When Don’t Look Up came out, many film critics didn’t seem to get it, or, more generously, didn’t like what it had to offer. The New York Times called it “frantic, strident and obvious.” Rolling Stone said it was a “bomb of a movie, all inchoate rage and flailing limbs.” The film has a 56 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which is not good.
As an animal activist, I found it extremely relatable, both when the movie first came to Netflix and on my most recent rewatch. The plot centers on a group of scientists trying to raise the alarm about an approaching comet. It was intended to bring to mind climate change. But the film could be about any issue which the public, and more importantly, the government, finds too unbearable to acknowledge.
The scientists — played by Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, and Rob Morgan — are ignored by politicians and the media. When they’re heard at all, they’re dismissed as crazy. Their activism is a heavy burden. The trio betray their values and sink into despair. Eventually, they lose their minds to a certain extent, confirming their critics’ suspicions.
In a memorable scene, DiCaprio’s character begins shouting on the set of a television morning show, when it becomes clear the program’s format and tone make serious discussion impossible. “Would you please just stop being so fucking pleasant?” He yells. “I’m sorry, but not everything needs to sound so goddamn clever or charming or likeable all the time. Sometimes we need to just be able to say things to one another.”
Communicating the scale of violence we inflict on our fellow creatures is similarly difficult. Humans kill more than a trillion aquatic and land animals every year for food. To put that in perspective, only about 117 billion humans have ever lived, according to the Population Reference Bureau. It’s impossible to talk about this amount of suffering without sounding unhinged.
In many ways, the 2021 film reminds me of a short story written by Isaac Bashevis Singer. A translation of “The Slaughterer” was published in a 1967 edition of The New Yorker. It’s about an aspiring rabbi who is appointed as the ritual slaughterer of his community. He tries to object, but is told one cannot be more compassionate than God.
Ultimately, the occupation drives him insane. “Blood ran from the sun, staining the tree trunks,” Singer wrote. “Yoineh Meir could not escape. Myriads of cows and fowls encircled him, ready to take revenge for every cut, every wound, every slit gullet, every plucked feather.” Days later, Meir’s body is found in the river.
I’m hesitant to make assumptions about people’s life experiences. But I wonder if the aforementioned reviewers might have appreciated Don’t Look Up more if they had labored to a greater extent on a seemingly hopeless cause. The struggle of the main characters to not betray their values, sink into despair and lose their minds is all too familiar.