Don’t Look Up (at the Film Critics)

For at least the third time in the last year, a Netflix film has exposed a stark divide between critics and audiences. In the case of Don’t Look Up, critics have largely trashed the film, calling it heavy-handed, angry, and – employing an uninspired pun – catastrophic. By contrast, audiences, at least as evidenced by Rotten Tomatoes and social media, have praised it. One doesn’t have to be a pandering populist to note some of the ways in which the critics, as is often the case, are wrong.

First is the criticism that the film is heavy-handed and angry, which is strange considering that this is a film about a meteor destroying the planet and all of its inhabitants. Vehemently objecting to the prospect of the impending destruction of the species marks one, at least in the eyes of some film critics, as an obnoxious dogmatist. Such criticism additionally forecloses alternative interpretations of the film, which not only functions as a critique of climate change but also of social media and the degradation of human experience in general. Does it really matter if any of the film’s characters continue living in a world where people are structurally incentivized to be treacherous and vacuous and where economic survival requires unending spiritual humiliation? Imminent collective death here, as suggested by Leonardo DiCaprio’s character’s final words, elicits regret not simply because we didn’t do anything to stop the catastrophe but because of how we lived before it.

Another complaint, presented by David Fear in Rolling Stone, is that the movie lacks poignancy. Here the reviewer, taking umbrage at being lectured by the director, seems uninterested in examining the relationship between the film’s form and content. The extended concert scene in which Ariana Grande performs on stage is undoubtedly insufferable, although this insufferableness fulfills multiple functions. For one, it reminds us of the political and aesthetic dead-ends of the Social Awareness Industrial Complex and hyper-mediated spectacular reality itself. Moreover, the visual and auditory punishment of the claustrophobically interminable scene (evoking, for me anyway, Travi$ Scott’s fatal Astroworld concert) provides an extraordinarily effective juxtaposition to the film’s most powerful and important moments: its depictions of bees, hippos, and other animals along with its final supper scene. The music of Dmitri Shostakovich and other composers uses a similar device, in which the listener is exposed to seemingly unending and punishing atonal discordant noise only to be delivered, as it were, in a moment of rapturously melodic resolution. The second only has meaning because it contrasts with and develops out of the first.

I would suggest that the 99 percent of the film that features decidedly non-poignant content works in its own right. Politically, it would have been nice for the film to use an explicitly Democratic president and indict the system as such, rather than an incompetent and corrupt leader and his head-in-the-sand followers. But when viewed as a metonymy (Meryl Streep’s president conjures Hillary as well — Trump just isn’t that sharp), the film can be seen as an indictment of the political and economic system in total. This is most convincing when the film focuses on the tech mogul Peter Isherwell, played expertly by Mark Rylance, who achieves god-like status in and over society through his ownership of omniscient algorithms. Conjuring Jobs, Musk, and others, Isherwell suffers from a personality disorder in which he is apparently incapable of empathy or other higher emotions. His terse “No” to a little girl who asks if she could say something is not just a throwaway joke but a demonstration that our modern absolutist rulers are the least human of us all, and that our long-running servitude to the market also entails servitude to the functionally non-human and their pseudo-emancipatory technologies and idiotic ideologies.

All that said, insofar as we can view the vast majority of the film as primarily functioning to frame and re-sanctify the world that’s depicted in those few fleeting and beautiful moments, it memorably succeeds. In either event, that audiences appreciate it while critics don’t is a good sign. Popular consciousness increasingly doesn’t give a damn about its minders.

Joshua Sperber teaches political science and history. He is the author of Consumer Management in the Internet Age. He can be reached at