5 Documentaries About the Environment That Will Surprise You

Expedition to the End of the World Tshirt

As April leaves us with this one last day, it’s appropriate to end the month’s theme of environmentalism with a look at films that very well could change your mind about something regarding alternative energy or climate change. And even if they don’t go that far, they’ll at least surprise you a bit about their subject matter and probably get you thinking differently. These are not documentaries aimed at sending the usual green messages, but they’re not conservative features looking to debunk those usual green messages, either. They’re about or made by people going against the grain in their thinking on the issues, and that makes them really fascinating. The following list highlights documentaries about the environment that aren’t preaching to the choir. They take risks with different attitudes, and here’s what’s not surprising: none of them are big hits.

Cool It

From director Ondi Timoner (Dig!; We Live In Public), this 2010 doc is based on Bjorn Lomberg’s books The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the State of the World and Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming and features Lomberg explaining his highly controversial theories on climate change. He directly responds to Al Gore’s points from An Inconvenient Truth with his own facts on sea level rise and super storms and even polar bear endangerment. Lomberg isn’t a global warming denier from the other side of the political spectrum, though. He just is saying to “cool it” with all the fear-mongering rhetoric as well as all the wasting of money for solutions that aren’t working and maybe aren’t necessary. A movie like this should be able to bridge the extreme sides regarding climate change, though I’m not that surprised it didn’t seem appealing for either audience. And the regular climate change crowd were worried he’d hurt their cause.

The Expedition to the End of the World

Maybe the coolest movie I saw all last year, this hilarious adventure doc from Denmark has a realistic attitude that might also come across as semi-defeatest (but it’s not). Director Daniel Dencik hitches a ride aboard a ship heading to the North Pole, specifically arctic Greenland, joining scientists who are going to study areas that have been uncovered by the melting glaciers, plus artists who seem to be going along just to spout some deep ideas about the universe and our changing world. The consensus of the subjects is that change is natural and maybe we simply aren’t meant to stick around forever. There are new perspectives to be found in all kinds of things from this film, not just regarding environmentalism. It’s a doc in which a scientist wears a t-shirt that says, “Fuck everything and become a pirate” (see above), which ought to give you a little idea of the tone. And with a soundtrack alternating between instrumental Metallica and choral Mozart, everything about it is awesome.

Into Eternity: A Film for the Future

Before going up to the end of the world, Dencik was the editor of this other apocalyptic documentary from director Michael Madsen. This one is about nuclear waste storage, specially at the Onkalo repository site in Olkiluoto, Finland. Madsen plays the film like it’s intended for future audiences who might think to go into the tunnels and dig up our old “treasure” (a la the Pyramids). Unlike the future-set doc The Age of Stupid, this isn’t a warning or really even a concern for what we’re doing here in the 21st century. Maybe it’s not even really an environmentalism doc, though it can be for all it reminds the audience of how they already feel about nuclear energy and other related issues. Like Expedition, it has an attitude of acceptance regarding whatever changes come, and Madsen doesn’t just assume we’ll be gone so much as we might just be very differently evolved.

Pandora’s Promise

26 years ago, filmmaker Robert Stone was nominated for an Oscar for an anti-nuke doc called Radio Bikini. He’s a changed man now, and he shows how much with this 2013 feature about how nuclear power is actually our best hope for alternative energy right now. It was obviously a difficult movie to make given that Fukushima happened during filming, and it was a difficult movie to sell after that, too. Those who are watching it, however, are finding that there’s a new conversation to be had about the long-controversial energy source. Stone points out that even with the disasters that have occurred with nuclear plants, it’s still safer than other alternatives, especially in the long run. If you can’t imagine that to be possible, you should give what he has to say and show us a try. Maybe even watch it with Into Eternity to keep your brain confused about what’s better.


Where Pandora’s Promise tries to convince you that an energy source you think is bad is actually okay, this 2010 doc tries to convince you that another energy source that you think is perfect is actually terrible. Laura Israel won the inaugural DOC NYC grand jury prize for this (FYI: I was on that jury), but a lot of people out there sure don’t think it’s award-worthy. Mainly people in the wind turbine industry and likely a lot of other environmentalists who do still think giant windmills are a great way to generate power as a substitute for fossil fuels. It’s pretty eye-opening, and also amazing is the fact that Israel isn’t on the side of fossil fuels either. Like Lomberg, she just sees the wrong solutions being made. The real story isn’t with her, however. Windfall is about a whole town in upstate New York that is divided on the issue in a way that affects them all as a community. Watch it with a community of your own to see if you become divided just discussing it.

This list was originally published on April 30, 2014.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.