Can Blockbuster Filmmaking Raise Awareness of the Overpopulation Problem?

Published on November 8th, 2016

Harvard professor, code breaker and expert symbologist Robert Langdon returned in author Dan Brown’s 2013 bestseller, Inferno, with Florence, Italy, and Dante’s The Divine Comedy providing the reader with the art and historical backdrop for a page-turning fiction thriller. Actor Tom Hanks reprises the role of Langdon, the unlikely sleuth and hero, in the $75 million film version of Inferno, on the big screen now.

Like millions of readers and film-goers, I’ve enjoyed Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons for how the author mixes history, art and travelogue with fiction. “History comes alive!” And given I write about issues related to exuberant growth, I was particularly interested in Inferno, since it has overpopulation as the central plot device.

In a 2013 interview with the BBC, Brown said, “I want to stress that this is not an activist book. But overpopulation is something that I'm concerned about. I talked to a lot of scientists who are also concerned about it, and I came to understand that overpopulation is the issue to which all of our other environmental issues are tied. For example, things like ozone, where do we get our clean water, starvation, deforestation. These we consider problems. But they're really symptoms of overpopulation. So overpopulation to me seems like the big issue.”

Then in a 2014 interview with WNPR, Brown discussed how one number can jump out at him and onto a page. For Inferno, that number was the tripling of Earth’s population in the last 80 years. Read the transcript of the entire interview here for more on Brown’s self-education about population growth.

http://s1.r29static.com/bin/entry/05c/x,80/1679136/image.jpgThe ethical dilemma posed in Inferno, and answered by Brown’s billionaire character Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster), is how to choose between solutions to a problem when both outcomes are poor. Choosing the lesser of two evils. It’s the trolley problem, in this case on a massive scale – the choice is losing half of humanity now or all of humanity at a later date. In the film, Zobrist lays out the problem of too many people in a TED-Talk like flashback scene, which includes reference to Al Bartlett and his explanation of exponential growth. Bartlett, real-life professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, gave a simple, but extremely effective illustration to his students through the years to demonstrate overpopulation. I’d like to think Bartlett, who passed in 2013, would appreciate Zobrist’s full-blown multi-media presentation in the film talking about growth.

As I read through, or watched, multiple reviews (which, quite surprising to me, mostly panned the movie), I found it interesting that none saw the film as a way to bring attention to a problem (overpopulation) by way of a fictionalized story, although on a Today Show interview, actor Ben Foster did make the point that film director Ron Howard wanted the audience to leave with more questions than answers. Foster said, “All the statistics in the film are true – it’s terrifying – we’re dealing with the concept of overpopulation.”

Also interesting is that there is a difference in the film versus book ending. In the book, Zobrist believes the creation of a sterility virus that activates only in a certain percentage of the population is a “very elegant and humane resolution” to the overpopulation problem; humans would “simply stop having so many babies.” Zobrist’s apologist, Sienna Brooks, explains to Langdon: “We are an organism that, despite our unmatched intellect, cannot seem to control our own numbers.” She then goes through various data – all too familiar to those who follow population issues.

In doing so, Langdon starts “to understand their implications:”

“As a species, humans were like the rabbits that were introduced on certain Pacific Islands and allowed to reproduce unchecked to the point that they decimated their ecosystem and finally went extinct.”

In the book, the virus is released.

In the film, the viewer is led to believe that the virus Zobrist creates is a horrible plague that will wipe out half of the planet’s population. And the leading protagonists in the film “save the day” by preventing the release of the virus. Maybe Hollywood decided a simpler Good vs. Evil was all an average audience could comprehend.

Interesting too, Inferno was released in India in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu two weeks before the U.S. release, according to a review by Saibal Chatterjee, who noted that may have been due to the growing relevance of that market, or an indication of the relevance of the theme of the movie: “India is sitting on a population bomb as big as any and Inferno could serve as a cautionary tale of a twisted kind.”

Inferno’s debut U.S. weekend (the film launched in Europe as well as India two weeks earlier than the U.S., earning $132 million there for that time period) brought in $15 million, which according to industry reports was subpar versus the two prior films in the Robert Langdon franchise. Perhaps more than theme, Forbes said it was an “example of a once mighty franchise whose time had passed.” So perhaps the movie-going audience, and film reviewers of limited depth, just will see Inferno as entertainment, No. 3 in the Langdon franchise, rather than entertainment and a thought-starter for a big issue that mankind is facing right now. If we could fast forward to 2050, when world population may be as high as 9.7 billion (up more than 2 billion from today), I wonder if the view of the film might be different?

In the meantime, then, still looking for that blockbuster to raise awareness of the overpopulation problem and drive positive change to slow growth.


For more about the portrayal of overpopulation in contemporary movies, TV and books, read Leon Kolankiewicz’s “OverPOPulation in POP Culture” here.

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