“Don’t Look Up” is a mainstream comedy about disaster made by a culture that refuses to accept that disaster could ever happen here. It’s an awkward fit.
There are two kinds of people in America: those who believe that Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up is real and is caused by human activities; and those who think the film is fabricated leftist fear-mongering, and that any movie that does (or does not) occur is just part of a natural cycle of filmmaking.
However, 99 percent of Hollywood scientists agree that data confirms the existence of Don’t Look Up. There’s also consensus that it poses a significant threat to the human race — or at least the human race’s ability to use Netflix without being reminded about the looming specter of climate change. Less clear is how its effects will play out in years to come.
Don’t Look Up is a film of compression: the decades-long unfolding of the climate crisis from past to future compacted into 138 minutes, and the complex effects of that crisis squeezed into the streaking metaphor of a single comet, due to strike the Earth in about six months or so.
Two scientists, Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), try to warn everyone about the ticking clock of doom. People react with apathy and disbelief (which doesn’t exactly match reality), and, eventually, opportunism (which does).
The movie is a satire of human selfishness and obliviousness in the face of existential threat, and indicts nearly everyone: the public, the news media, the president of the United States. (Presumably the other countries on Earth also have a stake, and are also selfish and oblivious, but everyone else is seen only through the obligatory montage of multicultural peoples gathered around televisions in exotic locales, or embracing loved ones, as they wait for the American protagonists to save, or not to save, the world.)
I will not disagree with the sentiment that humans can be selfish and oblivious, as the couple next to me in the theater demonstrated. Like airline passengers who drink enough to be duct-taped to their seats, these two had forgotten how public space works. They spent the movie announcing the things that were happening in the movie and how they felt about these things. One loved hummingbirds, and said so when a hummingbird appeared onscreen; another loved Timothée Chalamet and said so when he showed up — which is unfortunate, because he shows up a lot. They scoffed when the movie told them to scoff and delighted at Meryl Streep as president when the movie told them to delight at Meryl Streep as president.
The very best way to watch Don’t Look Up is to enjoy it in the company of people who could be characters in Don’t Look Up: self-centered, loud, and enchanted by noise, shiny colors, and the way noise and shiny colors make you feel. The irony of great satire is that it is more prediction than fantasy.
But is Don’t Look Up great satire? Is it even good satire?
The humor here is crudely drawn. Among McKay films, this universe is closer to Anchorman than The Big Short. Its characters are fools and bozos; wherever you think there’s a sane person for the audience to cling desperately to, that person reveals themselves to be cut from the same absurd cloth. Otherwise-dignified official Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan) laments the breakup of two pop stars instead of focusing on a meeting with the president; Lawrence’s Dibiasky obsesses over why a general would charge them for free snacks.
Satire is for pointing out human flaws, but the risk here is obvious: Playing up those flaws for comedy can keep us from identifying with those characters. We don’t see us in them; they are too stupid, too venal, or too unreal for many of us to care what happens to them.
To succeed, satire must cultivate humor from absurdity, perhaps through the bureaucratic horrors of nuclear war (Dr. Strangelove), the petty banalities in the evil of totalitarian dictatorship (The Death of Stalin), or the pleasantly cutthroat nature of meritocracy (Election). But it also has to put flawed, real-seeming humans at the center of that absurdity. Don’t Look Up definitely identifies what’s absurd but is so insistent on making sure we Get the Joke — just as it insists that we Get the Big Message — that it all tends to come at us pretty loudly. Lost in the shuffle are… people.
One problem may be that it is a mainstream American comedy about death, and mainstream American comedy — like mainstream America — has a weird relationship to death. As a country, we can’t even agree on whether 860,000 deaths from the coronavirus are a disaster or not. (The film was written before the coronavirus outbreak, by the way, but certainly resonates with the spectrum of responses to the pandemic, from total freak-out to total disregard.) We deny death, we tuck it away, we scoff at it as a kind of failure. We anxiously try to pretend that bad things don’t happen in America. So Don’t Look Up ends up being not about the fear of death, but about the fear of the fear of death.
To understand Don’t Look Up and whether it “works” as a commentary on human insufficiency, it’s helpful to think of another satire, made by a culture with a more profound relationship to disaster and death: the 2016 Japanese film Shin Godzilla.
On the 31st iteration of the monster’s visit to Tokyo, the focus is on the bureaucrats who must make decisions about the logistics of the civilian evacuation and military action as Godzilla comes ashore and wades through the city. Shin Godzilla is, for the most part, a series of meetings of various sizes, small committees up to cabinet assemblies. Endless discussions in identical rooms by people unhelpfully labeled with long, official titles. Non-monster drama includes a montage of copy machines rolled into an empty room as a new task force is born, and people putting on jumpsuits. Monster drama includes Godzilla destroying the city, and the military trying unsuccessfully to stop it.
Shin Godzilla is a satire, one without jokes or idiots. The humor is subterranean; it emerges slowly, meeting by meeting, the comedy of trying seriously to confront the absurd (within protocol, of course).
It was hugely successful in Japan, winning both Director of the Year and Picture of the Year in the Japan Academy Prizes. Western critics struggled with it, wanting it to be more parody, more action, more familiar. They assumed the satire was about the inefficiency of bureaucracy — lookit all them meetings! — but in fact, the bureaucracy, for all its complexity, accomplishes its goals pretty quickly. Western critics miss that it wouldn’t matter how quickly or slowly the Japanese authorities deploy the military; it will always be irrelevant, swatted aside by the beast society summoned. The effort is heroic, and sad. The best we can do is do our insufficient best, and, for those who survive, watch.
Godzilla was born a metaphor for the atomic bomb, the great trauma visited upon Japan but that menaced the rest of the world equally. The Godzilla of Shin Godzilla evolves. Where we see him pushing boats and cars in front of him, he’s a manifestation of the 2011 tsunami. Where his radiation levels are discussed, he’s embodying the Fukushima disaster — which is ongoing, by the way. (There are two quick photos of Hiroshima’s devastation inserted almost subliminally to nod to Godzilla’s historical origins.)
Perhaps we in the west don’t see Shin Godzilla in quite the right way because we have never ourselves been destroyed. We have been only the destroyers. Shin Godzilla is a quieter movie than Don’t Look Up because it is a sadder movie. It is less ridiculous because it’s about the fear of death, not the fear of the fear of death.
Shin Godzilla works as a piece of art because it allows for multiple interpretations: about the meaning of the monster or bureaucracy or political aspirations. More than anything else, this is what makes it a fundamentally different kind of satire than Don’t Look Up.
McKay’s movie is not designed as a piece of art to be considered from many perspectives, but rather as a star-studded rodent maze, with shocks and rewards, with hummingbirds and Chalamets, to provoke a reaction and lead us, eventually, to one single, blunt-force takeaway: We are idiots if we don’t act on the climate crisis. A fun concept? Sure, yes, but a story intended for one interpretation isn’t art; it’s propaganda.
And look: nothing wrong with propaganda (necessarily). Some of my best friends are propagandists. They work in marketing and politics! And as with marketing or politics, one needs to think about Don’t Look Up not in terms of how successfully it causes us to empathize with a character or lose ourselves in the story, but in how successfully it gets us to do something: to vote, to buy, or to somehow change the global output of carbon dioxide.
And since McKay and co-writer David Sirota’s stated purpose with the film is to inspire a reaction to the existential threat of climate change, that’s what’s worth considering first and foremost. Everything else — story, stars, comedy — is successful only insofar as it serves that purpose.
People (particularly on Twitter, where at least Sirota spends much of his day and where McKay has waded through his mentions to engage with critics) are banging their e-heads against the wall trying to convince others that the film is funny, or convince them that it’s not, which is as human and doomed an endeavor as the scientists hollering about the end of the world. I don’t see the need in wading into that subjective debate: If you think it’s funny and good, that’s fine; there are some inspired bits that are inspiring. If you don’t, also fine. For you, maybe, it’s too broad and obvious.
If that is you, though, maybe you’re the problem, as climate scientist Peter Kalmus writes in The Guardian: “Dismissals of Don’t Look Up as too obvious might say more about the critic than the film,” adding:
It’s funny and terrifying because it conveys a certain cold truth that climate scientists and others who understand the full depth of the climate emergency are living every day. I hope that this movie, which comically depicts how hard it is to break through prevailing norms, actually helps break through those norms in real life.
Neil deGrasse Tyson echoes the sentiment: “Everything I know about news-cycles, talk shows, social media, & politics tells me the film was instead a documentary.”
The frustrated scientists are right: Don’t Look Up makes valid points about the dire state of the climate and our reaction to it. Anyone who criticizes the movie is met with a variation on the response from Forbes contributor David Vetter that “if Don’t Look Up is infuriating to watch, it is because it does a pitch-perfect job of channeling climate experts’ weary frustration at being ignored.”
If it is a “pitch-perfect” rendition of a message that gets “ignored,” then why should we assume it’ll lead to a different result?
The movie loses us in a series of tautologies. Scientists say to listen to the movie because it says to listen to scientists. The movie makes an obvious point, which critics say is too obvious, which critics of the critics say is the point of making it obvious, which the movie has already said won’t work to convince anybody anyway.
A failure to convince is a fine point to illustrate — perfect for satire — except again the stated purpose of Don’t Look Up is to convince people to think of the whole situation differently, not to reinforce the points already being disregarded.
Is the conversation in a sort of cultural polar vortex? A bunch of people arguing about how hard they agree with one another? How will this get Chevron execs Netflix-and-chilling with Saudi Aramco to rethink global corporate policy for fossil fuel companies?
Possibly, this is a stupid way of evaluating the success of a piece of culture. A single film can’t be expected to change the world. But here we are, two weeks after its release on Netflix, and Don’t Look Up is still a hot button. This is good. Conversation about climate change is historically lacking from the front pages so, one might argue, anything that keeps it centered in the zeitgeist helps. Maybe it leads to more collective action. Maybe a change in corporate policy. Maybe revolution.
The movie and reactions to it tell us plenty about the state of the climate change conversation. What does all this tell us about humor as a tool for change?
This is something I think about a lot (and have written about before): whether humor is in fact the perfect way to engage the climate crisis.
Where traditional scientific and political talking points stagnate, or only speak to partisans on one side or another, comedy can sneak past these defenses and defuse pieties. Even the United Nations knows this now. In October, it deployed a video of a dinosaur, voiced by Jack Black, taking the podium at the UN General Assembly to talk about how much it sucks to go extinct. Like Don’t Look Up, it’s propaganda. Like Don’t Look Up, we see the message a mile away. If you agree with the message, you go in ready to applaud. If you’re a climate skeptic, or China, you’re already disregarding it. It’s not a failure of humor; it’s a failure of propaganda — of messaging that pushes an agenda.
I keep thinking that, yes, enough dinosaurs and DiCaprios may sway debate, but what if the message were quieter, and more humanist? What if instead of focusing on the message at all costs, it risked being more like… art?
Don’t Look Up gets there, finally, at the end. The protagonists have gathered at the Mindy family home as the comet approaches. The end is decided for them; all that’s left is how to greet it. So they make dinner, they laugh. At the table, we get one more opportunity to love Chalamet as he says grace. It is both sad and silly. There is no joke, save the absurdity of it all.
The comet hits, the shock wave rolls around the world. As the walls of the house quiver, as the plates and cutlery rattle, conversation becomes merely casual: admitting the preference for store-bought pie. The fear of death is in everyone’s eyes, and we watch them being normal, being human for the last moments of the human race. They’re doing it not for themselves but for each other.
It says everything you want to say, or hear, about being brave, and about doing the difficult thing for others. This is where it works — as propaganda, as art, as satire. Politely asking our closest relations to pass the salt for the very last time? I’d watch 138 minutes of this. It is a perfect artistic moment, to live sadly and absurdly inside a story, asking how we got here, congratulating us for making it this far, and wondering how it might have been avoided.