Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

When Energy Goes Hollywood: A Conversation With Michael Webber

Perhaps it’s a reflection of the integral role that energy plays in American life, but energy has also played a big role in Hollywood — from the oilfields in ‘Giant’ to a nuclear time machine in ‘Back to the Future’.

A new television show premiering tonight takes a closer look at the connection. Associate Professor of Engineering and Deputy Director of the Energy Institute at University of Texas at Austin Michael Webber hosts “Energy at the Movies,” an examination of how film has reflected the energy issues of our past, present, and even future. The show airs on Central Texas public television station KLRU at 9 p.m. tonight, and you can also watch it online.

Q: When you think about movies, energy isn’t the first thing that comes to mind, but you say maybe it should be.

A: Well it turns out that energy shows up in the movies in a lot of ways. It shows up as a plot line, it shows up as a background context, as a motivation for characters. And we found a couple of hundred movies that have major energy elements in them in one way or another. And if you take all these elements and stitch them together over time, you get a pretty nice historical snapshot of energy in society.

Q: Let’s talk about a movie that’s obviously about energy, and the effect it had on the country’s psyche – ‘The China Syndrome.’

A: ‘The China Syndrome’ was about nuclear power and it was the first major movie that really focused on nuclear power, and it was really critical of nuclear power at a time when we were building nuclear power plants very quickly. The movie portrays a near miss experience where there’s almost a meltdown that could’ve killed a lot of people and wiped out an area the size of Pennsylvania, and the great irony of this is that the movie came out 12 days before Three Mile Island. And it seemed to be prescient for a lot of people.

Photo by Sam Butler

UT professor Michael Webber says movies often reflect the energy issues of our time.

Q: It seemed like it took decades to get over it, and then you have Chernobyl happen, and then decades to get over that, and then you have Fukushima happen. It seems like nuclear energy has really been stalled by the public’s response, even though it’s a zero-emission, relatively clean energy source.

A: The modern conundrum for us is that if we care about climate change and carbon emissions then we have to look at nuclear pretty seriously. Overall, nuclear is pretty safe and it’s really clean, but the high-profile incidents affect our psyche for sure.

Q: I’m sure Homer Simpson didn’t help much either.

A: This is a big point. A lot of people are sort of commenting, “Well I don’t really like nuclear power because there are too many Homer Simpson’s in the world.” And they’re all worried that all of our nuclear power plants are being operated by guys eating donuts in the control room, and that shows up in these other movies – The China Syndrome, Silkwood and others. There’s always food in the control room in the movies that portray nuclear.

Q: Well let’s talk about a type of energy we’re seeing in the movies less and less in our energy mix these days in this country but has provided some dramatic moments and stories from Hollywood: coal.

A: Coal is a great backdrop for movies. So, you have coaltowns and the coalmines and there seems to be running themes in every coal movie. It’s almost always about a son’s desire, or daughter’s desire, to leave the coalmine to leave the coal town. So, most coal movies are about leaving coal behind and going on to a better world and in some ways that’s sort of symptomatic of the national conscience, of leaving coal behind for some other energy choices. And one of those movies, ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter,’ captures this with Loretta Lynn, a real person who was the daughter of a coalminer who escaped the coalmines to go on to be a famous and successful country music singer, and that’s the theme: leaving coal behind. That’s always the way it’s been in movies. I can’t think of movies that are really positive about coal.

Photo by Holly Port

"If you take all these elements and stitch them together over time, you get a pretty nice historical snapshot of energy in society," Webber says.

Q: And it seems like as we’re using less and less coal we’re probably going to see it less and less. I think the last time I saw it in the movies was ‘Zoolander.’

A: It showed up in ‘Billy Elliot.’ It showed up in ‘October Sky.’ So there’s a few movies in the last 20 years or so that talked about coal, but not that many.

Q: Let’s talk about the future. Specifically, let’s talk about ‘Back to the Future.’ You say in your show that this film, and the kind of mini-nuclear reactor he has in the DeLorean, might be an indicator of things to come.

A: This movie was made in 1985. This scientist comes up with a Mr. Fusion energy reactor that’s the size of a coffee grinder that gives us the power we need to go back in time. And it’s basically predicting the future of small, distributed nuclear reactors for our power sources, which seems crazy in 1985 standards. But then, sure enough, in the last few years the biggest news story for nuclear has been the rise of small nuclear, micro nuclear – small nuclear power plants that are distributed that will be smaller, cleaner and more reliable.

Q: Well, when can we expect the Hoverboards?

A: I don’t know when we should expect the hoverboards, but we hope to get those in decades. We’ll see.

Q: We’ve been waiting a long time.

A: Exactly. I’ve been looking for mine to place on order, but Home Depot doesn’t carry them yet.

Q: So, do you ever get asked about ‘The Matrix’?

A: I do get asked about ‘The Matrix.’ [It’s] interesting. This idea that humans are power plants is not completely…

Q: I think you just spoiled it for whoever hasn’t seen ‘The Matrix.’

A: Spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen the movie ‘The Matrix’ yet, you need to go see it. But this idea that we’ll use forms of bioenergy to power society is not ridiculous. In fact, most major policy implementations in the last few years have emphasized bioenergy. We’ve been trying to grow our way out of this problem. Biofuels and bioenergy and switch grass and corn – but these hit moral dilemmas when you start getting in competition between food and fuel, or farmland that needs a lot of freshwater to compete with other things we might need as humans. So, I don’t think people are really advising that we should become the power plants, although historically, over millennia, we were our own power plants. So, that would be a return to nature, so to speak.


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