I agree that an excerpt focused on the cruelty endemic to horse racing is somewhat at odds with the film’s narrative focus and trajectory, it is fascinating to see such a staunch ethical stance taken with the franchise’s fantastical creatures. We see the Fathiers whipped by their jockeys, electrocuted by their trainer and penned up in small paddocks far too diminutive for their stature. They are penned up with young children who are enslaved to look after them; the film here linking the subjugation of animals to enslavement of humans. Finn and his new ally Rose escape from the island by liberating the herd of captive Fathiers, which Finn later comments made the whole disastrous excursion “worth it”. We see their mounted Fathier scamper off into the forest towards the rest of the herd after Rose unshackles it from its saddle; the liberatory tone of this encounter couldn’t be more over stated if it tried. In a slightly earlier scene, the inhabitants and gamblers of Canto Bight’s casino and Fathier track are unveiled to be capitalist arms dealers selling weapons to the First Order (as well as, interestingly, the Resistance). Thus, the film establishes a rather opaque critique of capitalism’s disregard for the wellbeing of the animal world, as well as less wealthy fellow humanoids.

This critique sits rather at odds with the animal ethics at the end of the film, wherein the last surviving members of the increasingly desperate Resistance abandon their freighter for sanctuary on an abandoned Rebel base on the salt-plains of Crait. The vast salt desert in front of their bunker is occupied by a herd of crystal-fox like Vulptices, which jangle and clink charmingly with every movement. The Resistance attract the attention of the First Order who descend upon them and their defensive position. This forces the Vulptices into hiding, who scurry away from impending doom into the Resistance’s cave. The herd manages to escape through a small opening in the cave, but only just. The Resistance’s utter disregard for these native creatures other than as an inadvertent tool to aid their own escape is indicative. The Resistance seemingly care as little about local wildlife as the arms dealers of Canto Bight.

Towards the end of The Last Jedi, Rose says to Finn that the war will be won “not by killing what we hate, but by saving what we love”. The Last Jedi sets up a contradictory dialogue on the subject of animal ethics in relation to the animals it loves, and variously does and does not save. Chewbacca’s Porgs aborad the Millenium Falcon will almost certainly die away from their local sea-cliff habitat, and the Vulptices were lucky to escape with their lives. While The Last Jedi is unique in not only its volume of new and wonderful creatures, it is also singular in its emphatic evocation of animal ethics, as seen most fastidiously with the Fathiers and Chewbacca’s new diet. The fact that it is unable to sustain a coherent message from an ethical perspective is insightful for the way in which Hollywood cinema grapples with human-animal encounters. The Last Jedi sees animals subjugated and liberated, cooked and thrown away, ensnared and skedaddled; a precarious tight rope of oppression and liberation established in its various human(oid)-animal encounters. Perhaps, then, ultimately these creatures truly are placed into these films purely for merchandising potential. At least The Last Jedi stretches for a more ethical stance in terms how we could, and should, approach encounters with the more-than-human world.

Stranger Things 2 – The Upside Down as Ecological Motif

Strange things are happening in Hawkins, Indiana. Of these strange things, perhaps the strangest is the Lovecraftian metamorphoses occurring under the soil. Farmers’ crops are dying, trees are oozing black liquid and the earth is eroding. All very strange things indeed.

Stranger things pumpkins

Literary author Amitav Ghosh, in relation to climate change awareness, postulates that people looking back on the early 21st century will think of it oddly; ‘Quite possible, then, this era, which so congratulates itself on its self-awareness, will come to be known as the time of The Great Derangement.’ Indeed, it is a very odd time to be alive. We live in an era marked by a 6th mass species extinction looming furtively on the horizon, we comment on ever warmer summers and stranger winters but our behaviours are not necessarily changing. An unseasonably warm day, while pleasant, is shot through with the knowledge of the planet’s rising temperatures. It is something which envelopes us, we find ourselves and our processes of consumption entangled seemingly invisibly with the atmosphere and all forms of life sharing our one and only planet. As Michel Serres has it, ‘man is being everywhere and bound’. Our processes of thought and consumption need to be upended, reversed and turned inside out and upside down to acknowledge and mitigate the damage of our ecological entanglements. Perhaps then Stranger Things’ Upside Down, a nether world of zombified tentacular roots, blood-thirsty parasitic demons and diseased air is a framework to facilitate this thinking. Much like Ghosh’s own coinage of The Great Derangement, The Upside Down is as much a title for an alternative reality as it is describing the logics of thought predicated on imagining it; we must turn our thinking upside down to prevent living in our own approximation of The Upside Down.

Hawkins has a government lab sat on its periphery, which conducts secret experiments unbeknownst to the majority of the town’s cookie cutter community. In this season we find the scientists taking flame throwers to the portal which leads to the aforementioned Upside Down, the programme’s alternate reality occupied by Season 1’s Demogorgon and this season’s (slightly cuter) demo-dogs. Lead scientist Dr. Sam Owens, played by Aliens’ inimitable Paul Reiser, explains that this arson is designed to keep this twisted alternate dimension in check. In fact, quite the inverse is happening. All the wildlife surrounding the lab is decaying, farms are rotting away and the ground is collapsing to reveal a network of sequestered tunnels full of monstrous human-grabbing tentacles and toxin-spitting plants. The roots in the soil scream as the flame’s lick up against them, and “the shadow monster”, the seeming overseer of the Upside Down, reacts incredibly unfavourably to the scientist’s pyro-antics. It is revealed that everything within The Upside Down is connected in a hive mind ecology, what is felt by the roots in the ground is felt equally by its sovereign shadow monster. The Upside Down is fighting back against science’s war against it, the town has just been blissfully unaware of this shadow realm’s sequestered environmental retort. It creeps up on them invisibly and silently, only partially visible when local agricultural practices start to become effected.

What if the town’s residents could see it though? Would they believe it, or act to put a stop to it? In a fascinatingly revealing sequence, local teenagers Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton) catch Dr. Owens divulging the goings on of the lab on tape. They take this to the town’s local tin-foil hat archetype journalist, Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman), to bust the story wide open. However, Bauman hesitates on doing this. The story is too inconceivable for the town to accept it. Alternate dimensions, missing telepathic slave girls, demon’s running amok and killing the townspeople…it’s all too much. Instead, inspired by watering down his liquor, he opts to water down the story. They need to make it palatable and believable for the townsfolk; the mission is to shut down the lab, whether it is the truth that gets them there is unimportant. Bauman, Wheeler & Byers instead opt for a story of toxic waste disposal, which they pin as responsible for the death of Season 1’s Barbara “Barb” Holland.

Justice for barb

This adjusted tale of environmental destruction is enough to get the lab shut down, and for Barb to finally get the justice fans have been clamouring for. It’s instructive for the contemporary moment that Stranger Things 2 establishes the ecological entanglements of The Upside Down and the lab’s scientific advances as inconceivable by the public, something which instead has to be watered down. The inaccessibility of thinking/conceiving the Upside Down is redolent of Timothy Morton’s notion of Hyperobjects. Hyperobjects are objects so hugely dispersed in time and space that they defy human thought. Climate change is a hyperobject, so is Time, the Milky Way, or even Star Wars’ “the force”. The Upside Down, like climate change, seems to be a hyperobject. It is vast; untenable to thought in its philosophical and ontological implications. Just as we struggle to think on our entanglement with the climate, we see Hawkins, Indiana unable to consider its entanglement with The Upside Down.

Stranger Things 2‘s plot posits a narrative framework that operates as a microcosm for our own ecological entanglements in the 21st century. We see techno-science experimenting with, and seemingly fighting a war against, nature. We see a cause and effect string of ecological ramifications between their experiments and nature itself. We see a town unable to see, or comprehend, what’s happening under the ground and in the air around them. While I’m glad I don’t have to fight demo-dogs or shadow monsters, at least their materiality feels tangible. What we face in reality is perhaps worse, a world turning seemingly invisibly upside down as humanity’s inexorable dominance of the planet in the name of progress threatens to upend and reverse the order of things. Organic life, en masse, teeters on the brink of death. Whether we see this as a great derangement, an upside down or a hyperobject is in many ways pure semantics; all work to highlight the sense that something is very wrong, and very difficult to think about.

Geostorm – Gerard Butler vs. The Environmental Crisis

Geostorm is a very silly film about a very serious thing. This makes it an interesting text, encouraging one to talk about it in both a discerning and frivolous manner. On the one hand this is a film that wears the very real environmental crises of the contemporary moment on its sleeve, on the other hand it is a film with Gerard Butler punching scientists in space. What are we to do with a film like this?

geostorm environmental crisis

Watching Geostorm was a confusing experience for a fan of B-movies with a keen interest in cinema that can instil progressive ecological meaning and affect. Where Geostorm fails as an exercise in instilling caution/fear for the way we treat the climate, it triumphs as a piece of schlock that should be best enjoyed with a 6-pack and a pizza. Set in the perplexingly near future date of 2018-2021, Geostorm opens with a montage revealing documentary footage of climate change in action; icebergs collapse, deserts grow and cities flood. With Andy Garcia as the President of the United States, it’s no wonder that things have got this bad. It’s revealed that after a series of these extreme weather events, a coalition of nations commission measures to control our planet’s climate. The solution put in place is referred to as “Dutch Boy”, a vast system of satellites rigged around the planet which drop small thermo-charges into weather systems to dispel their cataclysmic potential. Three years after inventor and former chief scientist Jake Lawson, played by the inimitable Gerard Butler, is fired for subordination, Dutch Boy begins to malfunction. This causes an entire village in Afghanistan to flash freeze and a devastating temperature spike in Hong Kong to wipe out vast swathes of the city. From here the plot goes into Michael Bay-esque kaleidoscopic nonsense overdrive, as a series of convoluted twists and turns reveal a government plot to weaponise Dutch Boy to their own ends. The stakes get even higher when the accumulative local environmental disasters threaten to coagulate into a globalised all-powerful, you guess it, Geostorm.

While there’s not much, if any, merit to be teased out of Geostorm’s character development, acting, plot, visuals, direction or cinematography, there’s plenty of scope for reading this text productively from an ecocritical perspective. What immediately struck me was how intensely white-hetero-male-capitalist the whole thing is. Geostorm posits an intensely anthropocentric view that humanity can save itself from environmental devastation by way of the same logic and processes that caused it in the first place; scientific “progress” and capitalist consumption. There’s a fascinating shot at the beginning of the film revealing Dutch Boy deploying charges into a weather system forming around Shanghai, these charges appear to go off like bombs in the cloud which duly dissipate upon this assault. Humanity’s war with nature, as perpetrated historically by mass industrial practices (be they capitalist, communist or otherwise), gets writ large here. Rather than alter behaviours or systems of consumption to mitigate dangerous weathers, Geostorm’s future sees us quite literally dropping bombs on the planet to save the planet.

Ecological thought (as per Buell and Clark), and even quantum theory (as per Nils Bohr and Karen Barad), tell us that we are one and the same as the nature we have historically bifurcated ourselves from, or see ourselves as distinct from. Humanity is a part of nature and nature is a part of humanity; all entangled in what Jason W. Moore terms the ‘web of life’. Geostorm is having absolutely none of this, it is very much humanity vs. nature and nature vs. humanity here. If the natural world looks to be behaving dangerously, even if this danger is “our fault”, it needs to be whipped back into shape and taught a lesson. The film’s core plot posits an elaborate way of lassoing the climate to our own ends and needs; catching any moment of the world appearing ‘in-itself’, i.e. not for humans, and bombing it back into submission. As Geostorm would have it, if the world is not for-us, then what’s the point? Let the bombing commence. Rather than see humanity changing their relationship with the environment towards more attuned ecological ends, Geostorm escalates the industrial technological warfare perpetrated by modernity against nature to the next level by way of this Dutch Boy device.

One of the most striking aspects of Geostorm is its confusing temporality. The future feels strangely unlikely in Geostorm, simply because it is set so close to the present day. One of the most fun aspects of science fiction films, for me at least, is going back to old 70s/80s classics and seeing how their approximations of the future weigh up now that we’re living in their future time; producing that odd feeling of “this future was now” (I wonder how Blade Runner 2049 will shape up in this regard…). Geostorm’s meteoric propulsion in technological advancement (holo-pads, a vast network of climate dispelling satellites, fully populated atmospheric and gravitationally situated space stations etc.) goes far beyond what can be taken seriously as existing a year into our future. Originally the film was designed to be set around 2040, but after re-shoots and studio interference it was decided to situate the film in the much more proximate future, so as to frame stronger ties between the dangerous weather in the film and the dangerous weather of the contemporary moment. This messy production background renders time strange in Geostorm; aesthetically it appears a future decades in the making but its instead one posited as being, essentially, tomorrow. Time feels in an unsteady state of flux within the film. On the one hand this nicely shores up some of the more enjoyable B-movie aspects of the text (as per its messy production background), on the other this fluctual and confusing temporality is of importance for assessing our sense of time in the Anthropocene.

I am interested in how time feels in the Anthropocene, and Geostorm, all be it completely by accident, facilitates thinking time in the Anthropocene in a unique manner. The Anthropocene epoch announces the dissolving of human history and geological history, a result of human-induced carbon emissions and habitat destruction altering the geo-physical foundations of the planet. Humanity now occupies timescales entirely extracted from our own much smaller scales of existence; we are not a geo-physical force and we occupy geological time. Humans expire in a matter of decades, geological epochs exist for tens of millions of years; both are now hopelessly entwined. Time feels vast and untenable under such circumstances. The small acts of driving a car to work or not recycling a paper cup accumulate now, like snowballs rolling down a hill, to a much larger issue dispersed through vast space and time. Time feels strange in the Anthropocene by way of these seemingly contradictory scales. Geostorm’s confusing timescales operate similarly to shore up this weirdness of time; just as Geostorm’s future feels untenable, so to does our present.

Geostorm is clearly fond of this sense of estrangement. Great visual emphasis is made throughout the text to highlight moments of juxtapositional environments/weathers colliding. Temperature spikes in Russia melt the snowy caps of the Kremlin, a vast flood sweeps through the Saudi Arabian desert and Rio De Janeiro freezes over as its beach dwellers become petrified icy statues. Perhaps these are too ridiculous to be taken seriously, not that that’s necessarily a problem. Taking texts not seriously is equally important, and Geostorm is a superb text for taking not seriously.

While the film’s tagline reads “Some Things Were Never Meant To Be Controlled”, the message the film posits is precisely the opposite. Geostorm suggests that the best way out of mass industrial, post-modern, hetero-male-capitalist society’s relationship with nature is to accelerate the logic that landed us on the cusp of a 6th mass species extinction event. If nature poses a threat, it must be attacked with technological advancement. In spite of all these shortcomings I enjoyed the film, basking in its inept ecocritical commentary while gearing up for the next scene of Gerard Butler punching someone. Perhaps if the tagline had read “Some Things Were Never Meant To Be Taken Seriously” the reviews for Geostorm might have been more lenient and people might have taken it for what it is, Gerard Butler vs. The Environmental Crisis.