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‘Don’t Look Up’ – See the movie. Ignore the comet. (Part 1)

Posted on 19 January 2022 by Guest Author

This is a re-post from Yale Climate Connections by Michael Svoboda

2022 is already feeling as stressful as the worst stretches of 2021 – and without the prospect of a fresh start with a new administration.

Newscasters report that COVID-19 cases are arising at three times the rate posted during the peak of last summer’s wave. And on TV, phone, and computer screens, first-anniversary autopsies of the Jan. 6th attack on the Capitol are repeatedly streaming videos of angry Trump supporters breaking windows and battering security officers.

Everyone needs a break, some comic relief.

Don’t Look Up, the new star-studded comedy directed by Adam McKay and now the most watched film on Netflix, seems the perfect remedy. It’s even billed as a climate film. Should YCC readers see it?

That depends – on their solar plexuses.  

The film has been widely promoted as a kick-in-the-pants send-up of American inaction on climate change. But what the two-plus hour film actually delivers is a kick-in-the-stomach depiction of America’s narcissistic (social) media and its dysfunctional politics. Like this critic, some viewers may finish the film feeling even more pessimistic about the prospects for real action on climate change. But they may also realize something important in the process.   

Mismatch between climate change and human psychology

Communicators have long struggled to resolve the mismatch between climate change and the human psyche. Because humans evolved a nervous system that responds effectively to acute threats, the seemingly distant, chronic, and wickedly complex problem of climate change does not readily prompt concern.

In their responses to this challenge, previous filmmakers have transformed the chronic-but-ignored problem of climate change into an unavoidably acute threat. In The Day After Tomorrow, for example, Earth falls into a new ice age in a matter of days. Other movies presume that a cataclysmic transformation had already occurred; in these plots humans encounter imminent threats daily, living on an Earth flooded, desiccated, or frozen by climate change.

The purpose in depicting these bleak futures, one infers, is to persuade humans to choose another path. Yet filmmakers themselves seem unable to imagine such paths.

In Don’t Look Up, writer and director Adam McKay takes a very different approach. Instead of trying to get humans to care about climate change by finding yet another way to transform it into an acute problem, he starts with an authentically acute problem, a comet barreling straight toward Earth, and then imagines how the world, in particular Americans, might ignore even that. “How absurd it is to ignore climate change?” the film seems to ask. As absurd as ignoring a planet-killing comet.

The plot of Don’t Look Up

McKay’s story begins with a PhD student in astrophysics, Kate Dibiasky (played by Jennifer Lawrence). She discovers that a comet has been knocked loose from the Oort Cloud at the edge of the solar system and is now headed toward the sun. And straight toward Earth, her faculty adviser, Randall Mindy (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), quickly determines. Humanity faces a planet-killing, civilization-ending threat. They alert “the authorities.” Answering their call is Teddy Oglethorpe (played by Rob Morgan), director of the U.S. Planetary Defense Coordination Office. (That is the real name of the office, the filmmakers inform us through an overlaid comment.)

Then follow a flight in an otherwise empty military transport, dismissive meetings with the president (played by Meryl Streep) and her chief-of-staff son (Jonah Hill), and demeaning interviews with media (catty local TV hosts played by Cate Blanchet and Tyler Perry). Prospects brighten briefly when circumstances force the president to promise heroic action, but that promise is broken when the president’s “platinum level contributor,” tech/media trillionaire Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance) learns the comet is loaded with highly valuable metals.

All the while the threat draws closer, so close it can now be seen with the naked eye. The scientists and their allies start a social media campaign, “Just Look Up,” to promote immediate action to divert the comet away from Earth.

In response, the president and Isherwell, who has a plan to break up the asteroid into smaller and less destructive pieces that might be mined after entry, lead a conte-campaign, “Don’t Look Up.”

“Do you know why they want you to look up?” Streep’s President Orlean shouts at a rally. “Because they want you to be afraid. They want you to look up because they are looking down their noses at you. They think they’re better than you.”

It is in these moments that the real global threat becomes visible: the surreal toxicity of American politics, especially on the right. The “Don’t Look Up” chants in the film eerily echo the anti-mask and anti-vax chants of Donald Trump’s post-presidential rallies.

And they divide the family of Kate Dibiasky, the discoverer of the comet and now a “Just Look Up” influencer. When she tries to reconnect with her parents, they bar the door: “No more politics. Your father and I support the jobs the comet will create.”

Screaming truth to power(?): Meme-able? Or memorable?

Even in this poignant moment, however, the performances of the cast, who can collectively claim more than a dozen Academy Awards and/or nominations, are often more meme-able than memorable.

Leonard DiCaprio portrays astrophysicist Randall Mindy as an anxiety-ridden, pill-popping, mantra-murmuring neurotic. But when he is seduced, literally and figuratively, by powerful people misdirecting the response to the potentially planet-killing comet, his symptoms disappear. Corruption heals?

When the characters speak truth to power – or at least to studio audiences – they deliver it in full-tilt rants, with voices, blood-pressures, and swearing rising to a pitch. In his profile in Vanity Fair, Adam McKay acknowledged that DiCaprio had repeatedly pressed him to add an “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” jeremiad to the script, patterned after the classic rant scene from the movie Network.

But in Network, that manic expression of rage by a news anchor who has suffered a mental breakdown is immediately coopted by the marketing executive who now runs the news division. She re-labels the anchor a commentator and then uses his nightly rants to drive up ratings and increase advertising revenues. In their homage to Network, DiCaprio and McKay seem to miss its satirical point. Or perhaps they just want to have their parody and yet profit, too – by pushing the same psychological buttons they’re ostensibly warning their viewers about.

Watching satire in surreal times

It is during the last third of Don’t Look Up – with its Network-style rants, its concert raves, and its Trumpian rallies – that viewers may start to feel a disconnect between the buttons being pushed on the screen and what they’re feeling.

After six years of Trump’s norm-busting behavior, after two years of social distancing under COVID, and a year of witnessing delusional denials of the 2020 election results, including the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, the wiring and voltage of Americans’ psycho-political buttons have been altered.

Much of what the new film offers as over-the-top parody, Americans now see regularly on the news or in their social media feeds. Seeing it writ large on the screen, however, reminds viewers that the kind of politics they’ve come to accept as the norm is, in fact, dysfunctional and dangerous. Further degradations of American politics could make it impossible to act in a sustained and meaningful way on any problem whatsoever, not just climate change.

Comets and asteroids may actually be an exception to this rule. Dramatic impacts are possible but extremely rare. Truly dangerous comets are quite large and thus easier to detect and, when engaged at the greater distances early detection affords, deflect.

Just two weeks before Don’t Look Up began its limited theatrical run, the U.S. Planetary Defense Coordination Office supervised the launch of the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (or DART) mission. The spacecraft has been aimed at a pair of asteroids for the purpose of testing whether their orbit could be changed by a precisely timed impact. Aware that planet-killing comets and asteroids are real, Americans are already testing real ways to avert the risk.

Dealing with climate change, by contrast, is a much longer, slower, broader, and costlier process.

The next 10 months will be critical in determining the intensity and tenure of climate action in the United States and, as a consequence, across the world. This is not much more time than humans were allotted after Kate Dibiasky discovered her comet. Can the buzz now surrounding the new filmbe redirected toward that effort? Perhaps.

It’s just not clear to this reviewer how Don’t Look Up, which vividly portrays Americans not solving a comparatively simple problem, will help Americans solve the truly wicked problem of climate change. But maybe that process can start by adjusting the lenses through which they view politics.

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Comments 1 to 4:

  1. The connections of Don't Look Up to the tragedy regarding climate change because of the quirks of the human psyche are more terrifying than what is presented.

    Rwanda is just one of many lessons from human history of a collaborative society with a diversity of people that was rapidly perverted into being destructive by political game players who wanted to benefit from unjustly dominating Others. Their success was achieved by making misleading claims promoting alternate (irrational) beliefs that are obviously nonsense to anyone whose self-interest does not tempt them to embrace and immerse themselves in stories claiming the need to fight against "All Others who are not part of Their cult of believers".

    Anti-climate science storytelling is part of bigger harmful political cults that are built on a diversity of lies created by harmful political opportunists. And those harmful misleading political cult leaders have repeatedly succeeded in causing massive harm because many people are easily tempted to believe nonsense messages that trigger their emotions to overpower their ability to be reasonable. And once a mind is captured by cult identity it can be hard to free that mind from the harmful irrational alternate reality it has been perverted into believing.

    Back to Rwanda, one sub-set of the diverse population who had been meeting and greeting each other and working together were startlingly rapidly convinced to viciously slaughter their own neighbours (Note that Unionization of workers has been shown to reduce animosity between people with diverse backgrounds).

    Partisan democratic politics that has been allowed to be contaminated by "successful storytelling of lies" (misleading marketing) is already clearly causing massive harmful climate change impacts by delaying and diminishing leadership efforts to limit the harm done. The scarier part is that that successful misleading politics is not that far away from what happened in Rwanda and many other places that rapidly devolved into more destructive behaviour.

    Hopefully, the efforts to raise awareness of what is harmful and improve the understanding of how to limit the harm done to the future of humanity, not just the harm of rapid significant climate change, will help to counteract the powerful pressures of divisive destructive pursuits of superiority relative to others that are so harmfully dominant in the world.


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  2. I watched the trailer for the Dont Look Up movie and it seemed quite good satire overall and hit the political and pshychological targets accurately, but the humour seemed a bit strained at times. Reviews have been a bit negative overall.

    Our brains are indeed hardwired to respond most strongly to immediate threats rather than long term slow moving train wrecks like climate change. Good commentary here. From our point of view the problem is how do we motivate more action on the climate problem given most peoples minds are not aroused much by the problem? 

    The movie does of course invert reality. I would say most people would respond strongly to a reasonably immediate threat from a comet, although theres probably some actual truth in the movie because a few people would probably still deny the problem, or see a perverted advantage to themselves out of it. 

    "It’s just not clear to this reviewer how Don’t Look Up, which vividly portrays Americans not solving a comparatively simple problem, will help Americans solve the truly wicked problem of climate change. "

    Remember its just a movie. Its entertainment, satire and a bit of social and political commentary and nothing more. Its not a documentary or a mitigation plan or intended to motivate action or change the world. Although who knows, it might embarass a few people into taking climate change more seriously.

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  3. To nigelj: As I understand it, one of the motivations in making the movie was in fact to promote action on climate change in an indirect way.

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  4. I managed to sit through about a third of this movie. It tries to be satire but is more like poor farce, and fails big time in either role.

    I understand the objective, but a film this crude in its approach does little for a cause.

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