The Power of Cinema: Energy Themes in Popular Film

Are you looking for a theme for your summer movie watching that’s a little bit educational? Here’s one I'll bet you never thought about: energy. There are a surprising number of movies (and even a few television shows) in which energy plays a central role.

Take the movies Deliverance and Zoolander. These two films have more in common than the actor John Voight. As it turns out, both films have an energy-related plotline as well.

Here’s the description of Deliverance:

Intent on seeing the Cahulawassee River before it’s turned into one huge lake, outdoor fanatic Lewis Medlock takes his friends on a river-rafting trip they'll never forget into the dangerous American back-country.

Guess why they're turning the river into a lake? Hydropower!

As for Zoolander:

At the end of his career, a clueless fashion model is brainwashed to kill the Prime Minister of Malaysia.

Of course, before he gets brainwashed, in his quest to find himself, Derek Zoolander tries living the straight life working with his father and brothers in the coal mines of New Jersey. That’s right – New Jersey.

There are the energy themes I was talking about. In fact, so many movies feature an energy theme that Dr. Michael Webber assembled a fascinating 100-minute presentation about them, called Energy at the Movies.

It’s worth noting that in films, if you want to show the future, you show renewables.

Webber discusses how energy production and consumption have changed throughout history and how movies have reflected those changes. It turns out that art imitates life and in the movies (as in life), the promise of jobs and wealth made by producers of coal, oil and nuclear power haven’t always come to fruition.

Webber’s collection of films highlights how society’s views of different energy types have changed over time. According to Webber:

Movies are historical documents. In them you can look for historical clues about energy. And they give us a historical context about society and what was going on at the time the film was made.

Energy is not static, it’s dynamic--it changes with time. It’s easy for us to think that the way we consume energy today will always be that way into the future. But it will change and it has changed.

So, if you look at a simplified timeline of energy development throughout history it goes something like this:

Wood and Whale Oil --> Coal and Oil --> Hydro and Natural Gas --> Nuclear --> Renewables

It’s worth noting that in films, if you want to show the future, you show renewables.

In the United States, as our consumption has increased, we've found new ways to produce energy. According to Webber, the story of the Post-World War II Era is “more.” More oil, more coal, more wood, more natural gas, more hydro, more nuclear and renewables, which has allowed for more consumption, more people, more economic growth, more money, higher quality of life, more waste and more pollution.

Looking back over energy’s history, Webber says we can learn a few things:

  • Energy transitions are a part of our past and our future, and we shouldn’t be afraid of them.
  • These transitions take a long time and we should start now to move on to our next major phase.
  • The transitions have been good for us because each successive fuel has de-carbonized us over time.

As it turns out, films and TV shows, even TV commercials, cartoons and PSAs have captured these lessons for us. Webber discusses all of this in his entertaining presentation. Check it out --you might be surprised by which films made the list.


If you want a shortcut so you can curate your own summer energy film festival, here are the films in Webber’s presentation, organized by energy type. Most of these are fictional stories, but there are a few documentaries thrown in just to mix it up. How many more can you think of to add to the list?

The Noon Whistle (Part 1 and Part 2) – a silent film from 1923, a time which coincided with the advent of filmmaking.

How Green Was My Valley
Coal Miner’s Daughter
Billy Elliot
October Sky
Pick and Shovel

The Aviator
The Beverly Hillbillies
The Kingdom
Written on the Wind
Oily to Bed, Oily to Rise (The Three Stooges)
There Will Be Blood
Thunder Bay
Oily Hare (Bugs Bunny)

The China Syndrome
The Incredible Hulk
Back to the Future
The Pepsi Syndrome (SNL Parody Sketch)
The Simpsons

Wild River
Oh Brother, Where Art Thou

Wall-E (
Gattaca (

Natural Gas
It often shows up in the movies but strictly as a background player. These are both documentaries.

Energy and the Environment
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
Shadow of a Doubt
Office Space
Thunder Bay
Monsters, Inc.
Schoolhouse Rock!: "The Energy Blues"

Webber’s list is long but here are a few more we come up with:


The River
Boulder Dam – 1937
Beavis and Butthead Do America

Angela’s Ashes