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The phenomenon of ‘Don’t Look Up’ (Part 2)

Posted on 21 January 2022 by Guest Author

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

By the end of the Sunday, January 9, Don’t Look Up, writer-director Adam McKay’s dark satire about the impending impact of an Earth-killing comet, intended as an analogy for inaction on climate change, had been streamed on Netflix for a total of 322 million hours, putting it within striking distance of the most-watched movie in the platform’s history.

Dividing that imposing number by the film’s running time (2 hours and 18 minutes) provides a high-end estimate of the number of viewings: 140 million. That’s 51 million more than the number of people who bought tickets to see Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow (Day After) during the entirety of its 2004 run. In other words, in just three weeks Don’t Look Up has eclipsed Day After as the most widely viewed fictional film treatment of climate change.*

But Don’t Look Up’s run isn’t over. On January 7, McKay’s production company, Hyperobject Industries,** released the first two episodes of its podcast about the making of the movie, The Last Movie Ever Made. The company plans to release four more episodes, one each week until Friday, February 4. By continuing to provide new material for discussion, through the podcast and his tweets and blog posts, McKay is likely to keep people talking about, and watching, Don’t Look Up.

In fact, the discussion among film critics and fans is already quite lengthy and animated, another metric by which Don’t Look Up has matched or surpassed the impact of Day After. (See this site’s accounts of the production and reception of Day After here and here.)

Since the film’s limited theatrical release on December 10 (its Netflix run began on December 24) YCC has identified 59 reviews of Don’t Look Up, of which 35 were mostly positive (59%) and 24 mostly negative (41%). This slightly more positive ratio – Rotten Tomatoes had a positive score of 55% – likely reflects the inclusion of later, more personal reactions to the film by climate scientists and activists who objected to the early, often dismissive reviews. (Readers can find Yale Climate Connections’ review of Don’t Look Up here.)

Negative reviews

Negative reviews largely came from film critics who follow the currents of popular culture closely, critics like Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney, Rolling Stone’s David Fear, Variety’s Peter Debruge, and Vulture’s Alison Willmore. Given the leftie reputations of McKay and his cast, negative reviews from conservative venues like The Wall Street Journal (Joe Morgenstern), National Review (Kyle Smith), and Hollywood in Toto: The Right Take on Entertainment (Christian Toto) were not surprising, but ideology was not a reliable predictor.

Common themes in these negative reviews were the film’s heavy-handed messaging, the underwhelming performances of the too-many stars, and the inherently smug (people are such idiots) premise.

Some negative reviews also came from commentators familiar with the political divide over climate change, commentators like CNN’s Holly Thomas. Thomas wrote that she feared that the film’s evident biases would intensify existing animosities and thereby alienate even the political independents climate activists need to win over if they ever hope to pass and implement effective climate measures.

Two pieces stand out for the ways they flesh out this internal – the film foils its own ambitions – critique. For New York magazine, Eric Levitz explained in depth why presenting an impending comet as an analogy for climate change distorts perceptions and will likely make effective political action even more difficult. Writing for The New Yorker, Richard Brody argued Don’t Look Up’s real and purely cynical ambition “was getting itself talked about.” By not recognizing any distinctions between parties or purposes, Brody wrote, McKay further degrades the politics he ridicules. 

Positive reviews

The positive reviews were written by two different groups of people: (1) pop culture critics and fans who enjoyed the star-studded spectacle of Don’t Look Up on its own terms (see for example the reviews by The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis and The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday), and (2) an impressive number of climate scientists, reporters, and activists who felt the film voiced the anger, frustration, and despair they felt in trying to communicate the urgency of the climate crisis in the real world.

Several in the latter group – including Kate AronoffEric Holthaus, Ayana Johnson (her tweet was cited in Holthaus’s post), Peter KalmusMichael MannBill McKibben (who noted he first used the comet analogy in 2001), George MonbiotRebecca OppenheimerDavid Roberts, and Gavin Schmidt – said, in their different ways, that they “felt seen” by the film.

A few environmental reporters, however, like Grist’s Eve Andrews and Time’s Justin Worland, agreed with mostly negative reviewers regarding the film’s too simplistic portrayal of the media.

After three weeks, the number and intensity of reviews became another topic for discussion; accusatory “explanations,” like David Vetter’s “sneering” piece for Forbes, then spurred further debate.

The most fully developed of these pieces was written by Nathan J. Robinson for Current Affairs, who argued “there is nothing wrong with being ‘shrill’ or ‘unsubtle’ when trying to make an important political point.” And that point, for Robinson, “is not that the working class are sheep who don’t care about the future, but that the rich manipulate people’s perceptions of one another to serve their own interests” (italics in original).

Ben Goldfarb’s review for High Country News quotes McKay himself in proffering a similar view. The real target of Don’t Look Up is the “massive, shifting system of careerism, profitization, politics, and leveraged power.”

The unexpected (at least partial) endorsements of the film by three conservative commentators – Matthew Garnett (The Federalist), Emily Jashinsky (The Federalist) and Kevin Williamson (National Review) – lend credence to these lines of argument.

As did the first episode of the podcast, The Last Movie Ever Made.

Podcasting ‘Don’t Look Up

The first 10 minutes of the first episode of The Last Movie Ever Made, “The Titanic Band,” covers much the same ground surveyed in Vanity Fair’s earlier profile of Adam McKay. In those 10 minutes, McKay is followed from aspiring stand-up comic, to head writer for Saturday Night Live, to writer/director of goofball comedies, to writer/director of political satires.

But then the podcast goes on to describe, in ways Vanity Fair did not, McKay’s deepening engagement with climate change, which became a passionate, even sleepless concern after he read David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable EarthDon’t Look Up developed out of McKay’s need to manage the anxieties – and the anger – ignited by Wallace-Well’s book, which explains some of the “we’re all going to die” moments in the film.

The podcast makes clear that McKay wanted to make a movie that could make a big bang. The boldly drawn characters and savage absurdities were part of the plan. So too was the star-studded cast: Major stars draw major attention.

The pandemic, and President Trump’s mishandling of it, both delayed the film’s production and forced a rewrite of the script. (“I had to up the crazy,” McKay says at one point.) The second episode of the podcast, “Mission Hopefully Possible,” describes in detail what it was like to shoot a movie under pandemic lockdown conditions. McKay became very familiar with COVID protocols and acutely felt his responsibility for the safety and health of his cast and crew, an experience that further fueled his anger over the derelictions of duty evident in failed responses to the pandemic – and to the climate crisis.

Onward (and upward?) from ‘Don’t Look Up

If one tallies the many ways MacKay has engaged the public in the run-up to and since the film’s release, ways that include the podcast, one might conclude that Don’t Look Up is better understood as an ongoing campaign than as one two-hour-and-18-minute movie.

Simply by promoting more talk about climate change, Don’t Look Up may deliver a positive result. However, it’s also possible that Don’t Look Up could make the conditions for communicating climate change even more difficult. The comet analogy may confuse more than it invigorates. The broad-brush denunciations of all politicians and all media may further diminish the public trust necessary for collective action. And the one scene praised even in negative reviews of the movie, the reconstituted family that gathers for a final prayerful meal at the end, may ultimately promote a sort of religious resignation or fatalism in the face of climate change.

Even those most positive about the film, the scientists and activists who feel vindicated and invigorated by Don’t Look Up’s full-throttle attack on science denial, may find it harder to do their work if the people who must be persuaded have become more resistant as a result of the negative ways they feel they were portrayed by McKay and company.

Which brings to mind the one way The Day After Tomorrow still surpasses Don’t Look Up. More studies have been conducted about audience perceptions and responses to Day After than about any other fictional depiction of climate change. (See, for example, this 2004 study from Environment.)

That film’s effects on viewers were mixed and temporary: a short-term increase in concern in the U.S., apprehensions of a colder future in the U.K, and confusion in Germany and Japan. The one long-term impact of Day After was on the film industry itself: a string of imitations made the very low-probability outcome of a new ice age one of the widely viewed visualizations of climate change.

It’s clear that McKay wants to defend science. And satire is the genre he knows and does best. But expression is not persuasion. To understand what Don’t Look Up actually delivers to audiences will require, well, some of that unbiased, peer-reviewed science that McKay wants to defend.

*Hours streamed does not equate with hours viewed: the TV could be on with no one watching. From the total number alone, one also cannot determine whether the movie was watched all the way through. Thus the simple division of hours-streamed by the running-time-of-the-film only produces an upper-end estimate. Similarly, a fully accurate comparison with The Day After Tomorrow would require controlling for background differences between 2004 and 2021-22. To arrive at the viewership for The Day After Tomorrow, its worldwide box office total ($552,639,571) was divided by the average ticket price for 2004 ($6.21), yielding a result of 88,992,000 tickets purchased or 63.5% of the highest estimate for the number of people who streamed Don’t Look Up.

**The name Adam McKay chose for his production company itself provides evidence of his interest in climate change. “Hyperobject,” the term coined by eco-philosopher Timothy Morton, denotes  an “entit[y] of such vast temporal and spatial dimensions that [it] defeat[s] traditional ideas about what a thing is.”

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  1. It is incorrect to restrict Don’t Look Up to being an attempt to raise awareness about climate change.

    I watched the movie in late December. And I watched it again recently. It is not just a satirical story trying to expose the many aspects of the harmful resistance by leadership to taking action that would limit the rate and ultimate magnitude of climate change harm caused by human activities.

    I will start with the item that triggered my interest in responding – a comment about the End

    Having watched the movie again, and trying to avoid spoiling the movie for anyone who is yet to see it, the scene described as “And the one scene praised even in negative reviews of the movie, the reconstituted family that gathers for a final prayerful meal at the end, may ultimately promote a sort of religious resignation or fatalism in the face of climate change.”, is not what it is claimed to be at all. That presentation is a gross distortion. See for yourself. The gathering is more than a reconstituted nuclear family. And the religious aspect is a minor part of the gathering interactions. It is sort of along the lines of ‘an atheist faced with the ultimate end may briefly dabble in spiritual possibilities’. And the spiritual bit is presented in a religiously neutral way, but mono-theistic so not truly representing the spectrum of spirituality, by a young outsider of the family who is welcomed at the gathering. And the gathering only happens when it is virtually certain that they can do nothing more to avert or lessen the harm done by the coming tragedy.

    The Movie is about more than the challenges of climate change

    Don’t Look Up exposes the developed socioeconomic-political system challenges to raising awareness and improving understanding of the harmful aspects of popular and profitable developments. Those challenges are not exclusive to climate change. The UNEP 2022: Emergency mode for the environment published January 6, 2022 as a Climate Actions Story identifies the “... enduring crises of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste.” That is far more than climate change. And the story links to 10 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. And the other Sustainable Developments Goals, which are social rather than environmental, face similar resistance to learning that what has been developed is harmful and unsustainable.

    Court Jester style ridicule of high status more powerful people, not just the ‘rich’, can help everyone, including lower status people, identify the harmful actions among the higher status, particularly exposing who is being harmfully misleading in pursuit of personal benefit. But, as the movie exposes, many people can be tempted to Identify with cult-like incorrect beliefs and biases. And, like cult members, they will resist learning, and even fight against learning, that their bias and beliefs are incorrect until it is glaringly obvious to them through the potently restrictive biased filter of their developed Identity. (At this point I will add that everyone has developed personal biases and beliefs. My current developed bias is towards increased awareness and improved understanding of what is harmful and the application of that learning to help others by developing sustainable improvements – The Ethical Engineer).

    Note that the movie was not made to make money or garner ‘popularity points’. And the criticism that it may ‘turn-off’ some people who are not yet convinced about climate science is a bit of misleading marketing. When it comes to matters like Sustainable Development the fence sitters need to learn and choose a side. Their choices are:

    • Learn what is harmful to the future of humanity and try to Help reduce, idealing ending, the Harm Done so the future of humanity is sustainable and improving or,
    • Continue to be the harmful distracted learning resistant people they have been by resisting that learning and potentially becoming more harmful by choosing to fight to defend and excuse harmful unjustified aspects of the developed Status Quo.

    Science is helpful when it is biased to increase awareness and improve understanding of what is harmful and apply what is learned to help develop sustainable improvements. That requires constant investigation for evidence of harm being done to the robust diverse ecosystem that humans undeniably are only a part of and cannot survive ‘apart from’.

    More considerations

    Criticisms of the film also expose the harmful ridiculous (deserving ridicule) developed ways of thinking that have regrettably been able to dominate development. They can be seen to be misleading marketing efforts by people who have a bias for the Status Quo. That bias opposes corrections of development required by the global leadership level learning that was developed and presented at the Stockholm Conference of 1972, and has continued to be developed and publicly shared since then.

    The Stockholm Conference was a significant global leadership admission of the diversity of global Human Development problems that had occurred. It exposed that the problems would get worse and new problems would develop unless significant systemic changes were made to the developed predominant beliefs and biases.

    A harmful response to that raising of awareness of the need for systemic changes that would alter developed perceptions of superiority and progress blossomed in the 1980s. The Reagan-Thatcher right wing power plays for popularity and profit can be understood to be concerted efforts by harmful wealthy powerful interests who would lose status if the harmful unsustainable beliefs and actions they benefited from were limited and corrected to achieve sustainable improvements for global humanity. The scope of the Stockholm Conference went beyond the harmful injustices of colonialism that people were still attempting to raise awareness and improved understanding of (A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn was written in 1980 was part of that centuries long effort that continues today). Raising awareness and improved understanding of what was harmful and unsustainable threatened many powerful wealthy interests. And it continues to threaten them because they have not yet lost their undeserved perceptions of status and related harmful biases and beliefs.

    With the above frame of reference, worldview, established I will make the controversial point that, contrary to a gross generalization that science is unbiased, “science can be biased”. All individuals have biases and perceptions of reality that they develop based on their experiences and learning. And scientists are people.

    The claim that science is unbiased is understandably restricted to the constantly improving awareness and understanding based on the evidence found so far regarding what was investigated so far. Science can be understood to be biased against investigating more complex matters, especially having a bias against anything that cannot be confirmed by repeatable experiments. Experimental learning is important. But it is limited to parts of more complex reality that can be isolated for ‘repeatable’ experimentation. And that Achilles heel of science is a weakness that has been exploited to raise doubts and discredit scientists ... they change their minds, never say something is absolutely certain, and seem to be unable to extend their rigorous science to more complex realities. That leads to the obvious opening to play games of misleading influence claiming that the current understanding on any issue can be wrong and subject to change, no matter how ‘distinguished’ a scientist may appear to be (the competition for status relative to Others governs everybody – doesn’t it).

    And I will build on that point to ridicule criticisms that simplistically claim that the film is biased and, as a result, may turn-off people who have ‘to date’ resisted learning to be less harmful and more helpful to Others. ‘Learning resistant’ is a more accurate description of the ‘moderates' who are not yet biased to believe that many aspects of developed human activity are harmfully degrading the future of humanity. On important matters the 'moderates’ or ‘undecided’ can be understood to be willing to compromise better understanding because of a desire for respecting less sensible, more harmful, opinions (Loving the Freedom to believe and do whatever one wants is a powerfully harmful bias and belief system).

    Science is biased to be the pursuit of increased awareness and improved understanding. It can be opposed to a bias to maintain and defend the developed status quo. But science is not biased to focus on the investigation of harmful or potentially harmful things. Science can be biased away form that by the status quo it operates in.

    And the ‘status’ part of ‘status quo’ gets pursued by people who allow themselves to be co-opted into a status quo competition for perceptions of status (including competitions pursuing popularity and profit). And the pursuit of status is also not biased to be governed or limited to developing lasting improvements for humanity. The harmful reality of the results of people being freer to believe and do as they please are undeniable. Yet some people still fight to maintain the status quo belief in Individual (or Regional, or National, or Cult) Sovereignty to believe and do as they please. Even scientists can feel they should be sovereign to investigate whatever they would choose to investigate. That sovereignty of science investigation can be helpful or harmful, just like competition for popularity or profit can be helpful or harmful.

    So the obvious key is for everyone to be biased to want to learn what is harmful and learn how they can be more helpful to Others. Science (and economics and politics) governed (and limited) by that bias is what is required.

    The lack of interest and paltry funding for increased awareness and understanding of what is harmful and the related lack of having everyone governed and limited by learning to be less harmful and more helpful to Others can be understood to be the expected result of pursuits of status in poorly governed and ineffectively restricted competition for status (popularity and profit).

    Science can also be understood to potentially be harmfully biased against investigations and explanations of the complex interconnected nature of reality that cannot be experimented on to rigorously confirm theories being investigated. The hierarchy of the importance of pursuit of increased awareness and improved understanding can be understood to be (one of many references supporting this is Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture):

    • Physics - the ways things happen down to the sub-atomic levels
    • Chemistry - the interactions of physical items that are larger than the sub-atomic
    • Biology – the more complex interactions of organic matter
    • Psychology – the way that brains work in biological organisms to respond to their experience in their environment
    • Sociology – the ways that independent organisms of similar type (societies) interact.
    • Ecology – the ways that organisms of different types interact.

    The most important and most complex, and least able to be investigated by experiment, is clearly the Ecology and its potential to develop sustainable constantly improving success for the organisms involved. And the lowest level of importance to the future of humanity, while still having significant importance, is Physics.

    Note that that ranking also means that protecting the environment from harm should also significantly govern economic and political actions. And it also means that protecting the society of global humanity, now and into the distant future, from harm also needs to significantly govern economic and political actions. The resulting understanding is that individual interests, including that tempting individual freedom of belief and action, also need to be governed to limit harm done. Restricting freedom and changing the status quo are not 'harmful by default'.

    That understanding explains why it can be so hard to change the mind of a person who has developed their biases and beliefs immersed in poorly governed socioeconomic-political competition for perceptions of superiority. Anyone who has powerfully developed their identity in that way is like a conscript in a cult. And extreme measures can be required to free minds from harmful cults.

    Note that being a member of a cult can also be helpful if the cult is helpfully governed to limit harm done. But it would be preferable for people to learn to be less harmful and more helpful rather than be that way because of the leadership of a cult they have become a captured member of.

    And science is also biased to the belief in the supremacy of humans, and the related harmful potential belief in the superiority of a sub-set of humanity that developed perceptions of their superiority through unjust pursuits of perceptions of superiority relative to others.

    Competition for perceptions of superiority can be fierce among scientists. And there are many examples of scientists being harmfully biased regarding their choice of what to investigate by the biases they developed based on their experience in the system they learned in. That will be harder to change without significant systemic changes that effectively restrict the Freedom of development of harmful competitive biases for pursuit of status.

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