Overpopulation, and a Movie that Definitely Won’t Get the Oscar

, scientific adviser, Climate and Energy | February 23, 2017, 5:24 pm EDT
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As Oscar Night approaches, I’ve gotten to thinking about the movies I saw last year—not just the good ones, but a bad one too. It’s Inferno, which seemed to have everything going for it, but has sunk into cinematic oblivion with scarcely a trace. Why?

Before I saw it last fall, I thought it had all the elements that would make lots of Americans like it—including me. It stars Tom Hanks, the actor who would definitely be America’s Sweetheart if he weren’t so old and so male. It’s directed by Ron Howard, one of Hollywood’s most respected directors. Its title and underlying theme come from Dante’s description of Hell—seven centuries old but still unsurpassed.

Dante—a portrait by Andrea del Castagno, in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence. Source: Web_Gallery_of_Art, Wikimedia.org

And it’s based on the best-selling novel by best-selling author Dan Brown of DaVinci Code fame. Put those four together, and how could we fail to like it? For that matter, how could I fail to like it? (OK, I’m not a Dan Brown fan, but Hanks, Howard and Dante are all favorites of mine, so three out of four…)

Well, even with all that going for it, there’s no way it’ll be mentioned Sunday night. In fact I suspect that Tom Hanks and Ron Howard would just as soon we forget they ever were associated with it. (Not sure about how Dan Brown or Dante are feeling). The critics’ consensus, as summarized by the Rotten Tomatoes web site, is “Senselessly frantic and altogether shallow, Inferno sends the Robert Langdon trilogy spiraling to a convoluted new low.” Ouch! And even more painful, Hollywood-wise, it made only $34 million at the box office. I.e., a total flop.

How could it fail so badly? I thought briefly that it might have to do with the plot and the villain. (Spoiler ahead, although frankly it’s so far past its sell-by date that this can’t make it worse.) Inferno’s evil genius turns out to be a millionaire who thinks the world’s fundamental problem is … overpopulation. Through TED-like talks he builds up a cult of Malthusian followers who conspire with him to kill off half the world’s people for the sake of preserving nature.

So, was that the problem? Was seeing a twisted kind of environmentalist as the epitome of Evil just too much for American audiences to take? Is our fear of population growth so strong that we refuse to accept any negative portrayal of that fear? Just too much cognitive dissonance?

Nahhh…..I don’t think so. It’s easy for us intellectuals to overthink pop culture, and in this case I think there’s a simpler explanation. It’s just a bad movie. And as Dante’s contemporary William of Ockham taught us, there’s no need to come up with a complicated explanation when a simple one will do just fine.

So, on Sunday night I won’t be regretting the fact that Inferno’s not in the running for Best Picture. Personally I’m rooting for Hidden Figures. It had me right from the opening scene in which a young African-American girl is walking down a lane counting “….eight, nine, ten, prime, twelve, prime, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, prime…”

Just the nerd version of sentimentality? Sure, I admit it. But it’s also a great movie. And nowadays science can use all the help it can get from pop culture, so I’m really hoping it wins.

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  • Greeley Miklashek

    Any media vehicle that confronts us with the true cause of ALL environmental problems: human overpopulation is worthwhile. I thought it was a great movie! However, the premise that knocking off half of the current 7.4 billion of us will solve the real underlying problem is naive. Such cataclysms generally cause a temporary dip but explosive rebound. We have a built-in neuro-endocrine population regulation system, as do all social animals. What I have come to call “population density stress” is the underlying cause of all medical illness. Thus, traditional hunter-gatherer people have none of our “diseases of civilization”. 1/3 of all American men in their middle years today have abnormally high blood pressures, due to an over-active stress response, caused, in turn, by our stress life-styles in our modern “built” environments. Without our heroic medical treatments and massive prescribing of life-saving medicines and vaccines, we would be a tiny fraction of our current ever more environmentally destructive numbers. It’s a great movie, which raises an all-important issue. WAKE UP! By the way, I’m a retired physician. Only a world-wide commitment to one-child families will save us and the biosphere, or we can just continue to let nature kill us off as our population density stress increases.