With friends like these…
There’s a director’s cut ending of Cameron’s The Abyss in which the aliens who live at the bottom of the ocean create huge tsunami waves so as to scare humanity into stopping with all the fucking around with nukes and instead getting together, smiling on their brother, and learning to love one another. Or something. The fear of nuclear annihilation often takes the form of an investment in environmental issues when it gets translated into film, I suspect. After all, turning earth into an uninhabitable place that can no longer sustain life is central to the apocalyptic imagery, and if it’s not incompatible, as such, with other versions of the end-times, the particular clarity by which we can know exactly what would happen does give the trope a certain psychological potency.
This special edition ending* is also quite clearly related to another product of the eighties’ obsession with nukes and whales, the Spock-dying-and-being-reborn-in-San-Francisco-to-save-the-whales sequence in the Star Trek movies, a similar dream worked resolution of cold war paranoia, and an illuminating comparison in several ways. After all, both movies foreground an apocalyptic foreclosure of the future which tropes as concern for the environment, but they then solve the problem with a devil’s brew of alien technology and an important character’s martyrdom, which (surprise!) suddenly turns not to be a sacrifice at all. Sounds like any good capitalist approach to stuff like climate change to me: we’ll just let technology solve the problem, and then we’ll all eat this cake and have it as well. But what really strikes me about the parallel is the way, in both, an environmentalism comes into existence that’s clearly against the cold war, but which gets to repress its relationship with dirty fucking hippies. In The Abyss, for example, there’s actually a moment where the female lead is trying to convince everyone she’s seen an alien and that the military types on board can’t be trusted, but when the character called “Hippie” starts in on the issue, she cuts him off cold; “Don’t be on my side, hippy!” And what else the hell is Star Trek IV doing in San Francisco if not to have the opportunity for dudes in uniforms to sneer at dirty social outcasts while co-opting their social agenda and moral authority?
Okay, that was a bit harsh; after all, Star Trek IV gave us this:
But I do wonder if these kind of movies don’t translate a genuine attachment to progressive social issues with a visceral distaste for people that look and act funny. Shatner and Ed Wood’s characters are awfully square, after all, and that seems like the point; you get to have some weirdos along for the ride, but ultimately your wish-fulfillment self in the movie turns out to be a hick or an Iowan in a uniform. But that seems to be the consensus view on the sixties, as pop-culture teaches us to remember it: the hippies may have been right, but they’re still hippies. And America hates hippies. So instead of getting concerned about the fact that the people creating the threat of nuclear annihilation are clean cut guys with clean suits, we learn to fear and despise the people whose “dirtiness” is almost an analog to the most vulgar conception of what environmentalism is, cleaning up litter.