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Environment (AKA Trial of Earth) (1971) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

prosecutor defense film jury

Principal social theme: environmental issues

BFA. No MPAA rating. Featuring: Robert Cornthwaite, John A. Dean, William Brandt, Theodore Fisher, Dixie Becker, Daniel Williams, Nick Torre, Larry Ruschetski. Written by Bernard Wilets. Cinematography by Frank Stokes. Edited by Bernard Wilets. Music by John Biggs. Produced and directed by Bernard Wilets. Color. 48 minutes.

Overview

Inspired in part by the Irwin Allen film The Story of Mankind (1957), Environment is a featurette that is a cross between a Pirandello play, a science fiction film by Edward D. Wood Jr., and a mundane scientific documentary. The premise is that five individuals from one community, Eagle Valley, are abducted by aliens who then put them on trail for environmental crimes as typical representatives of the human race. Environment was primarily shown in high schools to stimulate discussion on the balance of nature, pollution, and human consumption.

Synopsis

In the middle of the night, a heavy-set individual wearing dark glasses supervises the apprehension of five individuals from their homes. They are taken to the balcony of an abandoned theater where they witness duplicate images of themselves on a stage arranged as a courtroom set. A tall, lanky judge with a black patch over one eye takes his place on the bench. He speaks to an invisible jury seated in the main floor of the auditorium. The prosecutor is the bulky man with dark glasses, who announces that all mankind should be exterminated in order to save the environment of Earth. The defense council is a balding man with a kindly face. During his opening statement, the prosecutor describes Eagle Valley, a sixty-mile stretch of land, which is the subject of his case study of man’s impact on the environment. The first man, a farmer who lives in the upper valley, is then called to take the stand. The prosecutor questions him about his increasing use of chemicals and pesticides. The farmer replies that they are necessary for him to grow food and make a living. The prosecutor berates him for not considering the damage caused by his use of chemicals, particularly on the water supply. The defense council asks about the productivity of his land, which has increased steadily over the past ten years. He also asks the farmer about his respect and love of his land, which he intends to leave to his children. Watching from the balcony, the farmer seems satisfied by the answers that his doppelgänger gives on the witness stand.

The next witness is the manager of the six power plants operating in Eagle Valley. The prosecutor grills him about the pollution, soot, and smog that belches forth from the smokestacks of the plants. The defense attorney, conversely, asks him about the power needs that his plant fulfills and about efficiently reducing the overall levels of pollution. The third witness is a real estate developer. The prosecutor questions him about the rape of the land, the reduction of forests and nature in his quest to build more and more houses. He cites the worldwide figures about the land robbed from wildlife for human housing and development. The defense attorney asks him to tell about meeting the needs of the growing population of Eagle Valley, meeting the dreams of individual families to own their own property. The fourth defendant, a housewife, is called to the stand. She gives sarcastic answers to each of the queries posed by the prosecutor. She claims that her neighbor does her shopping for her while she stays at home writing symphonies. In the balcony, the woman laughs at the cleverness of her double’s testimony. When she admits she has four children, the prosecutor grills her about how much she and her family consume. He then speaks about the Malthusian theory, how the population of Earth is growing at an increasing rate devouring the planet’s resources. The defense attorney declines to cross-examine her, instead calling the fifth individual as his witness, a black man who lives in the city at the lower end of Eagle Valley. The man denounces all the talk about the biosphere and the environment. He insists that first man should solve the issues of racism and poverty, and only then turn their attention to managing and correcting any harm to the environment. The prosecutor, in his turn, observes that when the meek inherit the Earth, it will do them no good if it is already ruined and depleted.

In his closing statement, the prosecutor says that while each individual may not appear guilty in their own field of endeavors, collectively they are all guilty. He points out that the other species on Earth, such as whales, have a high level of intelligence but face extinction at the hands of mankind. He demands that man be eradicated so the rest of the planet can survive. The defense attorney gently mocks the doom and gloom of the prosecutor, observing that there is a growing awareness in mankind that they are a part of nature and that they are in the process of becoming good stewards of the land, air, and water. He finds hope in their intelligence and their capacity for learning to solve the problems of maintaining the environment. The defendants are dismissed as the judge tells them they will learn the decision of the jury in good time. The defense council consoles them, saying that the trial went well according to his expectations. In the balcony, the actual five individuals seem less reassured, and they return to their lives with a new concern for their surroundings.

Critique

Although very low budget and somewhat corny, Environment is nevertheless successful in its efforts to engage and stimulate a juvenile audience who would have ignored or ridiculed a straightforward presentation of environmental issues. The only name star in the production is Robert Cornthwaite, who played the defense attorney, a talented character actor whose best screen moments were as the misguided scientist Dr. Carrington in The Thing (1950), as well as the hip “film within a film” mad scientist in Joe Dante’s brilliant Matinee (1993). The other performers all have a satirical “edge” to their readings, which also makes the film more interesting to young viewers. The prosecutor is based on the part played by Paul Birch in Not of This Earth (1957) as the dark bespectacled and emotionless alien. The judge, with the black patch over his eye, is suggestive of the imperious god Wotan from German mythology. Cornthwaite, as the defense counsel, seems the most human and ordinary of the characters (although he, too, is an alien). His presentation of the environmental issues is straightforward but unexaggerated, unlike the speeches of the prosecutor. All of the arguments about earthly ecology are presented in a clear and unambiguous manner, although the accompanying stock footage, showing sludge or smoking chimneys, is somewhat dry and tedious. The device of having the five human abductees appear twice, both onstage and in the balcony, is a trifle confusing at first. It appears that the characters on the stage are facsimiles, whereas those in the balcony are the actual individuals. The reason for this device is somewhat subtle and never really driven home by the script. There really is no unseen jury on the main floor of the theater. The jury is the five people themselves, and they will render their verdict by how they live their lives after becoming enlightened about the basic issues concerning the environment. By extension, the jury can also be regarded as the students watching the film in their school auditoriums, undoubtedly seated in orchestra seats as the unseen jury of the film. In conclusion, Environment is a rather ingenious pedagogical effort that succeeds by being campy, maintaining the student’s attention and making the topics seem relevant. An interesting side issue would be modern students’ perception of the film, as well as their opinions as to the film’s original success as a learning tool.

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