There’s Not Much To See After You Look Up
4:15 PM EST on December 28, 2021
Over the weekend, I watched Netflix's big holiday movie, Don't Look Up, which is about trying to avert a planet-killing comet heading straight towards Earth (the planet we live on). It's got an all-star cast, and a big budget, and was co-written and directed by Adam McKay. McKay made a bunch of funny films and then was radicalized by the 2008 economic crisis. A lot of people think his pivot into righteous anger focused on society’s ills started with 2015’s The Big Short, but it actually began with 2010’s The Other Guys, which is the last truly great, funny film he made but ends with a weird slideshow about the bank bailout.
Here's a cheat sheet for understanding Don't Look Up: The planet-killing comet is a stand-in for climate change. The movie is fine. It's not a particularly subtle satire of a bunch of different stuff. The media is always chasing clicks, academics suck at conveying science to the general population, politicians have no goal other than keeping poll numbers up, and we spend too much ding-dang time on our gosh darn phones! Also, the climate crisis is here.
It's nice to watch seasoned A-list actors (and Tyler Perry) have some fun. If you want the thrill of seeing beautiful people styled hideously for two hours, you'll find plenty here. I will admit that I'm not really sure what Mark Rylance is trying to do with his performance as a timid, man-child septuagenarian tech oligarch named Peter Isherwell. He's a baby but he's also 100 years old, I think?
Rylance's character is emblematic of much of the film. You can see the targets McKay and co-writer David Sirota, an investigative journalist, are aiming for: Zuckerbergs and Dorseys and Musks focused on dopamine releases and targeted ads and half-baked moonshots. But he's not sketched with enough clarity. Most Big Tech companies have pledged to be fully carbon neutral in the near future, and ironically, one of the few good things Elon Musk has done is make driving an electric car cool and aspirational (it's also made him very rich and prickish; I know who Elon Musk is).
I don't mean to defend Big Tech by any means, but the film's inclination to paint tech companies as a primary cause of the planet's death—spoiler: you can't really make a didactic movie about solving climate change and have the deus ex machina plan work—feels particularly revealing. Don't Look Up is a movie made by people who spend too much time online, who are self-aware enough to be embarrassed about how much time they spend there; who think we could all do so much more if we weren’t so distracted. It's a movie made by people whose primary skills are writing and talking, and who know at the end of the day that those skills alone will not save the planet unless you can talk your way into the Oval Office.
In the latter half of the film, a viable, peer-reviewed plan to blow up the comet and save the planet is scrapped in favor of Isherwell's untested strategy to break up the comet and let its valuable minerals collide with Earth. Abandoned by the U.S. government, whistleblowing scientists Randall Mindy and Kate Dibiasky (Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) go on TV to sound the alarm and, duh, start a social media campaign. (It’s called #JustLookUp. The film's title comes from the MAGA-y president's response to their call.) They also put together a benefit concert to raise awareness. That's the whole extent of what they do.
What Don't Look Up has no answer for is what we should do after we become aware of climate change. OK, Adam McKay, what would you like me, some guy, to do about a problem of inconceivable planetary scale? I have a verified Twitter account with over 12,000 followers, and I'm standing by for guidance.
It seems like his answer is: Vote! Or get a Ph.D.
While the scientists are recruited for a "few dozen" Manhattan Projects, I guess I'll go plant a tree and avoid single-use plastic or? The idea that people are simply not aware of the issue is a bad starting point. From a 2020 Pew poll: "Six-in-ten adults now view climate change as a major threat to the well-being of the U.S." Granted, "the share of all  voters who say climate change will be very important to their vote (42%) trails behind other leading issues such as the economy (79%), health care (68%) and the coronavirus outbreak (62%)," a.k.a. poverty, too-expensive doctors, and the pandemic—conditions that will kill people more quickly than climate change.
Let's ask David Sirota what I should do:
OK, I am now mad at some guys. I've decided, through careful consideration and spirited debate, to "just look up." What's next? The filmmakers can’t say.
Something particularly frustrating about Don't Look Up's decision to implicate the powerless viewer as a culprit is that McKay knows a much better way to tell this story: He is an executive producer of HBO's Succession. The thing that I appreciate about Succession is its extremely limited scope. There is never a scene that doesn't feature a member of the terrible not-Murdochs. Succession never portrays the effects of awful, powerful people trodding on the common man except when they are literally in the same space. It doesn't do the prestige TV thing where there's a whole episode dedicated to the maids or some supporting character you've only seen once before.
Much of Don't Look Up is like this, in that it knows that, ultimately, the choice to save the planet is in the hands of relatively few. It is about those with power (tenured academics, military officers, tech moguls, politicians, television hosts, pop stars) all trying to get each other to do something. Yet, a few times it is punctuated by embarrassing montages of online chatter, as people post about the comet, and make memes, and turn the whole thing into a gag. Somehow, the film lands on the group of people without access to a fleet of comet-destroying rocket nukes as equally part of the problem. Also, it’s not very funny.
There are clearly things the average person could do to grapple with climate change, but addressing those options requires a bit of nuance. And I'll freely concede that nuance is the enemy of satire. The movie wouldn't work if there was a big bunch of characters in between those freaked out about the comet and those choosing to ignore it completely. The closest we get is one scene with Dibiasky's parents, who support the plan to let the comet safely hit because it will "create jobs." Just around the edges of the film are suggestions of why the climate crisis might not be at the top of everyone's agenda, and faint outlines of how to get them on board. But pondering the collective wellbeing of the country through policy initiatives and community organizing doesn't make for flashy “doing stuff!” action in the same way as rocket drones or Ariana Grande concerts.
In the end, Don't Look Up's advice is that you should stop posting ironic jokes and start posting at presidents and bazillionaires, imploring them to do something. So why do people still feel more inclined to tweet their criticisms at McKay and Sirota than talk incessantly about climate change? Because the former actually produces a response.