Caution: Spoilers below.
Let me start by saying I really enjoyed Don’t Look Up. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend it. It’s not a great movie, in an artistic sense, but it’s both timely and entertaining–if you enjoy gallows humor. And it seems like everyone is talking about it. Don’t Look Up is still the second most-watched film on Netflix, a little over a month after its release.
Don’t Look Up is about two scientist, played by Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio (both of whom do a stellar job), who discover a comet headed toward earth. The comet is larger than the one that killed the dinosaurs and there is a 99.9% (100% for all practical purposes) chance it will impact.
Initially, the President (played by Meryl Streep)–who is a thinly veiled substitute for Trump–stalls for political advantage. But eventually, a plan is set in motion to send rockets armed with nukes to break the comet up. The plan is aborted when an Elon Musk-type tech billionaire and “platinum level” Presidential donor decides the comet should instead be broken into smaller pieces and allowed to impact (preferably off the coast of third-world countries) so that it can be mined for the rare earth metals needed to make more cell phones. The new plan fails, the comet hits, and (almost) everyone dies. (Stay for the post-credit scene to see what “almost” means.)
The movie is interesting for its portrayal of the initial effort by scientists to convince the politicians to take action. Some people believe the scientists, others are apathetic, others develop conspiracy theories. The scientists grow increasingly impatient in their rhetoric, screaming and crying on live television. (I think a lot of us on the left really related to this feeling.) The older scientist, played by DiCaprio, gets co-opted by the media-political machine. The millennial scientist, played by Lawrence, just gives up.
Eventually, when the comet gets close enough to see in the night sky, the country is divided into two factions–stand-ins for contemporary liberals and conservatives–who urge everyone to “Just Look Up!” or “Don’t Look Up!” Lots of familiar political tropes are exercised: “You know why they want you to look up? Because they think they’re better than you!” “We need to stop arguing and just get along.” And my personal favorite: “Your mother and I are for the jobs the comet will bring.”
There’s a lot that the movie gets right, but there’s also a lot that it gets wrong. Let me start with two things it gets wrong.
The biggest problem with the movie is that, while it was intended to be a commentary about climate change, the climate catastrophe is really nothing at all like a comet, as many critics have pointed out. As much as it may sometimes feel like a rock thrown from heaven by fate to destroy our lives, climate change is a human-caused catastrophe. While the failure to stop the comet in the movie was caused by human greed, incompetence, and ignorance, the movie failed to reflect the real reason we haven’t done anything about climate change–because reversing or even slowing climate change would require we change almost everything about our economy and how we live our lives. Responding to climate change is less like sending a heroic band of astronauts into space to blow up a huge chunk of space debris and more like every single person in an industrialized country agreeing to blow up their house, their car, and their place of employment.
This is a problem because it perpetuates the myth that what will “save us” is bold and heroic action by scientists and politicians, without any change in the day-to-day lives of people living in “first world” countries. I’m not talking about individuals buying Priuses. I’m talking about the end of global industrial capitalism.
Another problem, which has also been pointed out by critics, is that the climate catastrophe isn’t experienced like a comet impact. It’s not fast moving or all at once. Climate change is a slow catastrophe which is being played out over decades, even generations. There’s no point at which people will be able to “look up” in the sky and see for themselves the causal connection between carbon emissions and extreme weather events, food shortages, and mass migration.
This is a problem, because it continues the overwrought rhetoric of liberals, who act like climate change is “obvious”, when in fact it requires placing a great deal of trust in (certain) elites to interpret complex data for us. The challenge of getting conservatives to “believe in” climate change isn’t like getting them to open their eyes and just look up. It’s more like getting them to trust a group of people who they have never met and who they have good reason to suspect of being wrong and/or corrupt. The more liberals act like the linkage between fossil fuel burning and changes in the weather is “obvious”, the more conservatives will shake their heads in disbelief.
That brings me to two things the movie gets right, two things which I think are being overlooked even by many of the people who like the movie.
First, the movie doesn’t just lampoon conservatives. It takes aim at liberals too. First there is the failure of the scientists and even the sympathetic media to successfully communicate the problem to the public. Yes, the movie lays a lot of the blame at the feet of a stupid public. But the people who are supposed to be educating the public don’t get a free pass in the movie.
The movie goes even farther than that. It takes aim at the impotence of liberal so-called “action”. This was highlighted when the liberals gather for–wait for it–the biggest music concert ever, featuring a pop star diva (played by Ariana Grande) dressed like the prettiest comet ever, singing “Just Look Up”. (Please go watch the video.) The scientists MC’ing the event urge everyone to “stand with” the scientific community and to divest from Bash (the tech guru’s company). Watching this, I couldn’t help but think, “So what.”
People I know who have watched the film keep saying how realistic the portrayal of conservative stupidity and corruption is. But even more realistic, in my opinion, was the portrayal of the absurdity and futility of the liberal response. A comet is heading to destroy all life on earth and what we really need is a giant music concert?! To me, a lot of progressive activism in real life looks just like that.
And that brings me to the second thing I think the movie got right. There comes the point in the movie where it finally dawns on everyone that it is too late. The comet is going to impact and practically everyone will die. The billionaires rush off to the cryotanks and space shuttles. People in the street are shooting each other or drinking themselves into a stupor. And our sad band of protagonists, the two scientists and their family and friends, sit down to have dinner together one last time. They eat good food. They share fond memories. They say a prayer. They hold hands. And they carry on living their best lives in the last minutes they have right up to the moment the shock wave arrives.
I was moved to tears by the ending scene. I know others found it depressing. But I thought it was beautiful.
As you know, if you’ve followed my writing on this site for any time, I am a post-doomer. I have no hope for citizens in industrialized nations volunteering to give up meat or stop flying or reduce reproduction, or for citizens in under-developed countries to stop pursuing the lifestyle of those in developed countries. I have no hope for our “democratic” political system to produce decisive and effective policies on carbon emissions. I have no hope that transitioning to so-called renewable energy will do anything but feed more energy into the growth economy. I have no hope for humanity to give up the goal of growth or the myth of progress. I have no hope for corporate capitalism to end without a collapse. In short, I have no hope for the status quo or for incremental/progressive change of the status quo.
I do have hope for life, though. Life on this planet will continue for a long, long time. And human life will continue too–after capitalism, after collapse–though not indefinitely. Nothing lives forever.
But in the precious time we have here in the early days of the slow catastrophe of climate and capitalism, we still must choose how to live our lives. There is still beauty. There is still love. There is still life. And these things are worth preserving, even if only for a little while longer. I think that penultimate scene in Don’t Look Up captured that feeling. And for that, if for nothing else, it’s worth watching.