Don’t Look Up is squarely in the tradition of movies intimating a final reckoning with human folly, with such memorable entries as Dr. Strangelove (1964), The Day After (1983) and Fahrenheit 9/11(2004). Co-written by David Sirota (a compatriot of sorts on the American journalistic left, and former Bernie Sanders speechwriter) and directed by Adam McKay (The Big Short, Vice), it has received predictable pushback from media elites bothered by its stark depiction of American inability to come to terms with the coming environmental apocalypse. This is the same coterie who quickly dismissed Michael Moore’s equally potent Planet of the Humans (2019) for much the same reasons, when it exposed the hollowness of American “green” efforts.
Repeated viewings reinforce the documentary nature of this movie, and the madcap elements give way to something that appears quieter than appeared at first, which shows the extent to which we have made peace with the frenzy with which we receive news and information of any kind. This is an important and compelling movie (which has already become the third most-watched movie on Netflix ever), and I strongly encourage everyone to see it, with the following caveats and observations (beware of major spoilers ahead):
1. Although the end result this time is the destruction of the world (unlike in feel-good 1990s disaster movies where America comes to its senses just in time), the filmmakers keep the focus strictly on America, as if the solution to the imminent environmental collapse will emanate primarily from here.
After the initial American mission to blast the comet while it is still far away is aborted, because of the technological behemoth BASH’s greed to mine precious minerals from the comet about to hit the earth, there is a brief mention of the failed Russian, Chinese and Indian mission to launch nuclear missiles to deflect the comet, but it is just an afterthought.
American “leadership” on the matter of species extinction (both human and non-human) is not only non-existent, but it is capitalism’s very rationale to push the exploitation to the breaking point and beyond. To be entirely truthful to reality, a movie of this sort would have to ignore America and come at the problem from a different angle altogether than American leadership or lack of it.
It is disturbing, as usual, to see the comet discovered by American astronomers (Leonardo DiCaprio as Dr. Randall Mindy and his graduate assistant Jennifer Lawrence as Kate Dibiasky) , and all the innovative ideas, both good and bad, also coming from America. But the progenitors of the virus cannot offer its antidote. The rest of the world passively awaits destruction, without a single dissent being voiced by them, which is ultimately a deeply racist position.
2. The founder and CEO of BASH Cellular, Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance), is the creepiest imitation yet of Silicon Valley fantasists like Peter Thiel, Tim Cook, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, who peddle fake happiness in the guise of social popularity, controlled by algorithms that pretend to divinity (The film, in a moment of optimism, allows Mindy to counter the prediction of his mode of death). The happiness is phony, but the control is real.
Isherwell’s dominance of President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep in one of her better turns) is an accurate reflection of today’s reality, with Washington in thrall to Big Tech’s outlandish power, yet it is futile to pretend that Isherwell is anything but a tribune of the people. It is what Americans want, and it is the fulfillment of the founding creed, declared in so many words. Don’t Look Up posits the search for individual immortality at the cost of the collective good as something alien and disturbing when it is doctrinal and widely accepted, just the familiar “pursuit of happiness,” with a new technological veneer.
The environmental reckoning is not a technical problem with technical solutions. There is nothing to choose between good and bad technical fixes. The movie cannot get past this ideological blind.
3. The biggest target of the movie is the distracting corporate media who cannot stay focused for a minute on life-and-death issues.
When Mindy and Dibiasky are first trying to tell the world about the fact that the comet will hit the earth in six months and wipe out all life, they have to compete on an insanely chirpy morning show (The Daily Rip) with singer Riley Bina (Ariana Grande) who gets the chance to make up with her estranged boyfriend on air. And at the moment of apocalypse, a news anchor leads off with “the story that everyone is talking about tonight, topless urgent care centers.”
All this is a play on Idiocracy’s (2006) satire on people being dumbed down, but Don’t Look Up acknowledges that everyone involved in the game, from presidential staff to media personalities, remains aware that they are playing dumb, instead of having actually become dumb. This is a crucial distinction. In a sense, the movie refuses to be fully complicit with its ideological position of blaming the media, which is a good thing.
Yet the “media” today mostly emanates from the population at large. Ultimately, they are the drivers and manipulators, empowered by the new technology, which the movie both grasps at some level but fails to reckon with in the final analysis.
4. Had I not known from public discussion that the movie was a satire on the global inability to take action on climate change, I would not have guessed it. The movie is said to be an allegory for climate change, because McKay, Sirota, and company could not figure out how to deal with it except indirectly.
I have always been disturbed by the phenomenon of reducing the global environmental tragedy (not the least of which is the steady extinction of non-human species as a matter of routine) to “climate change,” which has the effect of transposing the problem to something so monumental (like a comet, perhaps) that nothing can really be done about it.
For 500 years capitalism has sought to eradicate any form of lifestyle that is in harmony with nature, and this project is now imminently coming to an end. Climate change may well be part of it, but the entire human way of interacting with the earth and its other inhabitants needs to change. The movie, when all is said and done, is silent on this.
I say this because, despite the final moments of beauty, humans are endowed here with a will that they probably do not possess. It is a critique of a failed system from within the parameters of the failed system, an idea that is reinforced by the great vivaciousness (such as of Streep) with which the actors take on their roles.
5. I am not the first to note the aestheticization of death that is so much a staple of American disaster movies—or American movies in general. Death is beautiful because it cannot be perceived in its mundane reality, at least not in the Hollywood framework, and death when it is collective is the most beautiful of deaths.
Don’t Look Up indulges in the kind of beauty one remembers from the final moments of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, except there the focus was humanity’s permanent transcendence rather than extinction—or perhaps the two are not very different, although the movie doesn’t push the logic in that direction.
One of the most beautiful moments comes toward the end when a shaman/priest/dancer performs a celebratory ritual to bless the comet’s blistering shootouts as they bombard the earth, like cosmic fireworks. The agony of the animals, as they sense disaster, is similar to their intensely moving agitation at the end of Planet of the Humans.
Each of the movie’s three endings is equally “beautiful.” Mindy returns to his family in Michigan and makes up with his wife, along with Kate and Dr. Terry Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan), the other scientist who has been futilely warning the public, as the walls around their dining room break up and their faces become frozen. There is a similar beauty to Jason Orlean (Jonah Hill), the president’s obnoxious chief of staff, who finds himself as the proverbial “last man on earth” amidst the inferno, wanting viewers to “like and subscribe,” as he puts out his final live update. And the planet to which Isherwell and 2,000 of the world’s richest people have escaped to in their interstellar ship, 22,740 years in the future, is likewise beautiful with its carnivorous birds, the Bronterocs.
But there is nothing beautiful about death.
6. “Thing of it is, we really did have everything, didn’t we? I mean, if you think about it…” are Mindy’s last words before the end. But who is “we?”
One interpretation of this line—DiCaprio’s spur-of-the-moment contribution—would be Americans, or the West in general, in which case the price of having everything was the end of life on earth, which means we really didn’t have anything.
Did the human race aside from the rich countries have everything? In a sense, yes, they may not have had the money, but they had the imagination and aliveness to notice what was going on with nature and species while megalomaniacs like Isherwell were siphoning off all the wealth of the world in their pockets.
Just to be human, to be alive in any condition, was to have “everything,” is the most poignant interpretation of Mindy’s words, but the movie’s depiction of willful human delusion speaks to the reality that civilizations once they reach a certain point destroy themselves. And because the current civilization is global, it means the end of not just a single empire or hegemon but the entire human race.
Let’s admit it, at this moment, we, all of us around the world, have nothing.
In short, Don’t Look Up is caught in dilemmas it cannot resolve, and perhaps never intended to resolve. If American hyperconsumerism, and its associated disability of philosophical nullity, is the problem leading to the environmental meltdown, then how is this same entity expected to dissolve itself peacefully and in a way that benefits the rest of the world? It is a zero-sum-game that is being played, so far to America’s advantage since the end of World War II, but it is a game that has clearly reached its limits (one of whose minor and early manifestations is the global pandemic). Yet it cannot be spoken of explicitly, even in this movie which dares to do so much so well.
The judicious use of wealth, despite its feverish new distractions, is not a corrective, and yet it is apparently all we have to imagine so-called “alternatives,” including the most hypertechnological ones. But technology is the root of the evil, with science (despite its current valorization by a dumb-stricken global population affected by the pandemic) actively driving humanity to extinction, under the banner of progress.
It is the essential movie of the moment, advancing the philosophical conundrums of The Truman Show (1998), the Matrix movies, Idiocracy (2006) and Michael Moore’s movies to almost their logical conclusion, and it spares no party in its harsh critique of American escapism in the face of disaster (both the president and the chief of staff, and the technology egomaniac, could easily belong to either side of the current partisan divide), yet it cannot quite give up its nostalgia for optimistic American salvationism.
The morning show on which Mindy and Dibiasky present their findings (hosted by a Mika Brzezinski-like Brie Evantee, played by Cate Blanchett, who intentionally dumbs herself down to be in sync with the style of the show) is one where they “just keep the bad news light.” Despite dealing with the weightiest of all issues, the extinction of life, Don’t Look Up is penetrated by just a bit too much light.