Awards season, as they call it in Hollywood, has only just begun, but I’m going to go ahead and cast my vote for the best film of the year: Don’t Look Up, written and directed by Adam McKay. It’s at once the funniest movie of the year and the most serious. If you’re one of the few who haven’t seen it yet — and I would encourage you to — there are spoilers to follow.
Don’t Look Up’s premise is simple enough: a massive, existentially destructive comet is hurtling toward earth. It’s a metaphor for climate change — McKay wants the film to be, as he put it, a “kick it the pants” to spur action on the issue — but also to spur action on other challenges like our growing income inequalities. You could add to these challenges all the ways technology has hijacked our attention and transformed how we take in reality — both a crisis in itself and one of the primary reasons we can’t solve the other crises.
What I find most amazing about the film is how it manages to put into stark relief virtually everything that’s wrong with our culture right now, while also showing how all of these problems are contributing to our failure to address the multiple crises bearing down on us. Here are just a few:
There’s the speed with which misinformation and conspiracy theories envelop every major story practically in real time: just after the discovery of the comet is announced, a poll finds that 23% percent of people already don’t believe there’s a comet at all.
There’s the corrupting presence of money in politics, with Peter Isherwell, CEO of the tech giant BASH (played with brilliant weirdness by Mark Rylance) as a “Platinum Level Eagle Level donor,” and thus entitled to full access to the Oval Office.
The film shows how easy it is for people, including scientists, politicians and journalists, to be seduced by money and power — the dominant currencies in our current definition of success. Soon after the comet is discovered to contain trillions of dollars in rare earth minerals, President Janie Orlean, played with hysterical venality by Meryl Streep, announces, “What the world thought was an impending and terrifying danger turns out to be an astonishing opportunity!”
There’s the constant polarization and the way that every issue is forced into an us vs. them binary meant to divide people. Kate Dibiasky, played by Jennifer Lawrence, is the graduate student who discovered the comet — and one of the loudest advocates for some kind of action to save the earth. When she shows up at her parents’ home, they turn her away, declaring, “your dad and I are for the jobs the comet will provide.”
There’s the relentless pull of toxic positivity, which only serves to further blind us to the ugly realities of the collective problems we’re facing. At one point, when pushed not to be such a downer on a cable news show, astronomer Dr. Randall Mindy, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, explodes: “Not everything needs to sound so goddamn clever or charming or likable all the time! Sometimes, we just need to be able to say things to one another. We need to hear things.”
Even the way the story is edited and told mimics the way we perceive our world now, with jump cuts, live-chat windows and memes flashing on and off. And that is no accident — the goal, McKay says, was to “capture the feeling of what it’s like to be alive now with the amount of information we’re hit with.”
And that brings me to the biggest obstacle to meeting our challenges. The film brilliantly shows how the noise of our technology-fueled media landscape keeps us distracted and diverted. As McKay put it, “our media makes a lot of money off of us not comprehending and dealing with simple truths.”
Our addiction to our screens and our always-on culture has us perpetually drowning in the shallows, obsessed with the superficial and unable to marshal our personal or collective attention to go deep on solving our big problems. This phenomenon, which the film depicts so vividly, was even replicated in the rollout of the film itself, as the media focused as much on the gossipy details of McKay’s recent break with Will Ferrell as the message of the movie. As Jason Guerrasio of Insider put it, “The irony of art imitating life and vice versa was quite remarkable to observe.” To which McKay replied, “Man, we are a crazy-ass country."
At one point, Bash’s CEO Isherwell tells Dr. Mindy that “BASH has over 40 million data points on every decision you’ve made since 1994.” It’s a great example of the difference between data and wisdom. Lack of data is hardly the reason we can’t take the required actions on climate change. As McKay told The New York Times, “We have the science… there are a lot of things we can do if we have the action, will and awareness.” And for that we need to be able to tap into our wisdom.
We know what we need to do, and yet we choose not to do it — and even doing nothing is itself a choice. “A man’s always got choices,” Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe, the head of the Planetary Defense Coordination Office (played by Rob Morgan) tells Dr. Mindy, “sometimes you just gotta choose the good one.”
As the moment of the comet’s impact approaches, the admonition “don’t look up” becomes a viral rallying cry by President Orlean, who signals that it’s about more than refusing to see the oncoming comet in the sky. “You know why they want you to look up?” she tells the crowd. “Because they want you to be afraid!” In fact, when we refuse to look up from our screens, we’re much more susceptible to being controlled by fear, to being divided, to having our valuable attention mined just as Isherwell and President Orlean want to mine the comet for valuable minerals. By taking our eyes off our screens, we can not only look up and take in the reality of what’s happening, but look in, to tap into our wisdom to do something about it.
Satire has always been one of the best weapons for challenging the status quo and getting people to see reality in a new way. And McKay follows squarely in the tradition of great satirists like Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain — savage wit in the service of passionate conviction. As Twain wrote, exposure to good satire makes citizens less likely to be “shriveled into sheep.” Or, in 2022, shriveled into screen-addled zombies.
McKay and climate scientist Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson argue in The Guardian that humor gives us “perspective, relief, and, most of all a semblance of community… Hopefully comedy can help elucidate how our culture of swipes, clicks and likes is taking us further and further away from the one subject we must talk about.”
Humor also has the unique ability to cut through social-media fueled misinformation and communicate essential truths, a power that McKay was very much aware of. “From my experience in doing comedy for years,” McKay told Chris Hayes, “what I’ve noticed is when… 500 people are together, and they’re laughing, there’s a high bar of truth. It’s very hard to get people to laugh when something is false.”
Don’t Look Up comes after two years of a forced pause in which we’ve had more time to think about what we value. And what I love most about the movie is that it bears witness not just to the truth of the urgency of climate change but to the truth of what’s most valuable in our everyday lives, and what we’re missing — in addition to solutions for climate change — by not looking up, and not looking in.
Gathered at Dr. Mindy’s home in Michigan for one last family dinner as the comet enters the atmosphere, the film’s protagonists join hands and say what they’re grateful for, which is largely: each other and the loved ones in their lives. And then Dibiasky’s friend Yule, played by Timothée Chalamet, leads the group in a prayer:
“Dearest Father and Almighty Creator, we ask for your grace despite our pride, your forgiveness despite our doubt and most of all, your love to soothe our fears in these dark times. May we face your divine will with courage and open hearts of acceptance.”
It’s a lovely moment, played perfectly straight, pulling us firmly back to earth as the comet begins to destroy it. And then Dr. Mindy utters what McKay calls “the line of the movie”: “The thing is, we really did have everything, didn’t we?”
And of course, we still do — and if we force ourselves to look up, and look in, we can continue to have everything, or at least everything that matters. As McKay and Johnson write in The Guardian, unlike the characters in the movie, we’re the authors of our own story: “But not every story is guaranteed a happy ending, even though that’s mostly what we see in movies. So we can’t just sit back and watch. We are not an audience. Like it or not, we are in this story.”
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