4 Sci-Fi Movies With Plausible Eco-Themes

Film equipment against a green background
Photo: Jag_cz/Shutterstock

Science fiction is a flexible genre when it comes to building a story line, and many writers and filmmakers over the years have used it to craft stories with environmental themes, some by setting their stories in overly polluted dystopian worlds, others imagining a world in which humans have engineered themselves into one form of trouble or another.

Whatever the angle, it's always fun to see the environment play a part in a good sci-fi flick. I've scoured my personal movie collection, Netflix and IMDb to pull together a list of seven great movies with environmental themes that are definitely fiction, but they seem plausible.

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'Gattaca'

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"Gattaca" — starring Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke (pictured) — is set in the near future and takes place in a world in which a person's DNA determines their standing in life. Those who are genetically enhanced at birth are known as valids and are given the best jobs, while people born "naturally" without the aid of genetic screening and enhancement are classed as in-valids and are regulated to perform menial labor.

Vincent Freemen, the lead character played by Hawke, was born naturally and is masquerading as a valid in pursuit of his dream of becoming an astronaut. After someone is murdered at work, he is forced to dodge the police who are hunting for his in-valid DNA, which is found near the murder scene.

"Gattaca" offers an extreme vision of a world built by corporations — a world in which genetics are manipulated in pursuit of profit.

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'Avatar'

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"Avatar" is set in the year 2154, on the lush alien planet Pandora, where a human mining corporation is engaged in a dispute with the Na'vi, the planet's native people, over the extraction of a rare element called unobtanium. The tall (their average height is around 10 feet) blue-skinned Na'vi live in harmony with nature and are like the Native Americans, Aboriginal Australians, or any number of other indigenous peoples who have stood in the way of a corporation's (or state's) bottom line. In this case, the Na'vi are up against the mining conglomerate the RDA Corporation, which sends Jake — a marine in a special Na'vi-human hybrid body (or avatar) and operated via telepathic link — to Pandora, where the atmosphere is deadly to humans.

While operating in his Na'vi avatar, Jake goes native and falls in love with Neytiri, a beautiful warrior princess whose father is leader of the clan. Spending time with her allows Jake to learn the ways of the Na'vi, and he gains a deep appreciation for the nature-centric lives they lead. By the end of the movie (spoiler alert), Jake has helped the Na'vi expel the mining corporation that sought the tribe’s destruction.

James Cameron, the brains behind "Avatar," has already signed on to do two sequels, so it will be interesting to see if the fundamental storyline of nature vs. corporate interest will reemerge as a central theme.

You can watch the trailer here.

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'Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior'

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The world inhabited by Max Rockatansky, aka Mad Max, is one where society has all but fallen apart. War has ravaged the landscape and twisted the people lucky enough to have survived. Energy is in short demand, bands of criminals roam the roads, and life in general is cheap.

The plot of "Max Max 2" centers around a small oil refinery operated by a gentle band of people prone to wearing headbands and the color white. When Max, played by Mel Gibson (pictured), stumbles upon them, he finds their compound under siege by a group of marauders led by the massive Lord Humungus, a hockey-masked mountain of a man whose size is only outdone by his mastery of language. Max gets caught up in the action and helps the people break the grasp of Lord Humungus.

"Mad Max 2" paints a not-entirely-inaccurate portrait of what life would be like if oil supplies were cut off. Our modern society lives and breaths cheap oil and would fall to pieces if that oil weren't available. Without access to cheap energy, it's not much of a leap to think everyone would put on biker leathers and form into groups of buggy-driving bandits. Shotgun.

Watch the trailer.

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'Wall-E'

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"WALL-E" tells the story of a little robot who is destined to forever wander the Earth, cleaning as he goes. The world has been abandoned by humans, who fled into space after transforming the planet into a giant ball of trash in a frenzy of consumerism lead by the mega-corporation Buy-n-Large. Instead of paying to clean up the environment, Buy-n-Large evacuates all of humanity and leaves behind an army of robots (model name: WALL-E) to pick up the trash. After five years, it's decided that Earth cannot be saved, and humans abandon the planet all together.

By the time the movie starts, WALL-E is the last little robot left alive, seemingly the only sentient thing on a cold and lifeless world killed by consumerism.

By the end of their time on Earth, humans had turned into fat slugs who lined up at the stores to buy the latest and greatest thing and who consumed themselves right out of a good planet. It's kind of sad that you don't have to squint that hard at the average American to see the same story.

Watch the trailer.