Don’t Look Up, the vaunted apocalyptic satire from Netflix, is not as bad as the preponderance of pans would have you believe—it’s diverting enough for you to have a look—but neither is it anything more than just another trudge through the conventional, maudlin sensibilities of contemporary Hollywood, with some modishly liberal/left acerbity thrown in to flatter the hipsters and Occupy Democrats/DNC booster types in the audience. The family reconciliation and final dinner at the end is something right out of The Andy Griffith Show; no, sorry, The Andy Griffith Show was better—reliably charming and never descending to this depth of bathos.
Teeming with overripe targets and cardboard heroes, this is political satire dumbed down to the masscult expectations of an MSNBC demographic; if anyone is expecting the unhinged, Swiftian divine madness of Dr. Strangelove, forget it–you get two and a half hours of left liberal snark, sporadically diverting enough, with a few laughs. But it’s a decidedly lo-cal affair, and only the two featured non-American actors conjure memorable and original characters: Cate Blanchett as a chat-news anchor and Mark Rylance as a tech-billionaire Dr. Evil-type. Meryl Streep afflicts us with her customary over-busy caricature, while Leo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence serve up nothing more than the pedestrian mugging that passes for a star turn in Hollywood nowadays.
It’s not a complete waste of time, but somehow you feel invited to conspire in a protracted liberal-elitist sneer at the dumb masses rather than to understand anything profound about human folly. Predictably, the noble university academics are the heroes, the parodied Republicans are the arch-villains, and the neoliberal elite that is actually perpetrating most of the destruction of the planet is mostly invisible—conveniently enough, given the main production and financing sources of the film: Bluegrass Films is headed by Scott Stuber (also head of original films at Netflix), who in 2020 was a major donor to the two anointed “next-generation” stars of the neoliberal class—$5,600 to Kamala Harris and $4,000 to Pete Buttigieg; and Hyperobject Films, headed by the film’s main producer and director, Adam McKay, who tilts a bit farther to the left (he was a Bernie Sanders supporter in 2016 and 2020) but remains firmly ensconced in the orbit of the corporate-financed Democratic Party, like Sanders and the Squad urging ballot-box support of its presiding corporate vassals despite sporadic, impotent, and well-contained yelps of discontent about its centrist policies.
The most vexing question is this: given the daily news-channel drumbeat of environmental/political/economic cataclysms—unprecedented wildfires, insanely anomalous temperature extremes, a shambolic supply chain, and ominous intimations of war with China and/or Russia—how could so lavish an assemblage of talent and money have yielded a film at once so toothless, overwrought, and mostly tedious compared to a classic like Dr. Strangelove? Portents of mass extinction are hardly unique to our own moment: by the early 1960s, the ever-present storm clouds of potential nuclear annihilation, coupled with a stupefied/conformist/consumerist-dazed populace at the peak of US postwar supremacy and complacency, coalesced in an American surreality begging for its Swift or Breughel. As Philip Roth wrote in 1961, “Simply this: that the American writer in the middle of the 20th century has his hands full in trying to understand, and then describe, and then make credible much of the American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination.” It was a tall order for any creative imagination, but it was filled memorably in the inspired Kubrick/Southern Cold War fever dream of Dr. Strangelove—dark and deranged and daring in ways that make Don’t Look Up seems like a therapeutic high school health-class film.
The gaping political/ethical hole at the center of this Netflix extravaganza—itself a splashy corporate media “event” of the kind it presumes to parody—is that it entirely absolves—nay, lionizes—the liberal elite that dutifully acknowledges the dire threat of climate change and the science behind it (usually on the campaign trail) but in practice does the bidding of the fossil fuel industry in supporting continued fracking, oil extraction, and Big Oil subsidies.
Don’t Look Up, however, averts its own “look” from this liberal rogues’ gallery to fixate on what it takes to be the main danger of inaction on climate change: the outright science deniers on the Republican right—symbolized by the Streep character, a Trump stand-in, and her uncool, yokel followers. But this is a myth as dangerous and misleading as the rightist science denial it pillories. The average US or world citizens of this film are caricatured as a mindless horde of Trumpers, when in fact that cohort includes masses of the vaguely progressive, pro-DNC Rachel Maddow fan types who think that merely mouthing vague pieties about “the science” and casting a ballot for do-nothing corporate Democrats is enough of a salutary contrast to absolve them of any further responsibilities (such as foregoing their jet-driven vacations, SUVs, meat-heavy diets, 24/7 summertime air conditioning, driving one mile to buy a loaf of bread, etc.); this in marked contrast to Greta Thunberg, who rightly dismisses the palaver of that whole pious gas-guzzling, jet-vacationing, lifestyle-addicted, liberal conference-giving constituency, and their leaders, as the party of “blah blah blah,”
The governing component of this liberal, putatively science-aware horde does nothing but speechify and hold stately international conferences like Kyoto, Paris, and COP26, all accorded the obligatory MSM awestruck solemnities and tributes, but issuing in nothing more than toothless half-measures and unenforceable voluntarism. George Monbiot characterized COP26—one of the symbolic touchstones of this all-talk/no-action crowd—as a “suicide pact.” Or consider Bill McKibben’s take on that same conference: “But was this a sea change in the way we deal with the global climate crisis? No –Glasgow moves us down the track a little and boxes in national governments a little more, but it has changed not nearly enough. After 26 iterations, the truth about these Cops is pretty clear: the results are largely determined before they even begin. Yes, there’s an endless succession of concerts, marches, seminars, negotiating sessions, speeches, ultimatums, declarations, photo-ops; and yes, everyone works hard to build a sense of drama (the media especially). But history would suggest that the parties rarely go beyond what they’d intended to do before they arrived.” Most climate scientists have issued urgent calls to for an immediate and enforceable end to fracking, additional fossil fuel extraction, and subsidies to Big Oil and Gas—so when the Biden/Maddow/Big Green/COP26 political/media mafia soft-pedal these dire warnings, kicking the can of radical, emergency action indefinitely down the road to oblivion, are they not engaged in science denial every bit as life-threatening as that of their fellow corporate-financed minions on the Republican right?
Yet in Don’t Look Up there is zero critique of this faction of the corporate mafia that co-rules the country and the planet—it’s all about those other uncouth science deniers who swarm all over Twitter, youtube, and talk radio. So Don’t Look Up, which by rights should be a broadside against all the equally omnicidal varieties of science denial—implicit or explicit, overt or hypocritical—turns into just another corporate-media partisan food fight with the Trumpers that lets half the villains off the hook by making them invisible at best or whitewashing them as heroes at worst.
There has been much triumphal chatter about the “effectiveness” of the film because of the profusion of discussion it has generated on social media. But like most social-media controversies, those exchanges have generated more heat than light. Most people are likely to come away from this movie thinking that all you have to do is ostracize and then vote out the Trumpers, and the problem is solved—when that isn’t even half the problem, much less the solution.
But a work of fiction isn’t supposed to be “effective” as a political instrument. The fact that Don’t Look Up aspires to galvanize a political response means that it is, in its very conception, propaganda, not art of any kind. Art seeks to inspire contemplation, not action. The essentially partisan, propagandistic intent of Don’t Look Up accounts for its failure as a work of art and reduces it to a mere political tract—and not an especially effective one at that, notwithstanding the daydreams of its online promoters, paid and unpaid, if its likely result is to reinforce illusions about half of the governing criminals who are destroying the planet.
Dr. Strangelove soared into the pantheon of cinematic satire precisely because it harbored no narrow political agenda: it savages all its cast of knaves and rogues with equally merciless zeal: Russians and Americans, mad right-wing generals and the “rational” liberal president, doughty soldiers and deranged policy planners, the entire demented array of “responsible” custodians of our collective fate, across the spectrum, all splashed with the same caustic doses of satiric acid. Don’t Look Up, by contrast, cautiously serves up the standard Hollywood formula of white hats and black hats, diluting its asperity with washes of sentimentality, diverting our gaze away from our collective insanity and toward an exculpatory myth for the liberal class. The greatness of Dr. Strangelove lies in its refusal of easy, reassuring myths—it finds no heroes or villains, just the endless roar of the folly and madness of being human.
So by all means don’t look up, but instead look within: for “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves.”