1. Batman & Robin
There are so many things wrong with Batman & Robin—the descent into cheesy Adam West-era camp, the chaotic lighting scheme, nipples on the Bat-suit—that mixed messages about the environment don't immediately come to mind. And even as supervillains go, Uma Thurman's Poison Ivy couldn't compete with the sublime poetic insipidness of Arnold Schwarzenegger's Mr. Freeze. Still, Poison Ivy has always fancied herself as an environmental crusader, with blood that flows with plant toxins, a body that emanates natural pheromones, and vines springing out of her like Georgia kudzu. She says, "I am Nature's arm. Her spirit. Her will." Yet as Mother Nature's self-proclaimed enforcer, she protects the environment with a fanaticism that one could only call Ingrid Newkirk-esque. She's all for going green, but her eco-villain wants to destroy all humanity to make it happen.
Is it wrong to confess, ever so sheepishly, that Bio-Dome has a solid premise? Setting a pair of yahoos loose in a hermetically sealed, self-sustaining dome populated by snooty, tightwad scientists… It sounds like a Marx brothers movie, and it was probably just what the nation needed after witnessing the melodrama stirred up by the Biosphere 2 project in Arizona. But since those yahoos are Pauly Shore and Stephen Baldwin, and the dome is a structure they've mistaken for the mall, the film fills the precious synthetic atmosphere with toxic gas, and uses every opportunity to thumb its nose at the earnest, highly educated bark-eaters who would rather save the planet than party hearty. After this unclean dumb-and-dumber duo trash the place through flagrant wastefulness and a secret kegger that gets out of control, they finally see the error of their ways and complete the experiment. But by then, the last-ditch pro-environment message is superceded by the audience's desire to kill the messengers.
3. Captain Planet
In 1990, a humble billionaire named Ted Turner had a simple dream: to promote environmentalism among young people via a green-mulleted, Earth-loving superhero who dressed like he was auditioning for a slot in the Ambiguously Gay Duo. The public grudgingly tolerated Turner's misbegotten concoction, first in Captain Planet And The Planeteers, then in The New Adventures Of Captain Planet, and finally in Marvel's Captain Planet comics. Eventually, though, they moved on to less preachy/crappy superheroes. After a thoroughly undistinguished run, Captain Planet was finally put out of its misery, though first, the Captain and his planeteers tussled with Hitler. According to Wikipedia, Turner is currently in talks about a possible live-action Captain Planet movie. Be afraid. Very afraid.
4. The Day After Tomorrow
Plenty of sincere, worthy films have been made about the threats of global warming and critical climate change. This isn't one of them. This is the one that mines oceans of bathos out of a wide-eyed, bald, leukemia-stricken child trapped in a powered-down, freezing hospital after a global climate shift dumps America into an Ice Age. And the one where Dennis Quaid plays a dad who gets a buddy killed so he can cross America's frozen wastes to stand uselessly by the side of his son, Jake Gyllenhaal. And the one where Gyllenhaal is literally chased down a hallway by killer cold. The Day After Tomorrow isn't scary because of its could-this-happen-to-us? vision of an America destroyed by its own environmental apathy, it's scary because its vision of the future is endlessly mawkish and ridiculous. It'd be worth giving up industry and going back to the land just to ensure that no one has to have their heartstrings plucked by a wide-eyed, diseased child evoking Peter Pan ever again.
5. Melissa Etheridge, "Wake Up"
What will destroy the world's glaciers and icecaps first: global warming, or seismic destabilization caused by Melissa Etheridge's garish singing? Accompanying the rational, firm Al Gore documentary An Inconvenient Truth, Etheridge's tune "I Need To Wake Up" hammers in the untapped "being complacent is just like being asleep, man!" metaphor. That "I"—as opposed to the world's energy-burning population in general—says everything about the comical arrogance of celebrities and hacky songwriters who think clichés take on greater power in their own hellish windpipes. Perhaps to supply the vividness that Etheridge's lyrics lack, the song's video breaks up her drunken-mime-with-guitar posturing with cataclysmic stats and images. For example: "Polar bears are drowning."
6. Ferngully: The Last Rainforest
Early-'90s eco-chic was at its height when 20th Century Fox picked up the independently produced cartoon Ferngully: The Last Rainforest, an aggressively marketed, singularly unpleasant tale of wood sprites fighting off lumberjacks. It's one thing to protest wanton destruction of eco-systems, but Ferngully is so life-obsessed that its final battle is against the very spirit of destruction: a creature known as Hexxus. How the rainforest would look in 10 years without any kind of death at the end of the life cycle is a question the filmmakers fail to address. Also ignored: how much petroleum it took to make all those unsold Ferngully toys. (And whether we really want to live in an environment that allows a Robin Williams-voiced rapping bat to survive.)
7. Independence Day
As if it weren't enough when a hostile, indestructible alien force invaded Earth, writers Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich made the space invaders environmentally wasteful. Via human-alien mind-meld—naturally—Bill Pullman learns that the alien force takes over planets, uses up the natural resources, then moves on. Playing yet another neurotic scientist, Jeff Goldblum trashes a room in despair: "We gotta burn the rainforest, pops," he tells his father, Judd Hirsch. "Dump toxic waste, pollute the air, rip up the ozone. Maybe if we screw this planet up enough, they won't want it any more!"
8. Michael Jackson, "Earth Song"
As last week's Inventory on misguided charity songs attests, Michael Jackson is pretty much the poster boy for good intentions gone horribly awry. Yet even by Jackson's exceedingly lenient standards, his 1995 message song "Earth Song" is a grotesquely overblown, maudlin ballad hectoring listeners into hearing the plaintive howls of "this crying earth, this weeping shore." The video is even more of a heavy-handed downer: It's a solemn parade of human misery and ecological disasters, intercut with Jackson wandering soulfully through a post-apocalyptic hellscape in a series of vaguely messianic poses. It's as subtle, nuanced, and even-handed as a "God Hates Fags" protest.
9. On Deadly Ground
When Steven Seagal negotiated his participation in a sequel to his hit Under Siege, his main demand was that he be allowed to make his directorial debut with this masterpiece of PC action corn. Seagal plays oil-fire-fighter Forrest Taft (you know he loves the environment, because his name is Forrest!), who discovers malfeasance on the part of his employer and decides, ultimately, that the best way to protect the environment is to blow up a refinery. But first he has to demonstrate his kinship with Native Americans, first by stopping some rednecks from beating one up ("What does it take to change the essence of a man?" he asks the shame-faced rednecks), and then by embarking on a vision quest that has him running naked across the tundra with a bear. In spite of the film's box-office failure, Seagal wasn't done playing a friend to the land; three years later, he stepped into the role of a rogue EPA agent in the equally ludicrous Fire Down Below. If nothing else, the environmental movement has blessed us with two classics of the bad-movie genre… though don't expect that fact to show up on any Greenpeace mailings.
Working from a script by The Omen scribe David Seltzer, John Frankenheimer brings way more filmmaking skill than required to this tale of a lumber mill's dire impact on the ecology of woodsy Maine. How dire? Dire enough to produce repulsive mutant babies who grow up to be stuntmen in slightly modified, slimy bear costumes. Can noble/angry Native American Armand Assante convince everyone that the Earth does not belong to us, we belong to the Earth, before it's too late? Maybe. But first, some campers bite the dust.
11. Saved By The Bell
Similar to Paul Thomas Anderson's epic capitalist fable There Will Be Blood, only dumber and cuter, the '90s teen sitcom Saved By The Bell explored how wanton greed and blatant disregard for the harmful side effects of oil prospecting can wreck the souls of men, as well as blond boys who talk to the camera. Saved By The Bell's oil episode begins, in the series' usual inexplicable fashion, with irrepressible preppie Zack Morris making friends with a duck named Becky he has accidentally hit with a baseball behind the high school. Just as Daniel Plainview's son H.W. comes to represent all the inner good the father eventually betrays, Becky is a metaphor for Zack's kinder, gentler side, which is soon poisoned by dreams of vast wealth after Slater discovers oil in the football field. In spite of the efforts of the muckraking Jessie Spano, whose Upton Sinclair-esque newsletter No Oil In Bayside is ignored by the 10-person student body, oil companies come in to drill the field. Tragically, there's a spill, and Becky is killed. Zack Morris—and the audience—learn a sad, valuable lesson: If you discover oil in the football field behind your high school, keep it a secret. Otherwise, your beloved duck friend will die. Unfortunately, this environmental lesson is applicable only in a world controlled by hacky sitcom writers.
12. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
The final shot of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home should've been the rear of the Starship Enterprise sporting a giant "Save The Whales" bumper sticker, though by the end of the film, audiences probably got the message clearly enough. The fourth feature-length installment of the series, released in 1986, essentially answers the question "Why should I save the whales? What good does it do me, the average earthling?" Answer: If humpback whales are extinct in the 23rd century, their song won't be able to placate the mysterious alien force that will evaporate Earth's oceans and end human life on the planet. (It seems so obvious…) Also: Whales are beautiful creatures, and female scientists who study whales are hot enough for Kirk to space-bone. But that's just a space bonus.
13. Super Friends: Season One
When Hanna-Barbera brought the DC Comics superheroes to Saturday mornings in 1973, they apparently went out of their way to rob them of their cool. Instead of "The Justice League Of America," Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman became "The Super Friends." And instead of fighting wicked-looking supervillains like Lex Luthor, Braniac and The Joker, this wimpier league took on intergalactic polluters, overpopulation, and world hunger. Well, sort of, anyway. In a typical first-season episode of Super Friends, the bad guys are often well-meaning, and it's the heroes who have to stop them from trying to solve the world's problems. Whether it's the animal-controlling "Dr. Pelagian" threatening industrialists or "Dr. Gulliver" shrinking humanity so they'll use less resources, these villains have our best interests in mind. So naturally, the Super Friends must crush them.
14. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret Of The Ooze
If the secret of the ooze is that ninja turtles are only into cleaning up the environment so long as it involves mopping the floor with hordes of nameless Foot Soldiers, then that secret's been out for a while now. Otherwise, the violent, man-sized turtles don't really seem to care. In the sequel to the turtles' first big-screen outing, the Techno Cosmic Research Institute, in a sudden bout of corporate social responsibility, hires Professor Jordan Perry (a certified lab-coat-wearing scientist) to investigate its toxic waste, which triggers mutations in flora. But when the ninja turtles meet up with Perry, and he explains that their mutant state is due to a similar contamination, Donatello is merely bummed that there's nothing more interesting to it. There's no concern for the ecological effects of the mutation, or anything like that—but they seem pretty pleased once they vanquish Shredder beneath a pier and return his mutated henchmen, Tokka and Rahzar, to their original forms, as a snapping turtle and wolf. And instead of pondering whether they should be responsible and also regress to their original non-mutant forms, Master Splinter merely commands them to practice harder—why give a hoot when there are sequels to make?
It would be a lot easier to laugh at Waterworld if there weren't declassified Pentagon reports floating around about, containing the contingency plans for when the icecaps melt and flood Europe. But since that tragedy is still, oh, about six years away, let's do our best to enjoy the sublime ludicrousness of Kevin Costner as a mutant man/fish hybrid leading purebred humans to a mythical spot known as "Dryland." (Or as we shall one day know it, "Denver.") To reach paradise, Costner has to motor past a one-eyed Dennis Hopper, who's getting rich off all the global destruction that polluting has wrought, and sees Dryland as yet another resource he can exploit. To emphasize the irony, Waterworld has Hopper captaining the salvaged remains of the Exxon Valdez. Once, it spilled oil. Now, it spills third-act plot complications.
16. Widget, The World Watcher
Thank God for the Horsehead Nebula. Without it, we would never have been sent its eco-friendly resident Widget, a purple, shape-shifting apprentice world-watcher whose primary mission is to save Earth from ecological disasters. Sure, he'll end poaching on government-protected parks in Africa with the help of his human friends and Megabrain (a cocky, floating head with a transparent cranium), but there's a catch: His grating voice and liberal use of the word "awesome." What's so misguided about that? Well, Widget's theme song starts, "Danger and evil were everywhere / Nature thought we didn't care," and apparently the moral is, we don't have to care: A dopey alien like Widget will come along and fix it for us, so long as we put up with his market-tested youth slang.
17. The Smoggies
Lest stupid Americans mistake them for the hero of this cartoon, Canada's The Smoggies aired in the U.S. under the name Stop The Smoggies. No one paid much attention anyway, as evidenced by The Smoggies' relegation to the dustbin of cartoon history. The creators didn't do themselves any favors with an interminable theme song that basically gives away the entire show: The Smoggies are the bad guys who mess up the planet, while the Suntots—creepy little childlike beasts with funny hairdos—live in ecological harmony. (They also stay young forever with magic coral.) Sing along, won't you? "With the Suntots and the Smoggies / Choose the way the world could be / A messy mess or shiny clear, ecologically!" Umm, is there a third choice?