Thursday, April 18, 2013

Culture Shock 04.18.13: It's Earth Day, and nature hates you

In the decade following the first Earth Day, celebrated on April 22, 1970, filmmakers embraced environmental themes in many ways.

Hollywood's newfound eco-awareness led to "serious" films like "The China Syndrome," which was nominated for four Oscars, and sci-fi thrillers like "Soylent Green" and "Silent Running," in which a psychopath, played by psychopath specialist Bruce Dern, kills his shipmates in order to save Earth's last forest, which, as the credits roll, floats off into deep space to the strains of a Joan Baez song.

Some consider "Silent Running" a classic.

Yet by far the dominant genre of ecological cinema in the 1970s was the "nature strikes back" movie.

Iron Eyes Cody might shed a tear at the sight of trash on the roadside, but Mother Nature wasn't having any of it. She was ticked off, she was going to make sure everyone knew it, and she had an army — basically the entire animal kingdom — at her command.

Whether spawned by pollution, genetic experimentation or just plain old revenge, these animals were out for blood.

Insects and spiders posed the greatest threat. Michael Caine and an all-star cast faced off against killer bees in "The Swarm." Ants became super-intelligent and threatened to overrun the planet in the head-trippy sci-fi flick "Phase IV." And William Shatner had to Shatner his way through a town infested with deadly tarantulas in "Kingdom of the Spiders."

Shatner's "Star Trek" co-star DeForest Kelley arguably had an even worse time of it, trying to avoid being trampled by stampeding rabbits the size of Volkswagens in the infamous B-movie "Night of the Lepus."

The 1950s had its own menacing animals, often giant bugs created by atomic testing and communism. Director Bert I. Gordon made his name unleashing irradiated terrors like "Earth vs. the Spider" and "The Amazing Colossal Man." When the 1970s rolled around, Gordon returned, first with 1976's "The Food of the Gods."

Based on an H.G. Wells story, "The Food of the Gods" gave us giant rats and even a giant, killer chicken. But that was just the warm-up. For an encore, Gordon set loose giant ants on the Everglades and leading lady Joan Collins in "Empire of the Ants."

But some animals didn't need a boost from mankind's folly to get their revenge. They simply took matters into their own claws.

1972's "Frogs" finds Ray Milland, Sam Elliott, Joan Van Ark and a bunch of disposable character actors under assault by — wait for it — frogs. Very ticked-off frogs. And snakes. As well as a few other critters, all fed up with Milland's character killing them for no good reason.

By 1978, Australian filmmakers were joining in, and in "Long Weekend," we meet a bickering married couple who are so annoying every creature in the Outback decides to kill them. And we cheer.

The decade closed with director John Sayles' "Alligator," which turned the urban legend about alligators living in the sewers into a B-grade horror flick.

In "Alligator," a the baby alligator flushed into the sewer grows to monstrous proportions by feasting on discarded lab rats injected with growth hormones.

That was just about the last gasp of the genre. Moviegoers' tastes were changing, and Hollywood assembled a new army to take on a new menace.

As the 1980s got underway, Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger would slice up the new threat: teenagers having sex.

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