I’ll be honest. “Don’t Look Up” had me at the opening scene. Leonardo DiCaprio as a low-level astrophysicist (Dr. Randall Mindy), Jennifer Lawrence as his talented graduate student (Kate Dibiasky) and a bobblehead of legendary science communicator, the late Carl Sagan (a personal hero of mine) visible on their lab desk.
A comedy featuring chic geek scientists, one of the most visionary directors Adam McKay behind the camera, and a favorite actor (and friend) Leo DiCaprio in the lead role. A start-studded cast featuring many of today’s most featured actors: Jonah Hill, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchette (and for my 16 year old daughter’s generation, Timothee Chalamet and Ariane Grande). What—literally—is not to like here?
But like many of McKay’s films, including Vice, The Big Short and The Campaign, there’s more than initially meets the eye here. For this isn’t just a funny film. It’s serious sociopolitical commentary posing as comedy. “Don’t Look Up” is indisputably a cautionary tale about the climate crisis in the form of an inventive and genre-bending (action/adventure/dystopia/satire) major motion picture. The biting McKay humor stiches it all together. It’s the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down.
McKay recognizes that hard truths are often difficult to deliver as straight-up commentary. People are resistant to messages they don’t want to hear, especially in the toxic political economy that prevails today. We can’t barge in through the front door. It’s locked. So we look for a another way in. Humor and satire provide just such a side door. (I’m a convert to this way of thinking—in “The Madhouse Effect” I partnered with Washington Post editorial cartoonist Tom Toles to use humor and satire to communicate the climate crisis). So do powerful metaphors. And that’s what this film really is: a powerful extended metaphor for the unfolding climate crisis.
I don’t believe in spoilers, so I won’t unveil the film’s denouement. But I will unpack just enough of the plot to reveal the film’s larger message.
Let’s start with the title of the film itself. “Just Look Up”—that’s all people need to do to see there’s an imminent crisis unfolding. But they won’t. It’s soothing and convenient to ignore the overwhelming evidence. Much like it’s become politically expedient for some (in particular, the Republican Party and the polluters they coddle) to ignore the overwhelming science behind human-caused climate change despite the fact that the impacts have become so obvious you just need to look at your television screens to see them playing out in real time (and yes, while the screenplay was written before the COVID-19 crisis, there are similar lessons here too when it comes to ideologically-motivated science denial).
Now the story. It starts when the two astrophysicists (Dr. Mindy and Dibiasky) detect a Mt Everest-sized planet-killing comet hurdling toward Earth. Understandably horrified by what they’ve discovered, they set out to warn the world. And high jinks, naturally, ensue.
Dr. Mindy is a typical scientist. His admonitions are muted, non-committal and laden in caveats. Dibiasky, on the other hand, is blunt. The two are invited to appear on The Daily Rip, an upbeat morning show hosted by Brie (Cate Blanchett) and Jack (Tyler Perry). Dr. Mindy describes what they’ve discovered in measured tones which mesh with the hosts light-hearted, whimsical take on their findings. Dibiasky, by contrast, literally screams at the top of her lungs, chiding the hosts—and the viewers--for dismissing the impending peril. At the end of the show, he’s invited back. She’s not. Could McKay be telling us that our mainstream media is much more willing to tolerate soft-peddled, wishy-washy characterizations of climate change than stark, blunt warnings of the impending climate crisis?
Every tale needs a villain. Here it’s 60 something white male technocrat billionaire Peter Isherwell. He’s dismissive of a government plan to launch an array of missiles to destroy the comet now. Instead, he supports an alternative (rather risky) private sector effort to wait and send a fleet of space drones that will break up the comet into smaller pieces from which valuable ore can be mined and returned to Earth. And yes, he stands to profit greatly from the venture. Could this be a metaphor for tech billionaires who talk down the potential for rapid deployment of renewable energy today to decarbonize our economy quickly and safely, instead promoting future techno-fixes (geoengineering, carbon capture and “next generation” nuclear reactors) in which they are personally invested (yes, we’re looking at you Bill Gates)?
I watched the film with my family in the comforts of our home. It resonated with each of us in different ways. A high-point for my daughter was the hilarious interaction between millenial superstar singer Riley Bina (Ariana Grande) and old-timer Dr. Mindy in The Daily Grip’s green room. I won’t spoil it for you, but my daughter, convinced that some aspects of Leo’s character might have been inspired by her Dad’s own quirks and foibles, felt it put me firmly in my place.
See this film with your friends and family members this holiday season. And if you know someone who thinks that climate change either isn’t real, doesn’t constitute a crisis, or is beyond any hope, bring them with you.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.