Movie Review: ‘Don’t Look Up’ Is a Metaphor for Our Inability to React to Climate Change


By Nic Esposito

After the credits rolled on Adam McKay’s new film “Don’t Look Up.”, I lay in bed for the next two hours, heart and mind racing as I tried to process the film.

It could have been an allegory for  the pandemic, plastic pollution or a number of other global crises that scientists have warned us about but corporate capitalism has convinced us to remain complacent.

I was surprised and disappointed by the negativity of many of the reviews. Rolling Stone called it  “one bomb of a movie” (and not the way I used the word “bomb” in the ’90s). A critic on Roger Ebert’s website called it “a disaster of a movie” that “only dreams of being insightful about social media, technology, global warming, celebrity, and in general, human existence.”

Conservative critic Ross Douthat lobbied in the New York Times that there should have been a second cut that more closely aligns with the disastrous pandemic response that the Trump administration and its enablers set us on and that the Biden administration he believes has only partially recorrected course.

But here’s why I believe Don’t Look Up is a perfect allegory for climate change.

The film opens with astronomy professor Dr. Randall Mindy (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) and PhD candidate Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawerence) ecstatic as they discover a new comet hurtling through our solar system. Dr. Mindy starts doing calculations to understand the comet’s trajectory, and after a few quick seconds, his face drops and he sends everyone but Dibiasky home. Once they’re alone, he reveals that the comet’s trajectory is headed right for Earth.

They determine that the comet, 6-9 kilometers wide, will strike the Earth in six months and 14 days. They follow protocol and contact NASA. Although they find some comfort in the urgent response from NASA’s head of planetary defense Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan), they are told to calm down by NASA’s newly appointed director, who was formerly an anesthesiologist, and then are reluctantly invited to the White House.

Dr. Mindy and Dibiasky are in agony waiting for a meeting with the President (Meryl Streep), but are blown off by her chief of staff, who’s also her son (Jonah Hill), because they’re having a political meltdown over the President’s Supreme Court pick who has been revealed to have acted in a few soft-core porn films.

It’s the next day when the team is finally brought in to explain to the President that a planet-killing comet will hit the Earth in just over six months. The President’s question is if the collision is guaranteed. When Dr. Mindy follows scientific ethics and gives the number at 99.7%, the chief of staff/son says, “Oh, it’s not 100%.” The President chimes in, “Let’s call it more like 70%.”

The sounding of the alarm on climate crisis may have been six decades rather than six months, and the immediate effects of a comet hitting the planet may be much different than the cumulative effects of a changing climate, but the parallels to our reaction to climate change are too stark and if anything more damning.

Scientists have been predicting the dire consequences of climate change for decades and as someone like Douhtat should have seen the previous week in his own publication, the effects of climate change being tracked in 193 countries  are almost exactly as the scientists have predicted they would play out. If it wasn’t excruciating enough to see this fictionalized administration (but one drawn to resemble the Trump administration) manipulate numbers to downplay the six month threat of a comet destroying the Earth in “Don’t Look Up”, it’s even more brutal that nine administrations dating back to Nixon have done the same.

And why has this happened?

It’s explained in the second key response from the President when she asks, “Can this wait until after the midterms?”

Although the fictional midterm elections were only a few weeks away, Mindy, Dibiasky and Oglethorpe make the case that this isn’t a political issue and there is no time to waste. But as it goes with politicians, everything is political.

Of course, many take the ends justify the means course that if they lose political power in their party, then they won’t be able to handle a whole slate of an agenda things like climate change. This plays into the self-fulfilling prophecy that we somehow as a society have come to accept that politicians fix problems rather than the experts (scientists, doctors, engineers, teachers, etc.) who have built the very foundation of society that the politicians claim to be the gatekeepers over.

Which brings us to the last point the movie makes (and I’m going to do my best for no spoilers here). There’s the tech mogul who would rather gamble on strategically mining the comet for precious metals for his cell phone empire rather than completely destroy the comet to save lives. There’s the talk show hosts who’d rather focus on making Dr. Mindy out to be “America’s sexiest scientist” rather than a sober voice of reason among many in the scientific community we should listen to. And finally, there are the politicians who come up with the film’s title slogan “Don’t Look Up” to convince the followers of their political parties to deny the danger they see with their own eyes.

At each turn, everyone in the movie (even Dr. Mindy for a time) puts their own greed and needs over the commitment to collective well-being and sheer common sense required to keep our society safe and thriving.

There’s no better example of this in the climate crisis than West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin who has pledged not to support the climate provisions of the Build Back Better Bill because it will destroy the coal industry and cost jobs. Nevermind that the Washington Post reported that he’s actually at odds with coal miners in West Virginia who desperately want the reskilling funds in Build Back Better because they know coal has no futures. What is not said enough is that Manchin and his family own a coal company.

Can we just take a step back and see how crazy this is?

Scientists have determined that we basically have 10 years to make a meaningful transition to renewable energy to drop future emissions to a level that will not destroy our climate. But one Senator is holding back the dire action needed to transition the country’s energy because he is directly profiting from burning coal for power, which is a leading driver of climate change.

I can’t help but feel that the negative reviews of Don’t Look Up help create the same confusion that is preventing our society from acting on climate change. I know it’s hard to watch a movie like this, but watch it we must—because the truth is just as strange and scary as fiction.

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