Spirits In The Night

09/20/2017 11:31 am ET Updated Sep 20, 2017
Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise

I took Darren Aronofsky to Eden. Last week, he brought me to hell.

Love it or hate it, you can't watch Darren Aronofsky's visually stunning new film mother! without him getting deep inside your skull. People will be analyzing this movie and arguing about what it means for a long time. I'm still unpacking it. Horror films are scary; mother! is a gut punch followed by a stress-filled nightmare.

And yet like most nightmares, this twisted fever-dream springs from real-world anxieties. While watching mother!—a film that, on the surface, is about unwelcome house guests and the destruction of a couple’s idyllic home—I couldn't escape the irony that millions of people in the Gulf, Florida, and throughout the West were putting their own homes back together after extreme hurricanes and an invasion of wildfires. "I'll just get back to the apocalypse,” mother!’s title character Jennifer Lawrence says at one point, but apocalypses keep their own schedules, and lately it's been an accelerated one.

One can see this film as an edgy, creepy, jittery horror story that descends into a mob-driven orgy of destruction. But the treehugger in me can't help but look deeper and see mother!—at least in part—as a fantastical meditation on humanity's destruction of our planet. Among the film's myriad religious allusions, one of the most obvious is the destruction of Eden, precipitated by a malevolent selfish act and enabled by an oblivious ego.

My job as executive director of the Sierra Club comes with one big fringe benefit: I get to spend a little time in Eden here on Earth—some of the most beautiful and unspoiled places on the planet. One such adventure was with Aronofsky, a humanitarian and environmentalist as well as acclaimed filmmaker (and board member of Sierra Club Foundation).

Our trip to Eden was a weeklong rafting expedition for artists and activists through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—the most untouched wilderness in the United States and one of the greatest wild and expansive places on the planet. A rare glimpse of what our world looks like without any human degradation whatsoever. No billboards. No roads. No infrastructure of any kind. Just mountains, rivers, wildflowers, caribou, grizzlies—life. It's not that I think that we will ever again see our planet returned to such a pristine state, but being in that extraordinary place brought home to me how much we've lost and how precious what we have left is.

In mother! Aronofsky shows us an Eden turned into a hell, but I'd seen that with him before, too. That was during a four-day trip to the sprawling, gigantic tar-sands mines of Alberta, Canada. We saw how a beautiful ancient boreal forest had been turned into a toxic wasteland for the sake of fossil fuels. We met with First Nations leaders who've been forced to watch as their home was destroyed and water poisoned by rapacious, thoughtless plunder. Oil company flaks proudly showed us "reclaimed" lands that would never be the same—"painted over," to borrow a metaphor from the film.

To see any home destroyed is tragic, and in just the past few weeks we've literally seen thousands of homes swept away by disaster. What's especially perverse, though, both in real life and in mother!, is the refusal to recognize and own the causes of that destruction. In the film, no one takes responsibility, ever. Whenever a disaster happens, "it was an accident"—even though the guilty parties were warned. Sound familiar? Throughout the film, no one listens, and no one takes "no" for an answer. "Don't they know it's the end of the world," Patti Smith sings over the end credits in a remake of the Skeeter Davis's 1962 hit. No, because they refuse to see what's right in front of them.

It’s painful to watch this vision of our species at its greedy, gluttonous, selfish, self-absorbed worst, and its darkly poetic, hellish vision of our future isn’t easy to shake. That said, I do believe it's a future we can still avoid—if we reject apathy and denial and relearn how to listen to and love one another. What's hard to watch in a film would be catastrophic to ignore in reality. 

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