The week before I wrote this, more than a thousand climate scientists chained their bodies to the entrances of various banks, corporations, and government buildings, in a desperate plea for dramatic action after the recent release of a terrifying climate report. Meanwhile, a beautiful poem about a potential environmental rebirth—that is, after our species goes extinct—circulates on social media. Meanwhile, all the copies of Richard Powers’s The Overstory (Norton, 2018), a baggy novel stirringly invested in its nonhuman and human characters alike, are checked out from my university’s library. Meanwhile, my mother asks me to write something on this article she read: about a penguin who, last fall, traveled from Antarctica to New Zealand—the place of his ancestors, yet new to him—as counter to that old adage: you really can’t go home again.
Each of these facts takes on a more poignant resonance when viewed in the context of environmental collapse. Each wants to believe that not everything is irrevocable, that time and matter could reverse their paths, that the inevitable might be resisted in small and surprising ways.
Yet, there is so much about which we can do so little. When we daydream about the forms that responses to certain climate collapse may take, what possibilities for ecological futures do these desires strive for, only to circumscribe? Such daydreams assume a great many different forms, variously and multifariously enough so that they hide themselves in plain sight.
Many of these facts and daydreams seem, increasingly, to draw from the same shared narrative, in which the Earth reasserts itself, after and against our destruction of it. Indeed, this narrative has implanted itself so pervasively in our cultural imaginary that its presence seems ubiquitous.
A common, desperate hope—that, if we cannot halt or reverse anthropogenic climate change, which is almost certainly the case, the planet we’ve destroyed will revitalize itself—connects human interest pieces to poetry to much other contemporary media. And this desperate wish for redemption is staged, though differently, in several films from this past year. Accordingly, they also exemplify something unexpected, even counterintuitive: strange affinities that tie seemingly unrelated media together on a single thread, united in their shared wish that the human toll on our planet has not been as great as we fear.
Gaia and In the Earth, both released last summer, are particularly vivid examples of the cinematic genre that is “ecohorror.” In this genre, environmental natures inform plot and aesthetics and, on high display in these two films, become figured as the source of horror. Both these ecohorror films seem desperate to punish themselves—to punish us—by showing how the Earth will revenge itself on us for our crimes against it. Their punitive bent implores us to distance them from the aesthetic and cultural instances I mentioned earlier, which embrace themes of rebirth with less sinister valences than do these two horror films.
But this seeming categorical difference is more a function of the two films’ genre conventions than an ideological divergence. In fact, the dark extremity that colors how both Gaia and In the Earth render that same fantasy—in which the Earth revitalizes itself after our demise—affords us the ability to see this wish for what it is in sharp relief.
Despite their geographical differences (Gaia is by South African director Jaco Bouwer and In the Earth by English director Ben Wheatley), the two films share striking, notable similarities. Each follows a pair of forest workers who become separated from each other over their film’s course. For each pair, the fantastical and/or horrific emerges from contagious fungal spores that threaten the integrity of the human form. As such, each film envisions nonhuman vitality specifically through its triumph over human agency.
Not only, then, is the metanarrative in each film identical. It is also identical to the one I invoked earlier, which, despite its shifting contexts and outward appearances, remains constant: even with the damage we have inflicted on our planet, the planet will restore itself in our eventual, inevitable absence.
That famous Didion quote—about telling ourselves stories in order to live—is rarely so literally true as in the context of the lies we tell ourselves about what it might actually mean that we have created the conditions for our and our planet’s certain demise. This particular story’s omnipresence is arguably due to its widespread resonance. Not only (as Dipesh Chakrabarty, Bruno Latour, and many others have noted) are we living in a moment when climate change, no matter what one thinks of it, is firmly embedded in our public consciousness. As Sarah Dimick also explains, we (as people whose daily imperatives by design mean participating in planetary damage) are all unevenly but nonetheless culpable in climate collapse. For Dimick, this fact renders characterological concepts like villainy ill-equipped to grasp climate change’s scale and causality because, although dire asymmetries mark our contributions to climate disaster, we all still do contribute (thus bursting apart the discrete category of villain).
By this understanding, fantasies of rebirth and restoration—which rely on villainy’s residual logic, however they might reverse its direction—in fact serve, in part, to erase the steep unevenness between a global corporation’s and a taxi driver’s respective participation in climate change. In imagining an unreal scenario in which the Earth reasserts itself against all humans alike, real gross inequities transform from plot event to background.
Gaia’s and In the Earth’s visuals vivify this logic and are inextricable from their larger attitudes toward climate collapse (and subsequent rebirth). Overrun with imagery of lush forests and vibrant botanical life, both films employ highly visceral, impressionistic visual fields.
This intricate, overgrown wildness invoked by such visual schema is integral to the plots of both films. In Gaia’s case, eerie beings blend in, chameleon-like, with their surroundings; these entities, which we learn were once humans, emerge out of nowhere to infect Gabi and Winston (Gaia’s forest-worker characters) with the same contagious fungus that had originally converted them from person to monster.
The visual slippage between monster and nature creates Gaia’s suspense and much of its action. In other words, Gaia innately associates environment with vengeance, humanity with vulnerability, and restoration with invasion. In the film, the forest seeks retribution from the humans that have hurt it; the humans are wholly unable to resist such retribution; and the restoring of the forest can occur only once it is invaded by outsiders like Gabi and Winston.
“The emergent, ultimately unmappable landscapes of interacting biological, climactic, economic, and political forces,” Stacy Alaimo writes, open the space for ethics “lurking in an idiomatic definition of matter.” By attending to the “interconnections, interchanges, and transits between human bodies and nonhuman natures,” New Materialist thought (of which Alaimo is emblematic) theorizes ethical responses to climate change in and through its recognition of mutually constitutive human and nonhuman natures.1 I quote Alaimo here not to posit her and other New Materialist thinkers as theoretical extensions of Gaia’s and In the Earth’s aesthetic and political logic, although, at first glance, that conclusion is tempting. The final forms of Gabi and Winston—lingering human outlines now interchangeable with their nonhuman surroundings—visually invoke the entangled entities that Alaimo describes. Both the discourse and the films depict nonhuman agency as crucially coexistent with, and often constitutive of, human agency. The most urgent New Materialist thought accounts for the violence that is born out of nonhuman and human interaction: recognizing that endlessly interwoven, contingent, porous relationships between multiple agents give way to devastation, as well as possibility.
Yet, Gaia and In the Earth diverge from that crucial emphasis. Both films fail to recognize what the theory takes into account—the horrible asymmetries at stake, human agency’s ugly toll—so that, ultimately, the theory helps us recognize these films’ blind spots instead of vision.
Would it even be possible to make an ecohorror film today without variously literal or metaphoric reference to climate change?
In the Earth, for instance, follows Alma and Martin’s attempts to locate a network of fungal spores whose communicative abilities have taken on humanlike properties. Such abilities, in turn, have expanded the spores’ capacity for violence and destruction (the fungi speak one another other across wide distances, in doing so constructing force fields that paralyze and injure humans caught in the trap). Because an ironic distance separates the viewer from the fumbling, clumsy Martin (who, despite working in a forest, understands grossly little about his surroundings), the fungal network, by default, assumes the role of an omniscient narrator. In its knowingness, its confidence in the fallibility of the characters over which it presides, what In the Earth casts as representative of nature was always already the victor.
Largely as a function of the direction its conclusion takes—Alma and Martin do escape the forest and its threats—In the Earth explores this logic less completely than Gaia does. In the latter film, both Gabi and Winston are transformed into humanoid creatures resembling trees that abound with sporelike, botanical growths so that they function as natural extensions of their natural surroundings. Their metamorphoses are beautiful, and haunting. And with them, the last visibly humanistic traces vanish from Gaia’s visual (if not semantic) field, fulfilling the logic of the film’s embedded revenge fantasy in which nature triumphs over humans.
Both films wear their allegories on their sleeves: Would it even be possible to make an ecohorror film today without variously literal or metaphoric reference to climate change? And what does a film so politically invested in climate change signify in its speculation of distant, better, restored earthly futures?
Wishing for our redemption through the Earth’s restoration is a particularly contemporary phenomenon. It is born in part, as I mentioned earlier, out of a widespread (even mainstream) acknowledgment that we have brought horrible devastation on ourselves. Increasingly, for many of us, the question is now when and not if. Even those less certain that ecological disaster is inevitable cannot escape its discursive presence.
Still, such a seemingly contemporary wish has a longer lineage. Earlier horror films with environmental resonances—Godzilla or King Kong, for instance—toggle between terror and wish-fulfillment in attitude toward their central monsters. Even they were ambivalent as to which was more compelling: a fear of the consequences of our actions, or a desperate desire for something (or someone) to restore order to the Earth after we have wrecked it and wrecked ourselves.
It is telling, too, that so much of contemporary horror represents differences in degree, not kind, in how it variously speculates on the Earth reasserting itself. There is the grass growing through Dani’s hand in Midsommar; The Green Knight’s weary sense of its human characters’ predictable self-destruction and the age-old environment that will persevere; Annihilation’s tentative wonder at a girl turning into leaves. Taken together, it sometimes feels as if the wish for redemption has become a permanent part of our contemporary psyche.
Of course, this wish will never be fulfilled, which is part of why it is such a pleasurable wish to make. For one, it is premised on a clear before and after: in this imaginary before, we have wreaked great destruction on the Earth that will bring about our end; in the after, calm will follow the storm. But destruction is already here, largely affecting the most vulnerable among us in the form of natural disasters that will eventually be daily occurrences. The victims include entire species and ecologies, who will be unable to restore themselves after their extinction.
With this in mind, I, too, am tempted by the promises Gaia and In the Earth want to offer. If you press pause at almost any moment in either film, you’ll likely arrest an image that’s a variation on a theme. The image on your screen will be a kaleidoscopic mirage of green, botanical fauna, which regenerates itself so contagiously that there simply won’t be anything else visible to you. Perhaps the image will be fantastical: a shockingly lovely form of entanglement between flora and fauna, embodied as talkative fungi or blind trees with beating hearts. It is hard to remember, when faced with a picture so beautiful, that it is only a promise already broken.
This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus.
- Stacy Alaimo, Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self (Indiana University Press, 2010), p. 2. ↩