The Most Compelling Movies that Have an Environmental Theme or Message

by Hanna Guido
Movies that have an environmental theme or message

Movies that have an environmental theme or message are sometimes the best way into a confused, stubborn or otherwise uninformed mind. As with comedy, where anatomies of truth are wrapped in entertainment, we are less defensive as viewers when we’re seeking pleasure, and so perhaps, more likely to entertain a new idea. When it comes to environmental crises and issues, which can feel like contemplating an open wound, films let us near the horror at a safe enough distance to wonder. We are voyeurs examining the possible stories that form on the edge of disaster. But the most compelling movies that have an environmental theme or message allow for this and more. 

Soylent Green (1973)

Set in the year 2022 in New York City, pollution, overpopulation and a climate disaster have made basic necessities of life in aggressively short supply. The order of the natural world has been so compromised no animals even remain. What prevails is a nihilistic herd mentality, intense class division and the revelation of corporate deception at a curdling extreme. The film’s driving conflict is the investigation of the murder of a top official from the Soylent Corporation, a company that controls half of the globe’s food supply. The killing is meant to hide the truth about the deepest evils of this society’s elites.

Available on Amazon Prime Video.


The China Syndrome (1979)

This plot grows suspense to a nail-biting pitch then hermetically seals it so that not a particle exists. It stars Hollywood legends Jane Fonda, Michael Douglass and Jack Lemmon. The inciting conflict is a core shutdown at a plant in California. Fonda, a news reporter, along with her cameraman, played by Douglass are there to witnesses it. The plant’s supervisor (Lemmon), fears the incident was created by off-kilter safety procedures that are going unaddressed and that another disaster is imminent. The movie was unfortunately prescient. It was released shortly before the Three Mile Island accident and of course, predates Chernobyl.

Available on Amazon Prime Video.


Silkwood (1983)

Based on the true story of Karen Silkwood, this plot also revolves around the dangers at a nuclear facility. The main character, played by Meryl Streep, begins to notice transgressed safety practices at the plant where she works. When she tries to uncover what’s going on and why, her efforts are met with the same moral and literal poison she’s been fighting against. The cast also includes Cher and Kurt Russell. Of their performances, the film critic Robert Ebert wrote, “Streep and her co-actors build characters so convincing that we become witnesses instead of moviegoers.”

Available on Amazon Prime Video.


Safe (1995)

“Safe” is a psychological thriller starring Julianne Moore. She plays a housewife in Los Angeles who becomes mysteriously ill possibly from pollutants or the environment around her. But traditional medicine can’t discover what ails her, nor can psychotherapists. She eventually abandons her home, possessions and friends to move to a desert community. But her isolation only grows. The movie considers the burden usually placed on victims to deal with the consequences of a larger failing structure, in this case, a polluting society. 

Available on Amazon Prime Video.


A Civil Action (1998)

Before becoming a movie, “A Civil Action” was a national best-selling work of nonfiction. The book and the movie follow a lawsuit brought against three companies in Woburn, MA, for contaminating the water supply; the chemical cleanup will be the biggest in the Northeast ever recorded. A supremely talented cast brings the drama to life: John Travolta, William H. Macy, Robert Duvall, Tony Shalhoub and James Gandolfini.

Available on Amazon Prime Video.


Erin Brockovich (2000)

Julia Roberts plays a single mother of three who single-handedly discovers the public welfare violations of the company Pacific Gas and Electric. The corporation was allowing the chemical hexavalent chromium to enter the water system in Hinkley, CA. With the help of a partner in the firm, her boss, they fight and win justice for the families who have been medically affected by the negligence. Roberts won an Oscar for the role.

Available on Amazon Prime Video and Netflix.


Michael Clayton (2009)

A legal thriller about the corrupt practices of an agro-chemical company. While “Erin Brockovich” carries jewel tones of female empowerment, this deals with themes of mental illness through dramatizing the way any of us could be made to feel “crazy” if we question the status quo. George Clooney plays the lead, a lawyer taking the place of his colleague, who is suffering a mental breakdown in the midst of a class-action lawsuit against their corporate client. It’s a plot of yet another cover-up, where the good of the public is put on the sacrificing rock. The movie was nominated for multiple awards, including best picture.

Available on Amazon Prime Video or HBO.


The Road (2009) 

A more intimate, and narrowly focused movie, “The Road” (based on a post-apocalyptic novel by Cormac McCarthy of the same name), follows the story of a father and son in post-apocalyptic America as they make their way to the coast. It is a perilous journey, with the worst of the threats being gangs of cannibals. “The Road” shows the importance of having something to protect beyond yourself. In fact, the boy doesn’t seem to grow older as much as he remains a flashing light of moral direction for his father.

Available on Prime Video.


Promised Land (2012)

You’ve likely heard about fracking. Fracking is a divisive topic that’s often discussed in the realm of policy or on the flat surface of your computer screen. But this movie presents a portal into what decisions such an industrial technology can mean for life-long farmers. It stars Matt Damon, a businessman pegged to convince landowners to sell mineral rights to permit drilling on their property. His foil is John Krasinski, an environmental rights activist working to stop him through a grassroots campaign. The story is based on a novel by Dave Eggers.

Available on Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.


Woman at War (2018)

“Woman at War” is more offbeat than the rest and wry. Director Benedikt Erlingsson’s film is set in Iceland and follows the secret fight of one woman to end the capitalistic pillage of the environment. When she’s given the opportunity to adopt a little girl from Ukraine, her bold, nearly James Bondian quests have to be entirely reexamined. There are subtitles, though the story is compelling enough to withstand the inconvenience. Thus earning its spot among the top environmental movies of all time.

Available on Amazon Prime Video and Hulu.

Top Movies that Have an Environmental Theme or Message

What would you add to the above list of the most important movies that have an environmental theme or message? If you want more viewing recommendations, go to these popular articles: 12 Romantic Indie Movies on Netflix that Look at Relationships Differently and  7 Foreign Films that Revolutionized the Industry.

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