One problem with film reviews is that they are often so concerned with evaluating the quality of a movie that they don’t get chance to seriously discuss the ideas it raises. Reviewers are preoccupied with questions like: How is the acting? The editing? Is the dialogue sharp? The pacing energetic? Are certain mawkish indulgences by the director partly counteracted by a thoughtful score? In the case of a satire trying to make a point, does it make the point well, or does it do it “ham-fistedly”? Is it subtle and graceful or does it “beat you over the head”?
I almost didn’t see Netflix’s satirical asteroid-bound-for-earth movie Don’t Look Up, because the reviews were mixed, and many said it was a heavy-handed political satire that made obvious points and was not clever. Since I find nothing more painful to sit through than bad political comedy, I thought I should give Don’t Look Up a miss. I decided to watch it when I saw that leftist investigative journalist David Sirota (a former Current Affairs podcast guest) had co-written the story. I know that Sirota is not stupid. (His 2006 book Hostile Takeover remains the single best one-volume debunking of pro-corporate talking points that I have found.) If he was involved with writing a Netflix comedy, I thought it would at least be not completely terrible.
In fact, I really enjoyed Don’t Look Up. More importantly, I came away thinking that its critics were not only missing the point of the film in important ways, but that the very way they discussed the film exemplified the problem that the film was trying to draw attention to. Some of the responses to the movie could have appeared in the movie itself.
Let me first spoil the film (I AM GOING TO SPOIL THE FILM) by summarizing it. Two astronomers (played by Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio) discover a comet heading directly for Earth. It is larger than the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs, and is expected to end human life on the planet. It will arrive in six months. They attempt to warn the president of the United States (Meryl Streep), who initially dithers and tries to avoid doing anything about the problem until after the midterm elections. The (Trump-like) president will only do what is perceived to be in her immediate political interest. The astronomers try to go on television to warn the country, but Lawrence’s media appearance is a disaster, since she is too emotional about the problem and a bad fit for cable news. She is sidelined in the national conversation, and the film implies this is partly for reasons of sexism and partly because her “extreme” statements are seen as less credible. (The government also coerces her into silence through criminal charges, on the grounds that she has disclosed sensitive national security information.) DiCaprio, on the other hand, is deemed the Sexy Scientist (spawning a new term, AILF, the meaning of which you will readily deduce). He gets a nationwide fanbase, appears in magazines and on television, and even becomes the president’s science adviser. But he makes moral compromise after moral compromise, moderating his criticisms, declining to stick up for Lawrence, and even creating propaganda for the administration. He rationalizes this on the grounds that it would be better to have him in the room with the president than one of the president’s science-denying cronies.
Now, the film takes an unexpected turn, or at least unexpected to me. I thought DiCaprio and Lawrence would have to spend longer trying to convince the president to take the problem seriously. In fact, when the politics of the situation change, the president embraces the mission of destroying the comet, puts together a national strategy approved by top scientists, secures the funding, and it appears for a moment that the problem will be tackled with gusto and in a spirit of unity. But at a crucial moment, it is discovered that the comet is made of rare metals that are critical to the manufacture of smartphones. Unwilling to sacrifice the potential trillions of dollars of GDP gains that could come from mining the comet, the president instead turns over the task of stopping the comet to a Silicon Valley billionaire (played by Mark Rylance) who owns a smartphone company. The billionaire’s company develops a risky plan that would involve breaking the comet into manageable pieces that can impact the earth semi-non-catastrophically and then be put to industrial use. The plan is endorsed by many top scientists who have joined this “public-private” partnership. But (and here’s the Big Spoiler) it does not succeed. As the comet strikes the earth, the group who tried their best to stop it eat a final meal together, and share their love for one another. But the billionaire and the president do not have to live with the consequences of their actions. They jet off to space, and in an epilogue, having achieved (seeming) immortality they colonize an Earth-like planet 20,000 years after the rest of us have gone extinct.
Importantly, as the comet is speeding toward Earth, and our astronomer heroes are trying to warn the public, the same dynamics take hold in America as we have seen in both the cases of climate change and the pandemic. Scientists try to assure the public that measures need to be taken to avoid some huge loss of life. The media covers trivia instead. Even those in power who promise action deliver mostly rhetoric. The president wants to “sit tight and assess.” Some simply deny that the problem exists at all. Even when the comet is visible in the sky, hurtling toward Earth, the followers of Streep/Trump take pride in the fact that they “don’t look up,” and stay focused on “the road ahead.” They mock those encouraging them to “look up” (presumably as hippieish and woke). Don’t Look Up appears to depicts a country that cannot come together to solve a crisis, where science becomes politicized, where celebrity culture is more important than matters of life and death. It seems to show us a very negative view of ourselves, as a people who simply cannot cannot get our act together even when it is most necessary.
Or does it? I say that Don’t Look Up only appears to depict us this way because I think the film is more subtle than it looks at first, and that negative reviewers have missed some of the most critical parts of the point it is trying to make.
Let me just quote from a few of the reviews, to illustrate what I mean. There have been some very positive ones. But Salon says it is “farcical, sluggish when it could be screwball” and wishes it had been “more fun.” Parade calls it “shrill.” ABC News (Australia) says the director “doesn’t know how to let people enjoy things.” Some other excerpts:
- “[It is] frantic, strident, and obvious. McKay’s touch here is considerably blunter and less productive than it has been in a while… [T]he movie’s heartbreaking, unspeakable truth [is that] human narcissism and all that it has wrought, including the destruction of nature, will finally be our downfall. In the end, [director Adam] McKay isn’t doing much more in this movie than yelling at us, but then, we do deserve it.” — The New York Times
- “We are a dumb, doomed species, too perpetually distracted and misinformed and gullible to endure. The world will end not with a bang, but with a meme and some lolz and way more concern with what pop star broke up with which D.J. than our own survival. And also, should this movie be any indication, a righteous two-hour lecture masquerading as a satire. … As for DiCaprio and Lawrence, they both take turns channeling the voice of the movie’s creator, yelling and bellowing and losing their cool repeatedly over the fact that No. One. Seems. To. Get. It! We keep blowing whatever little chances we have to fix this. It’s a sentiment familiar to a lot of us, so much so that, at a certain point, you want to throttle this movie back and match it decibel for decibel: No. Need. To. Keep. Screaming. This. In. Our. Faces!.. .. Don’t Look Up is a blunt instrument in lieu of a sharp razor, and while McKay may believe that we’re long past subtlety, it doesn’t mean that one man’s wake-up-sheeple howl into the abyss is funny, or insightful, or even watchable. It’s a disaster movie in more ways than one. Should you indeed look up, you may be surprised to find one A-list bomb of a movie, all inchoate rage and flailing limbs, falling right on top of you.” — Rolling Stone
- “A slapdash, scattershot sendup that turns almost everyone into nincompoops, trivializes everything it touches, oozes with self-delight, and becomes part of the babble and yammer it portrays… This might have been great fun if it had been executed with some respect for our intelligence, and for the power of sharpshooting satire, rather than glib nihilism.” — The Wall Street Journal
- “A disastrous movie, “Don’t Look Up” shows McKay as the most out of touch he’s ever been with what is clever, or how to get his audience to care… McKay begins to needle the viewer with the joke that no one cares about the end of the world as much the latest distracting scandal… it does not say anything new about how misinformation became a political cause, or about how scandals are the true opiate for the masses, whether it involves a pop star or the president. It certainly has little to offer about the role technology plays in this, with Mark Rylance playing a half-Elon Musk, quarter-Joe Biden tech guru who calls the shots even more than POTUS. “Don’t Look Up” thinks it’s pushing many savvy political buttons, when it’s only pointing out the obvious and the easy, over and over…” — RogerEbert.com
The complaint of these reviewers is that Don’t Look Up makes points that are obvious and easy, that its argument is that “we” are all too distracted by our cell phones and celebrity culture to care about the end of the world. It is a nihilistic film about nincompoops. And it does it all without enough subtlety.
I think there is a good argument to be made that there is nothing wrong with being “shrill” or “unsubtle” when trying to make an important political point, and some of these reviewers remind me of those who criticized Bernie Sanders for being too aggressively angry that people in this country don’t have healthcare. Is this really a normative judgment about a film’s quality or is it just a reflection of reviewers’ temperaments and politics, where anything too angry or obvious seems the enemy of art, which is necessarily cerebral or inaccessible?
But more importantly, they get the message of the film backwards. One reason that these reviewers think that message is an obvious one is that they miss all the parts that are not necessarily obvious. Indeed, the film does depict a media that is more concerned with celebrity relationships than with climate (or rather, comet) science. But it does not have a nihilistic view of Americans. Not in the least, and this is critically important to understand. In fact, the film depicts an idealistic, diverse group of Americans who try their best to protect the planet. Their lives are destroyed not because we are idiots but because those with power choose to delay, deny, and mislead, more interested in their own short-term gain than the future of humanity—in part because these people know that the catastrophe they have wrought will not have the same consequences for them personally.
I can tell that a leftist, rather than a liberal, was behind the storyline for this film, precisely because it does not say what some reviewers think it does. This is not the film Idiocracy, depicting us all as dumb consumerist sheeple. This is a film with great faith in humanity, and cynicism only about the institutions we have built and the particular people who hold power.
There is an important moment in the film in which the president’s chief of staff (he is also her numbskull son, a clear Kushner type) addresses a group of her followers, and says that “there’s three types of American people: there are you, the working class. Us, the cool rich. And then them,” with them being the enemy, the Woke Cultural Elite or the Globalists or whoever. The point 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 self-interest.
The crucial turning point in the plot is when the president decides the comet is too valuable for future GDP to destroy, and thus Silicon Valley needs to be allowed to try something experimental. This is not a simplistic, everyone-knows-this-already-how-obvious-can-you-be point. The same kind of thinking guides some of the worst public policy prescriptions on climate. In mainstream newspapers, and from the mouths of mainstream economists, you can hear that we don’t need to do much because letting climate change rip will be better for the GDP than trying to stop it. The reviewers who think the film’s messages are Obvious seem to have missed that the “tech solution” to the comet is a clear commentary on geoengineering, the cheap-but-incredibly-risky approach to climate favored by those who don’t want anything to be done that would substantially hurt the bottom lines of fossil fuel companies. (The first, ultimately abandoned approach to dealing with the comet, based on massive government investment, is the comet equivalent of a Green New Deal.)1
Don’t Look Up actually shows us an America that was perfectly prepared to come together to stop the comet, and where people are angry when they find out that their lives are being put at risk in order to protect the future profits of cell phone manufacturers. But they are distracted by a media that won’t do its job, and misled by demagogues who say that they should trust the “cool rich” more than “them.” At the end, however, those who perish are able to take some solace from the fact that they did everything they could. They do not die screaming in terror, nor have they lost faith in each other.2 It is a similar moral to Albert Camus’ “Myth of Sisyphus”: the near-certainty of failure should not lead to resignation, but to even more determination. To end your life contentedly and without regrets, you need to know that you tried, regardless of the outcome. This is not a film that is telling Americans they will die because of how much they suck. Instead, it says that we could solve our problems. It does depict a successful plan for stopping the comet that nearly works. But that plan is derailed by those who would gladly gamble with other people’s lives if it meant they themselves might get richer. The question it asks us is: will we stop these people? It is an exhortation and a warning, not a work of misanthropy or nihilism.
The film’s depiction of its tech billionaire is impressive. He is clearly based on Elon Musk, but also has a weird touch of Joe Biden in him. He is, as the Intercept’s Jon Schwarz put it, “bizarre and frightening… a kind of omnipotent baby, soft and vulnerable and mushy and completely unaware that anyone else is real.” Importantly for the film’s message, though, the billionaire sounds half the time like he might be a genius and half the time like he’s probably an idiot. You can see very easily how people could be misled into thinking that he knows what he is doing, because he seems like he knows everything even though he also appears to know nothing. He’s deeply unsettling but also effective at inspiring confidence, and can silence critics with his seemingly endless knowledge. I have long been fascinated by the strange way that Elon Musk manages to convince people of his genius despite also frequently sounding like a complete fool, and the film shows well how people can come to place trust in a guru entrepreneur that we assume must be far smarter than ourselves, even if half the time he appears to be speaking nonsense. In the film, it is only when it is too late that people discover they should have trusted their gut all along, that the man assuring them he had it all under control in fact had nothing under control at all.
I am glad the film had its billionaire and president escape the apocalypse. My first thought about the comet as a stand-in for climate change was that it would miss a crucial aspect of the climate crisis, which is that it is not like a planet-destroying asteroid, because some people will suffer far more than others. A great many people will be pretty much fine, at least in the near term, while countless others will experience the horrific effects. But Don’t Look Up does show how the super-rich see their first priority as escaping the fate they have inflicted on the rest of us. They will devise “solutions” to existential problems that put all the risk on other people while protecting their own assets.3
This is not a point that is widely enough understood, and clearly McKay did not make it “heavy-handedly,” since reviewers have not really noticed it. In fact, there are a number of interesting and important observations in the film that are easy to overlook but useful to understand for dealing with the crises of our own time. Consider the way DiCaprio is co-opted. He is well-intentioned and wants to solve the problem, but for much of the film he is not courageous enough to confront the powerful directly, and he rationalizes weakening his stances on the grounds that it gets him “access.” The daytime TV host played by Cate Blanchett is also seen to have made queasy compromises: she is revealed to have three master’s degrees, yet she plays an idiot on TV (shades of former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson, a Stanford and Oxford alum who pretended on-air not to know what words like “czar” and “ignoramus” meant).
Other bits of satire or insightful observations go by quickly and can be missed. The scientists fail in the media not just because they are bumped for celebrity news, but because they never figure out how to communicate with people without either boring them or starting a riot. Spurious “national security” justifications are used to bring legal claims against rogue government whistleblowers. There is the Hollywood actor who tries to “depoliticize” the comet debate by saying he believes in looking “both up and down,” and laments how partisan the debate has become. The coldness with which the president abandons her devoted son at the critical moment shows how those who lick the boots of the rich will find that, no matter how loyal they are, they will be heartlessly abandoned the moment they become an inconvenience.
I have not commented on the quality of Don’t Look Up as a film. But as I said, I think that’s somewhat beside the point. I’m not interested in even making that evaluation, because I see this as a parable making an important point and I’d like to discuss the point, not give a star rating to the parable. We can imagine, in the world of the film, those concerned about the comet making a film that satirized the lack of national action to stop the comet. And in the world of the film, reviewers simply respond by calling it “heavy-handed,” the director’s “worst film yet,” saying it “misses its targets,” that its humor is too “broad.” Instead of discussing the issues the film raises, they discuss whether the film is good or bad and whether it is successful in the way that it approaches the issues. I don’t really care about any of that. I am far less interested in whether Streep’s president is completely plausible than in having a conversation about the various barriers standing in the way of serious climate action, a serious pandemic response, and a rational approach to every public policy issue that has consequences for human lives. A central point made by Don’t Look Up is that when things are matters of life and death, we need to treat them as such. Giving such a film a thumbs-up or thumbs-down and assessing the quality of its humor shows that one has missed the point entirely. Let us not have a discussion about Don’t Look Up itself. Let us have a discussion about how we can avoid the very real tendencies that the film illuminates.
In fact, the terrifying thing about Don’t Look Up is that if there was an approaching deadly comet full of material that could juice corporate profits, I could imagine it would be difficult for the United States to gets its act together to destroy it, if by doing so it would hurt corporate profits and require significant sacrifice from the rich. I genuinely think you would have very mainstream economists saying that it would be “irrational” to destroy this much “economic value,” if Elon Musk promised he could destroy the comet and save the mineral wealth. ↩
DiCaprio’s astronomer was warned that that he would die alone, but by shedding his vanity, being loyal to the people who care about him, and recommitting to solidarity with ordinary people, instead of continuing to hobnob with elites, he escapes this fate. ↩