Don’t Look Up Is A Great Start
From the moment I first heard about Don’t Look Up (probably on Earther), I was excited to see it. So excited, in fact, that I saw it in person at a movie theater (a pandemic first for me) rather than waiting a week to see it on Netflix.
Is Don’t Look Up worth watching? In a word, yes! If you haven’t watched it yet, go watch it now. Mild spoilers ahead.
Some viewers will be drawn in by the star-studded cast, all of whom do an excellent job in their respective roles. Others will appreciate the dark comedy, the political drama, the media satire (traditional and social media), the thrilling sci-fi prospect of a comet striking the Earth, and the many moments of human temerity, banality, humility, camaraderie, and absurdity interspersed throughout the film.
Climate hawks like me will show up to appreciate an extensive climate allegory that surpasses any previous mainstream attempts at climate-themed film in both its ambition and its delivery. In many ways, Don’t Look Up really does live up to its reputation as Doctor Strangelove for the climate crisis. What it lacks in explicit climate discourse, it makes up for in its exploration of the social, economic, and political systems and that create and perpetuate the climate crisis.
Whether you’re in it for the climate commentary, the enjoyment of a well-crafted and entertaining film, or both, Don’t Look Up delivers.
The broad climate allegory is obvious, but there are also more understated references to the climate crisis. Before the fade-in to the very first scene, while the screen is still black, we hear the whistle of a tea kettle starting and increasing in intensity as one of the main characters heats up water for tea. Using a tea kettle whistle as symbolism for rising temperatures and sounding the alarm for the climate crisis isn’t entirely subtle. But it’s subtle enough that anyone who’s not a climate hawk or film critic may miss it. There are also a few other notable climate callouts, including “Fossil Fools” signage at a demonstration in favor of taking action to stop the comet from striking the Earth.
The overall tone and plot trajectory of the film is bleak by Hollywood disaster film standards, but entirely appropriate for a film that serves as an allegory for the climate crisis. All of the social, economic, and political systems that falter in their response to the doomsday comet are also faltering as we speak in response to the real-world climate crisis. Partisan (and intraparty) political squabbles, manufactured cultural divides, self-absorbed delusional billionaires, celebrity gossip, and a myriad of other distractions stymie efforts by the protagonists in the film and in real life to mobilize action in response to a global threat.
Thankfully, we haven’t reached the final act of the real-life climate crisis yet. But the tone and trajectory of Don’t Look Up unfortunately serve as a fitting commentary on the current tone and trajectory of the real-life climate crisis.
This is not a feel-good film where Bruce Willis blasts off into space and rescues us all from a looming cosmic threat. Then again, it’s not trying to be. Commentators who complain about the melancholy tone, pessimistic plot, and tragic character arcs seem to be missing the fact that it’s an openly satirical dark comedy, not an action movie or rom-com.
Honestly, the film is more forgiving, and at times even affirming, in its treatment of the main characters and humanity than I would have expected of a film that some have compared to Doctor Strangelove. Whereas Doctor Strangelove serves as cautionary tale in which humanity is doomed by both individual and systemic follies, Don’t Look Up serves more as a critique of systems of power while still finding some of the good in its characters and in humanity generally. The ending may be dark, but some characters do reclaim or embrace their humanity along the way. This is particularly true near the end of the film as many of the main characters do their best to make their peace with the tragic course of events. The world is falling apart, but they find humanity and kinship in the midst of global tragedy. This is an important sentiment to carry with us as we struggle individually and collectively to respond to the real-life climate crisis.
One glaring omission of Don’t Look Up lies in its treatment of the international response to the global crisis. The film is almost entirely about the American response to a planet-killing comet. There are moments when the actions of other nations are referenced in dialog or shown onscreen, but the focus of the film is entirely on the response of politicians, business interests, and everyday people in the United States. What is the rest of the world doing during this global crisis?
My possibly-charitable reading of this omission is that it’s intentional. It speaks to the solipsistic self-centeredness of the United States, and the tendency of our politicians to pursue unilateral efforts, or efforts in coordination with a small number of allies, rather than seeking broader global consensus through the U.N. or other international bodies. The film offers several indications of how the rest of the world is responding to the comet crisis, but ultimately the U.S. goes its own way.
It would have been very interesting to see at least a few fully realized scenes about how the rest of the world is responding to the comet. The dialog-free reaction shots of people in other countries responding to the actions of the U.S. left me wanting more detail about their efforts to respond to both the comet itself and the woefully inadequate and ill-conceived American response. But the film was already quite long and packed with many moving parts. The filmmakers seem to have made the regrettable but entirely understandable choice to focus entirely on the self-centered Americans and their many follies rather than exploring the rest of the world’s response to the crisis.
That may or may not have been a mistake on their part. But it also sounds very true to life. The rest of the world has a variety of complex responses to the world’s problems, but the Americans stereotypically neither know nor care about those responses.
Another possible shortcoming of the film is that in a certain sense, Don’t Look Up is preaching to the choir. Unsurprisingly, some critiques have lambasted the film as a heavy-handed doomsday narrative that plays well to a favorable audience, but fails to convince anyone of the urgency of the climate crisis if they don’t already recognize it.
That may be true. But guess what? The majority of Americans already know that the climate crisis is urgent. They are the intended audience of this film, not the vanishingly small percentage of full-fledged climate deniers.
If there’s a film that can convince climate deniers and delayers of the urgency of the climate crisis, it hasn’t been written or produced yet. Don’t Look Up clearly isn’t trying to be that film. It’s geared toward an audience who have at least some sense that the climate crisis is a real thing that our society is failing to respond to adequately. Given that target audience, it does an excellent job of exploring a variety of aspects of the problem through a compelling allegory.
And the world needs more films like it. If American society, or any other society for that matter, is going to mount an effective response to the climate crisis, then audiences need to see and hear more narrative stories about it. Fiction, creative nonfiction, and investigative reporting all serve very different but vital roles in telling the story of the climate crisis to various audiences.
Don’t Look Up is an excellent film, but it’s just one film that can’t possibly speak to every audience in every way necessary to inspire more climate discourse and climate action. Hopefully the many successful aspects of Don’t Look Up will inspire more writers to write creative climate stories. Perhaps more importantly, hopefully those successes will also inspire more studio executives and publishers to produce and distribute such stories.
All in all, I would say that Don’t Look Up has succeeded in crafting a compelling climate allegory. Its charms should appeal to all but the most ardent climate deniers and viewers who can’t handle a dark comedy. With any luck, the fact that it’s currently the most popular movie on Netflix worldwide will inspire a whole series of climate films, television shows, books, and other media that explore the climate crisis and our responses to it.