It's been over 50 years since we began celebrating Earth Day. Through the decades, filmmakers have created tributes to the wonders of our planet, warnings of what lies in store for humanity should we continue to destroy the only inhabitable planet in our solar system, and time capsules of the stories of our planet. From heartwarming explorations of animal families in March of the Penguins and The Elephant Queen to the calls to action from documentaries like Before The Flood and Virunga, documentaries have explored every corner of the world and the relationships that humans have with them.
This year, Earth Day is on April 22, 2023. Scroll down to see a list of films to watch for Earth Day to learn more about the challenges facing the Earth, and the beauty and wonder that can thankfully still be found on our home planet.
An Inconvenient Truth
Former Vice President Al Gore was raising the alarm on global warming well before going into production on this Oscar-winning documentary. Inspired by a slideshow Gore estimates he’s presented almost a thousand times, An Inconvenient Truth dives into the man-made causes of global warming, and the horrific effects if necessary changes are not made. The documentary came out in 2006, and has since had a sequel, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth To Power.
Before The Flood
Leonardo DiCaprio has been a tireless advocate for environmental causes for years, and his documentary Before the Flood is a culmination of those efforts. DiCaprio brings audiences along on his journey to better understand climate change and the devastation being caused as a result of it. He seeks important answers from experts to learn whether it is still possible to stop or even reverse the effects of climate change before it's too late. The documentary was released on the heels of DiCaprio's 2016 Oscar win for Best Actor for The Revenant, where he memorably used a portion of his time onstage to discuss the reality and impact of climate change.
Blackfish examines the tragedy of Tilikum, a captive orca responsible for the deaths of three people, including a trainer at SeaWorld Orlando in 2010. The documentary exposes the conditions in which orcas are captured and held for captivity, and the psychological impact that could lead these powerful animals, which have never attacked a human in the wild, to become violent. The documentary stirred so much public outcry that SeaWorld eventually fazed out its live orca shows and breeding program.
Using innovative camerawork to track the minute by minute collapse of glaciers, Chasing Ice blends breathtaking images with a heartbreaking reality: we are losing significant features of our planet to global warming. National Geographic photographer James Balog shares his journey of filming multiple collapsing glaciers, from the technical issues to the cinematic triumphs. The footage serves as undeniable proof that the Earth’s environments are changing at a drastic pace, and that changes must be made immediately before they are gone forever.
David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet
Sir David Attenborough is synonymous with nature documentaries, lending his unmistakable voice to over one hundred documentaries on our planet throughout his unparalleled career. Described as his “witness statement,” the staggering David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet shares an overview of Attenborough’s life and the utterly devastating changes to the earth's environment that he’s witnessed throughout his 93 years on Earth. He highlights the potential outcome for our planet if humans continue to relentlessly destroy it, and explains the actions that can still be taken to avoid that catastrophic fate.
The Devil We Know
The Devil We Know tracks the impact of DuPont’s production of Teflon, the non-stick coating that has been a consumer product mainstay for over half a century. The side effects of producing Teflon have been environmentally disastrous for humans, especially the ones who live in the backyard of DuPont’s factories. The documentary follows some of the families affected by the chemical waste, examining what the company knew, when it knew what it knew, and its blatant disregard for the environmental and human hazards it tragically created.
The Elephant Queen
Narrated by Chiwetel Ejiofor, The Elephant Queenfollows a herd of elephants led by 50-year-old matriarch Athena. The herd must seek a new home after a drought forces them from their idyllic watering hole. Treating the members of the herd as characters and familiar archetypes, the documentary highlights the incredible family bonds elephants create, and their deep emotional intelligence that makes them such majestic animals.
Living in partnership with nature is key to both our survival and the planet’s, and that delicate balance is detailed in the Oscar-nominated documentary Honeyland. The focus is on a lone beekeeper in Macedonia, who has been maintaining a gentle relationship with wild bees near her village for her entire life. That relationship is threatened when neighbors move in and want to get in on the beekeeping business, but without having the slightest understanding of how fragile the situation really is – for humans and bees alike.
I Am Greta
At just 15, Swedish student Greta Thunberg went on school strike to raise awareness for climate change. Since then, she has become a leading force in climate activism, raising awareness and often confronting political leaders directly about policy. I Am Greta explores her journey from student to activist, and culminates in her sailing journey to speak at the UN Climate Action Summit in New York.
March of the Penguins
March of the Penguins was a runaway hit in 2005, becoming one of the highest grossing documentaries of all time and taking home the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. The documentary depicts the highs and lows of life for a colony of emperor penguins in Antarctica, presenting everything from their adorable, fluffy baby chicks hatching to the penguins evading predators and facing the harrowing reality of starvation. Their stories are helped along by narration from Morgan Freeman, guiding viewers through the penguins’ journey.
My Octopus Teacher
In late 2020/early 2021, just about everyone was asking, “Hey, have you seen My Octopus Teacher?” The wildly popular and eventually Oscar-winning documentary follows the story of conservationist Craig Foster, who forms an unexpected bond with an octopus on his frequent dives in the waters off of South Africa. Through filming his remarkable interactions, Foster demystifies the fascinating creatures. The octopus he befriends changes his life in unexpected ways. The tale culminates in a heartbreaking ending that leaves the viewer tearful and hopeful at the same time.
Sea of Shadows
Leonardo DiCaprio appears again on this list, this time serving as an executive producer on this National Geographic documentary, following the environmental activists working to prevent the extinction of the vaquita, the smallest whale in the world. Their efforts go beyond simple conservation, as they face threats from cartels and traffickers, who aren’t after the vaquita – but the totoaba – a species of fish heavily poached for its swim bladder (considered a delicacy in some cuisine). The overfishing of the region affects the entire ecosystem, and the documentary works to shed light on how the nearly extinct vaquita is just one part of an interconnected system that will fall apart if one piece goes missing.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Virunga National Park is home to one of the world’s last populations of mountain gorillas, who are tirelessly protected by its caretakers. But it is also home to a wealth of natural resources that have drawn the attention of military and economic interests, threatening the sanctity and safety of everything the park holds. Filmed in 2012 and released in 2014, the Oscar-nominated documentary Virunga follows conservationists, park rangers, and journalists as they work to protect the park from those outside interests during a time of rebellion within the country and a British oil company's efforts to explore oil opportunities within the park’s confines.
Documentarian Damon Gameau takes a more hopeful approach to the fate of the planet in his documentary 2040. Inspired by wondering what the future could look like for his young daughter, Gameau examines the processes already available to us that would help turn the tide of global warming, pollution, and other environmental challenges. It’s rather easy to focus on a grim vision of the future, but 2040 reminds the viewer that there are reasons to stay hopeful, and that there are things humans can do that affect real change to create a future worth living in for future generations.
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