02 January 2022

‘Don’t Look Up’ (Netflix)

in Bucharest, Romania
Don't Look Up on Netflix poster

If a movie is to be judged by how much it can stir up emotions in its audience, Don’t Look Up has unquestionably succeeded for me. They were not good, warm-and-fuzzy feelings, but rather a chilling dread as I watched the scene where two astronomers tried in vain to convey the urgency of the situation to the President of the United States, and were met with… barely a shrug, because it was politically inconvenient to act at the time. The contrast between science and perception becomes more striking as they go public on national television and they are dismissed in similar fashion, because this news clashes with the gossipy, lighthearted tone the audience has come to expect.

The Earth system is breaking down now with breathtaking speed. And climate scientists have faced an even more insurmountable public communication task than the astronomers in Don’t Look Up, since climate destruction unfolds over decades – lightning fast as far as the planet is concerned, but glacially slow as far as the news cycle is concerned – and isn’t as immediate and visible as a comet in the sky.

Given all this, dismissing Don’t Look Up as too obvious might say more about the critic than the film. 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.

Peter Kalmus

The movie spares no punches in satirizing the entire American society through its individual characters. We have a couple of scientists not well equipped to speak in public and effectively deliver a grave message. Ph.D. candidate Kate Dibiasky breaks down in anger at her first live appearance, while Dr. Randall Mindy is seduced by the sudden celebrity into becoming a collaborator, before having his own moment of rage and despair on air. We have a female version of Trump as President Janie Orlean, who installed her son as chief of staff and nominated her Texas-sheriff/porn-actor lover to the Supreme Court – although Kate stresses how she didn’t vote for the President because she despised her, so there may be a subtle allusion to Hilary Clinton as well. We have the tech billionaire Peter Isherwell, swooping in to save the day with his experimental technology and promising stellar returns for the economy, at the slight risk of planetary extinction – complete with a backup plan to flee the planet on a rocket if things go sideways. And between them, an utterly corrupted government, captured by the economic interests of big corporate donors and impervious to the needs of the broader public.

We have an extremely blinded media, concerned only with ratings and celebrity gossip, with selling a positive ‘narrative’ and presenting ‘balanced’ opinions from people with no expertise in that particular field. And let’s not forget Kate’s journalist boyfriend, who sells her out in exchange for his own 15 minutes of fame. An honorary mention for Timothée Chalamet’s minor character, who doesn’t quite accept that the comet is real (despite dating Kate towards the end) until he sees it with his own eyes, but has deeply held beliefs about God…

I felt that a nice touch was the tech mogul predicting the circumstances for the deaths of two characters based on his super-advanced algorithms, and how these predictions turned out later: a lonely death for Dr. Mindy didn’t materialize, as he made a deliberate decision to return to his loving family; whereas ‘being eaten by an yet-unknown beast’ was spot on for President Orlean, because she went along with the mogul’s plan until the end.

In hindsight, the social movement – or rather propaganda I should say – that supplied the movie’s title has distinct Orwellian tones. In reaction to the scientists’ desperate attempts to raise awareness of impending doom on social media with the slogan ‘Just Look Up’, the administration launched its counternarrative with ‘Don’t Look Up’. Essentially, the Party is the sole arbiter of truth, and dissenters are traitors, undermining the rightful order of the world. On some level, this could be a commentary on the overall state of social media in America, where anything you say publicly could be mis-constructed and used against you by either the far right or the far left – or even both; better to just keep your head down (‘Don’t Look Up’) and refrain from challenging the prevailing narrative.

In the movie, there is an independent effort to deflect the comet by a group of other countries, which fails spectacularly with the rockets exploding. Personally, I interpreted the moment as the Unites States government covertly sabotaging the launch to make sure the comet continues its course, and the US corporation BASH gets access to those precious ores. I would have preferred that to be stated more explicitly, but I guess that would have made the Americans too much into the villains of the story – which in case of climate change they absolutely are

The pacing does lag somewhat in the second half, but other than that I think the movie was well constructed and thought out. It captures a deep flaw of modern society almost perfectly: our reluctance to discuss grave issues, to even acknowledge our frailty and mortality. I sometimes think that people in Western societies have lived such sheltered lives for so long that they have forgotten how tough life used to be even half a century ago, and they cannot conceive of a catastrophe or social upheaval that would jeopardize that. Much of the response to the pandemic has thus revolved around disbelief and denial; instead of accepting this external crisis and finding ways to deal with it, many people chose to deny and minimize the problem. As if the virus would magically disappear if they wished it hard enough, or if they protested loudly enough against lockdowns, masks, vaccination certificates, and so on.

I had a minor qualm in the opening scenes when they showed the astronomers determining the comet’s orbit by hand – don’t they have computer software for that?! The broader issue is if its message can make it through to climate change deniers, or if it’s just preaching to the ‘believers’, to people who are already convinced that the crisis is real and imminent and are frustrated by the twisted rationalizations and delaying tactics from the opposing camp.

My rating: 4.0

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