I went into Don’t Look Up, the new political satire on Netflix directed by Adam McKay (The Big Short, Vice), expecting it to be heavy-handed. That was the verdict of many film critics and others I follow: that its dystopian spoof of climate politics is well-meaning but as subtle as sledgehammer. I was hoping to find it at least somewhat worthwhile despite this heavy-handedness.
I was delighted to discover that it’s far better than I was expecting. I thought it was brilliant. Yes it’s populist and polemical — and as probably the only mainstream feature film ever made about the climate emergency, so it should be. But it has far more subtlety and nuance than the discussion had indicated. It paints with both broad and fine strokes, and that’s an excellent combination. I think a lot of its critics are either missing the point, or not seeing how a film like this can reach a lot of people with its gonzo style and humor and, yes, its loudly telegraphed message, while still containing nuance and being politically spot-on.
Don’t Look Up is a black comedy in the shape of a sci-fi disaster movie, and it’s both funny and terrifying. It’s got a rapid-fire pace, a crackling screenplay, a big cast and great characters. A lot goes on in it, and the considerable suspense as the story hurtles towards doom is part of the pleasure. But it’s necessary to discuss the plot in detail in order to discuss its politics, so just a warning that spoilers lie ahead.
Don’t Look Up is the story of two astronomers, student Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) and her professor Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), who discover a new comet and then, to their horror, calculate that it is on a trajectory to smash into the Earth in six months and cause an extinction-level event. The comet is clearly and blatantly a metaphor for climate change.
Dibiasky and Mindy alert the authorities to the impending catastrophe, but instead of decisive action and international cooperation to do something about the comet, as they were reasonably expecting, what ensues is a farce. Both the U.S. government and the media refuse to engage the comet seriously, and denialism is rampant among the public. The Trump-like U.S. president, Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep), sees the comet only as a political problem. First she decides to “sit tight and assess,” then launches a highly politicized mission to destroy it, then aborts that mission to back a tech billionaire, Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance), and his dangerous plan to engineer a partial impact so that the comet can be mined for rare minerals worth trillions. In order to quell public fears about the recklessness of this disaster capitalism, Orlean promotes a denialist slogan — the film’s title — while Dibiasky and Mindy scramble to tell the world the truth about the comet before it’s too late.
Don’t Look Up belongs to a great tradition of rabble-rousing socially and politically minded films. Some of its most obvious influences are the paranoid social dramas of the 1970s, especially Network, which it explicitly references in not one but two brilliant scenes depicting unhinged truth-telling rants on live TV. It also owes a lot to Oliver Stone’s best work in the 80s and early 90s — as much as I’m over Stone I have to admit this. The ensemble cast, the lively editing and use of multimedia, and, yes, the lack of subtlety in the populist messaging are all reminiscent of JFK and other classics by Stone, though it’s a stark contrast to his hippie boomer optimism.
The vicious satire of the machinations of the White House is clearly influenced by Veep and In the Loop. This is worth mentioning because Armando Iannucci’s creations are famed for their depth and incision. Despite its puzzling dismissal by many critics, Don’t Look Up truly does rise to that standard.
But it’s also great purely on a cinematic level. As an existential black comedy it has a bit of the spirit of David O. Russell’s millennial-era farces like Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees, and, in its more surreal moments, even the work of Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry. It’s a surprisingly beautiful film. For a film mostly made up of people talking in rooms, it’s nicely shot, with great visual design and a gorgeous color palette. The special effects are striking, and I especially love the archive footage of animals in its Malickian interstitial transition scenes, showing us all the color and beauty of life on Earth that is about to be forever lost.
I also love that Don’t Look Up is basically a dark reboot of Mimi Leder’s Deep Impact, one of my favorite mainstream films of the 90s. Deep Impact is noteworthy in the pantheon of disaster flicks for its focus on the human detail in all the impending doom — often credited to the fact that it was directed by a woman. Despite its bleakness, Don’t Look Up contains that same lovely humanism at its core — increasingly so as it approaches its apocalyptic conclusion — and that makes all the difference. It’s deeply cynical about the political system, but not about people.
Why should Don’t Look Up be subtle anyway? Given the stakes — you know, our civilization, life on earth — maybe we need sledgehammers? I was moved by this commentary about the film in Left Voice by theater artist and teacher Ezra Brain, entitled “Against Subtlety”:
The problems facing us aren’t subtle. Capitalist exploitation and environmental crises aren’t subtle. So why should our art be? Perhaps selfishly, perhaps as a reaction to the times we’re living in, I yearn for the death of subtlety in art. I yearn for art — but specifically political art — that will just show up and start talking about the problems. And, like it or not, Don’t Look Up does that: it shows up and starts talking about the problems.
Mind you I love subtlety in film. I love Sofia Coppola, Jafar Panahi, and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. I don’t yearn for its death as such. But to the degree Don’t Look Up can be accused of lacking subtlety on a political level I thoroughly agree. As Dr. Mindy says in the film, “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. We need to hear things.”
But again, I’m also arguing from the other direction: that it isn’t lacking subtlety. Like I said, it’s a very good film, and worthy of its influences; and its politics are actually quite sophisticated. I don’t agree with Nathan J. Robinson, in his otherwise excellent essay for A Current Affair rebutting the film’s critics, when he says that the quality of the film is “somewhat beside the point.” I don’t think it would work as well as agitprop if it wasn’t also a good film. And please remember, a film can hit you in the head with a message and still be complex and cinematically great; consider Do the Right Thing, or, to go all the way back, Battleship Potemkin.
Anyway, maybe it’s not the supposed lack of subtlety that bothers Don’t Look Up‘s critics; maybe it’s simply that they don’t like the message. Robinson makes a great point when he says that some critics’ dismissals of the film as shrill and smug and obvious and too emotional and crude demagogy echo the dismissal of Kate Dibiasky in the film itself — and, of course, the dismissal of real-life climate activists.
Despite the critics, Don’t Look Up has been a massive success for Netflix, ranking as the third most popular film ever shown on the platform, and breaking a record for streaming hours in one week. I think this popularity says a lot about the appeal of the film’s message, and specifically its withering criticism of establishment politics in our age of crisis and disaster.
Due to its significance as the only movie of its kind (which in itself says a lot about the state of climate politics if you think about it), Don’t Look Up has inspired lots of hot takes and discourse on the left. One of the main leftist criticisms of it is that it supposedly portrays the masses as stupid and easily manipulated by politicians and corporations, instead of actors in their own destiny. This is a fair thing to discuss about the film, because indeed, besides the whistleblowing academics who are the protagonists, most of the characters are politicians, bureaucrats, media elites and corporate executives. When we see the masses at all, it’s in brief shots of ordinary people around the world watching news about the comet on TV.
I agree that the masses are where politics is at; they are the real agents of change and progress, and they are not stupid. However I don’t agree that the makers of Don’t Look Up are saying that people are stupid. The whole point of the film is to show us where bad ideas come from. I think it’s totally fair to portray the toxic effect that ruling-class media hegemony and the manufacture of consent have on public discourse. Examples of this are all over the place, but sticking with the theme of climate change, you only have to look to the years of campaigning by the fossil fuel industry and their powerful allies like the Koch brothers to trace the rise of climate denialism. Bad ideas like denialism (and anti-immigrant sentiment, and extreme nationalism, and so on) really do come from the top down; though of course the question of whether people take up or resist those ideas is very complex and ebbs and flows over time.
Another leftist criticism is that Don’t Look Up doesn’t show a radical response to the system’s lies and greed. The situation is hopeless from beginning to end and doesn’t offer the possibility of a mass uprising to take control from the predatory, nihilistic elites who are risking everything for their own profits. There are only a few quick shots of riots as the comet approaches and hope dwindles.
I think this is fine. It doesn’t need to have all the solutions. It’s not a film meant to show action, it’s a film meant to inspire action. It’s intended to drill holes in our faith in the system and show us that no one is coming to save us but us. As with Doctor Strangelove, another obvious influence, its deep cynicism and gallows humor is a political statement in and of itself (as well as being thrilling and funny as hell). It’s showing us what will happen if we don’t start opposing our leaders and their half-assed emissions targets, and collectively do something about the climate ourselves — and very soon.
Don’t Look Up was co-written by McKay and David Sirota. Sirota is a well-known leftist journalist; among other things he’s an editor for Jacobin, a socialist journal that I write for. He was also a campaign advisor and speechwriter for Bernie Sanders. Now, I’m a revolutionary socialist myself, I don’t support social democrats like Bernie, and no doubt Sirota and I would differ very sharply on the topic of how to bring about socialism. But he’s done some truly brilliant work here. It’s so great that an honest-to-God leftist was brought on board to co-write a high-profile film for such a big platform in this age of safe, formulaic filmmaking. His serious anticapitalist politics are marvellously palpable onscreen.
To name a brief but memorable moment in the film, Chris Evans has a laugh-out-loud funny, self-owning cameo as an action movie star who says that people shouldn’t look either up or down. “As a country, we need to stop arguing and virtue-signaling and just get along.” Blink and you might miss it, but it’s such an accurate takedown of the insipid, useless centrism that dominates liberal discourse, and I’d bet money that was Sirota’s idea.
But Sirota’s anticapitalism is crucial to the story in bigger ways too. It’s key to understanding the film’s commentary on the real-life climate emergency that the “Don’t Look Up” slogan is not simply a right-wing denial of science for its own sake, nor is it the result of ignorance or lack of education. It’s invented and promoted by the capitalist class in order to distract the public from their plan to exploit the comet for profit. There is a material reason for the denialism — just like there is in real life.
There’s no overstating how important this is. Don’t Look Up doesn’t place the blame for the climate crisis on the moral failings of ordinary people like you and me — it’s not our fault because we’re “stupid humans,” or because of our carbon footprints or plastic drinking straws. It’s the fault of a few very wealthy people who have names and addresses and outsized influence on our society. It’s a social and a structural analysis, not an individualist one. Given our society’s hyper-focus on individualism — which extends to narratives in cinema — it’s no wonder mainstream critics are spun out by it. It gives me hope that it might get through to a few viewers — especially young viewers — and get them to rethink the individualist narratives they’re being fed.
The fact that the film’s satire of Donald Trump is a woman is another excellent bit of incision. If the character was a man, if it was a mere caricature, it wouldn’t be much better than an SNL skit. As it is it’s a subtle deflation of gender essentialism in politics — of course a Republican woman president would be terrible; there’s more than a hint of Sarah Palin here.
But in fact the screenplay doesn’t name parties and, like Veep, it’s as much a critique of the evils of bourgeois liberalism and bipartisan consensus as it is of Trumpism — note the photo of Orlean hugging Bill Clinton that appears in one shot. The truth is there’s also some Joe Biden in the character’s DNA, and some viewers may miss that or may not want to see it.
Streep is so good as Orlean: she captures the perfect balance of crafty charisma and entitled obliviousness; while Jonah Hill plays off her in typically deranged fashion as her toxic son and White House Chief of Staff, the embodiment of her corrupt scheming. Whether Orlean is suppressing the truth about the comet or cheerleading the campaign to stop it — and she flip-flops on this several times — is all down to how it serves her political advantage in the moment. As Dibiasky tells some conspiracy theorists in one scene, “You guys, the truth is way more depressing. They are not even smart enough to be as evil as you’re giving them credit for.” It’s a hilarious, but also far more realistic, answer to Deep Impact‘s vision of a noble president who actually cares about the people.
I can’t say enough about Lawrence’s performance as Dibiasky, who discovers the comet and is therefore the one Earth’s doom is named for. Despite the fact that DiCaprio was paid more than Lawrence for working on the film, in many ways Dibiasky is the main character — the moral heart of the film, and the audience surrogate. As a twenty-something student who is vilified for the truth she reveals to the world, she’s a powerful symbol of the alienation and anger — and the activism — of younger generations. Everything about her — her nerdiness, her cool, vaguely goth style (she wears a bomber jacket to a meeting at the White House), her anxiety and self-medicating, her excellent taste in music — frames her as someone young viewers can relate to.
Seriously, it’s so great that the first moments of the film show her getting high and listening to “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing ta F’ Wit” in her headphones at her workstation, rapping along with it as she unexpectedly discovers the comet. This is both entirely plausible — of course a grad student might be smoking weed and listening to Wu while she works — and a deceptively simple but smart screenwriting trick to make anyone under a certain age who loves hip hop (in other words, a lot of us), instantly identify with her. It’s also a bit of an epigraph hinting at the rebellious, don’t-give-a-fuck attitude that will come to define her.
Lawrence brings so much simmering anger and palpable anxiety to the role. I love that she almost never smiles; her RBF is the visual signifier of the protagonists’ struggle for truth and a rational approach to crisis, and their mounting frustration and desperation. McKay says he cast Lawrence for her ability to communicate anger, and that was a good call. Ten years after her performance as Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games films (which I love), it’s cool that Lawrence once again stars as a young rebel in an anticapitalist popular film. There are even some parallels in the scenes involving Katniss’s and Dibiasky’s appearances on lurid, inane TV shows.
It’s spine-tingling when, unable to contain her fear and rage, Dibiasky blurts out the blunt truth on a live morning talk show as the dithering hosts (played to a perfect pitch by Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry) obliviously attempt to spin the comet as infotainment. “You should stay up all night, every night crying, when we’re all 100% for sure going to fucking die!” she yells at the shocked hosts before fleeing the set.
It’s important to point out that this is not fatalism or nihilism on her part. By saying we’re all going to die, she’s not giving up. It’s realism with a purpose. She is bringing clarity to the situation in order to inspire action — or force it. To paraphrase the Russian revolutionary novelist Victor Serge, “She who does not cry out the truth when she knows the truth becomes the accomplice of the liars and falsifiers.”
The abuse and rejection of Dibiasky resonates on many levels. After her televised rant, she’s publicly shamed, gaslit, persecuted by the government, marginalized by her friends and family and made into a viral meme about shrill, angry women. She never really gives in, though she’s harassed by federal agents into silence, and develops a protective shell of cynicism and forced apathy. Later she’s reduced to working in a liquor store — another deft bit of screenwriting, marking her as a member of the precarious young working class — watching TV news helplessly as the government fiddles and schemes and Comet Dibiasky approaches. When it finally looms close enough to be seen with the naked eye, she comes out of her doldrums to lead the “Just Look Up” campaign — a desperate last-minute push to mobilize the world against the U.S. government and in support of a real answer to the emergency.
Dibiasky’s character arc is heroic but also heartbreaking, and, despite the fanciful elements of the story, oh so relatable for those of us on the left — or any woman who’s ever tried to speak out about anything.
By the way, Dibiasky’s rant has already become iconic; the meme-ing of it within the film has spilled over into real life. For example there’s already a t-shirt, mirroring the skateboard sticker seen in the film that signals her popularity among disaffected youth after her rejection by the establishment. We’ll see if the character becomes an enduring symbol of resistance in popular culture in the way that Katniss Everdeen has, but she already is one to me.
I don’t mean to downplay DiCaprio’s performance; he’s terrific too, playing against type as the anxiety-ridden, dysfunctional midwestern academic who’s hopelessly out of depth as an activist on the international stage. His panic attacks are very relatable for me, to the point that I felt a bit shaky watching them. He has his own wonderful moments of anger and speaking truth to power. But unlike his student, he wavers in his opposition to the president’s disaster-capitalist solution, wasting crucial time lending his credibility to the plan instead of publicly criticizing it. His futile hope that he can make a difference by working with these bad actors and by being “the only adult in the room” is ultimately harmful, and tragically realistic — an encapsulation of the prevailing liberal strategies for dealing with the crises of our time.
A few people have said Don’t Look Up hard to watch. This is obviously because its subject matter is so anxiety-inducing — exaggerated and farcical abut also queasily real. I think it’s also because of the jarring editing rhythm, which very often cuts dialogue off in mid-sentence as it jumps to the next scene. It’s a film about frustration and anxiety, and not being listened to. That editing rhythm makes that frustration and that silencing of discussion and dissent visceral.
That said, I found it very absorbing to watch; despite its length I was reluctant to get up to go to the bathroom or pour a drink. I found the pacing and the editing thrilling, not off-putting. And despite the fact that it’s all about a real-life global emergency and the batshit denialism that’s now a daily part of life, I also found it curiously therapeutic.
The same day I watched Don’t Look Up, I got caught up in an extremely frustrating, even frightening thread about Omicron on Facebook. I’d posted a CNN article urging readers not to get the virus on purpose to “get it over with,” featuring interviews with a couple of epidemiologists detailing how dangerous Omicron can be. Somehow this most reasonable of positions — no, you should not catch COVID-19 on purpose — became my most controversial post of the year so far. Several friends and other followers argued; I got into a long discussion with someone who maintained it’s just like the flu and said I was “panicking” over nothing; a couple of them actually told me that indeed they planned to try and catch Omicron on purpose, or had already done so. I was so bewildered by all this that for a few hours at least I felt like giving up.
As the pandemic approaches its two-year mark (just typing that is so depressing), I’m more and more amazed at how mass suffering and death is increasingly ignored or normalized. I’m amazed at the risks people take and the excuses they make. But at the same time, I know why this is happening. There is no guidance, no genuine concern, no inspiration coming from our leaders at all. Two years ago we had lockdowns and some income support to help. Now, from Australia to the U.S. to the UK, our leaders are letting it rip and telling us to just get out there and get back to normal (“normal” meaning that profits are flowing for the rich). No wonder some people have just given up. Maybe we’re all giving up in our own ways.
“We’re all going to get it” is the new fatalistic catchphrase for this era of COVID — which seems like common sense until you remember it’s being promoted by a ruling class who only have their own interests in mind. If there isn’t a more eerie real-life echo of the film’s “Don’t look up” slogan, I don’t know what it is.
I mention all this to point out that Don’t Look Up doesn’t have to be just about the climate; it functions just as well as an extremely sharp satire about COVID: the government’s inattention to the emergency until it’s too late; their chaotic response, intended only to benefit the rich while the rest of the planet suffers; and the spread of denialism. It’s so spot-on it’s scary.
I also mention it to say that somehow, even though it’s so bleak, watching the film made me feel better about all this, made me feel less alone, less like giving up in all this horror and madness and greed and stupidity. The righteous anger of the protagonists, especially Dibiasky, made me smile. It made me feel good. It’s such an antidote to all that fatalism and toxic positivity. Somehow it inspired hope in me, and made me feel like getting back out there and fighting. I think it was intended to do that. (I’ve always felt some of the same ephemeral, improbable hope watching The Road and Children of Men, two dystopian masterpieces that also feature wonderful humanism.)
Some critics think Don’t Look Up is too wild and exaggerated to be effective commentary; or that the fictional comet is too singular and immediate a disaster to adequately represent the complex, overlapping outcomes of a climate emergency spanning decades. There’s never going to be a moment when we look up and see our doom. This view is argued insightfully by Emma Lee in Left Voice — it’s a very worthwhile read, though I disagree with some of her conclusions.
I think the film’s comet metaphor is perfect. Remember that some realistic scenarios laid out by climate scientists involve the end of civilization as we know it by the year 2100; and that we are reaching tipping points that make these apocalyptic scenarios more probable even earlier than scientists had predicted. In the face of this mounting evidence of apocalypse, the real capitalist class is literally doing what their counterparts do in the film. They are delaying solutions, scheming to preserve the fossil fuel industry — to preserve the real “comet” in other words — and hoarding their own wealth amidst the suffering of millions. Most importantly, they are actively fighting those who oppose them in myriad ways, including spreading denialist ideology. The only difference is that it’s taking place over a somewhat slower timeline than depicted in the film — 80 years instead of six months.
If you want a more immediate example, consider the way things played out here in Australia during the horrific bushfires of 2019–2020 — which, of course, were the direct result of climate change. (That linked essay of mine was originally going to be part of this one, but I realized I had a lot to say about my experience of the Australian bushfires, and it needed to be its own article.)
The fact that the superrich are investing in climate bunkers, houses on remote islands and even grandiose plans to colonize Mars in order to save themselves from climate breakdown — anything instead of shutting down production of fossil fuels or giving up even a portion of their wealth to help solve the crisis — shows that the spaceship analogy in the film isn’t so farfetched either.
Meanwhile, it’s telling that climate scientists and activists are saying that Don’t Look Up is very true to their own experiences of grappling with the media and the ruling class and trying to get the message out that it’s almost too late to prevent catastrophe.
There are too many other great things about the film to get into all of them. It kills me that Ariana Grande improvised some of the lyrics to “Just Look Up,” her character’s awareness-raising R&B track about the comet. “Get your head out of your ass / Listen to the goddamn qualified scientists.” The fact that the film pauses for a full, elaborately and beautifully staged performance of this song (featuring an appearance by Kid Cudi) is just one of many improbable delights it has in store.
Timothée Chalamet’s character, Yule, resonated deeply for me. I was very much like him at about the same age — struggling to reconcile the evangelical Christianity I was raised with and my anticapitalist, anti-imperialist politics. The effect was eerily like looking in a mirror. There might be some atheist viewers who are uncomfortable with the scenes in which he talks about God or prays — it could be interpreted as the screenplay justifying irrationality or backwards thinking. I thought it was a lovely depiction of humanity’s struggle to find meaning in the shadow of certain death, and unnecessarily rich and complex detail in a minor character.
Rylance’s loopy, disturbing performance as the billionaire Isherwell captures the suffocating ego and vapidity that characterize the superrich, especially honing in on the icky platitudes and pseudo-profound wisdom that mask their enormous, planet-threatening greed. Convinced of his own visionary genius, Isherwell carries himself like some kind of ethereal being, but it’s clear there’s no there there. It’s as if his personality has been taken over by one of his algorithms. He’s a comical reflection of a number of real-life figures, most obviously Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs, with a bit of Richard Branson for good measure; but as with Streep’s character, the writing is too good to reduce it to mere caricature. Isherwell also lets McKay and Sirota go beyond the topic of the climate to skewer Big Tech, with sharp bits about automation, artificial intelligence and data retention. Whenever he’s onscreen the film is more overtly in a science fiction mode; the intertwining strands of politics and sci-fi give it unusual texture.
There’s another blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment late in the film that speaks volumes about the real world. Shortly before the U.S.’s ill-fated privatized comet-capturing mission is launched, a competing mission co-funded by the Russian and Chinese governments to destroy the comet (the only sane thing to do, and clearly representing worldwide opposition to the U.S.) is scuttled when the rocket explodes at a Ukrainian launch site. Thus the hope of survival for the vast majority of the human race is dashed once and for all. The screenplay doesn’t overtly mention the U.S. military, but it doesn’t have to — we know that’s exactly who did it, intervening as you know they would in real life to protect U.S. interests. I’m not sure if something was cut from the film because criticizing U.S. imperialism was just a bit too spicy for Netflix, or if it was written to be that subtle. It works either way and it’s chilling.
During the beautiful and wrenching final scene, in which the defeated and doomed protagonists gather for a last home cooked meal and shared company just before the comet hits, they go around the table and take turns speaking about what they are grateful for at the end of everything. When it’s her turn, Kate Dibiasky says, “I’m grateful we tried.” I love this. Again, I don’t take it as a fatalistic shrug; I take it as the courage to resist in the face of seemingly hopeless odds, something that each of us owes future generations. The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci wrote, “I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.” Or as Huey P. Newton wrote in Revolutionary Suicide, “Although I risk the likelihood of death, there is at least the possibility, if not the probability, of changing intolerable conditions.”
It’s this mix of grim truth illuminated by the hope of resistance that lies at the heart of Don’t Look Up, and that makes it oddly inspiring. The characters in the film may be doomed, but we aren’t, not just yet. Out of all the film’s “heavy-handed” messages, that’s the one that should stick with us as we confront the terrifying crises of the real world.
7 thoughts on “The power of Don’t Look Up is in the details”
“There might be some atheist viewers who are uncomfortable with the scenes in which [Yule] talks about God or prays”… But you make that sound like a bad thing. This isn’t about comfort; isn’t that the point?
Thanks for this, Mr Green. My heart is with the skeptics (who are not deniers), and certainly not with what passes in our day for “liberal,” much less “Democrat”. Safe to assume that you saw Jeff Gibbs’ “Planet of the Humans”?