- by Floyd Kermode
- The Guardian
- Issue #1992
Don’t Look Up is the latest of dark political comedies by Anchorman director/writer Adam McKay (The Big Short and Vice). The film – produced by Netflix – has polarised audiences and critics alike and there’s a lot to say about movie, so let me break it down:
For those of you who don’t have much time, let me briefly summarise my opinion:
This movie is a fun satire about the current state of American politics – 6 to 8 out of 10, depending on how much you worry about its’ imperfections.
For those with a bit more time, below is a longer look.
DON’T LOOK UP CONSIDERED
Humanity is faced with an existential threat. We are in a position to do something about it and maybe avert this threat. If we do nothing, disaster is inevitable. I’m not talking about “disaster” as in “massive inconvenience” or even “a lot of deaths.” I’m talking disaster as in “almost every human being will die, possibly all of them.” Instead of leaping into action, our leaders ignore the problem. When it can’t be ignored, elected leaders put off effective action because some people who are already obscenely wealthy think they might make even more money from it.
Does this sound familiar? It should, because this is the world you and I live in right now. It’s also the world of “Don’t Look Now” – with some important differences, we’ll see more later. In our world, the existential threat is climate change. In “Don’t Look Now”, a nine-kilometre wide comet is heading towards earth and will cause the extinction of all life within six months of scientists finding out about it. There’s no time to delay, but the US president (Meryl Streep doing her best impersonation of either a cross between Donald Trump and Sarah Palin, or just her best impression of what Donald Trump might be like if he were female and a former Playboy model) is an idiot who only thinks of her own advantage.
The scientists (Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, and Rob Morgan) go public, but it doesn’t work. Lawrence is harassed by the FBI and described as crazy by her ex-boyfriend, while DiCaprio is duchessed by the establishment and a popular morning TV show. When it looks like effective action is possible, it’s sabotaged by a creepy billionaire who seems to own every mobile phone on the planet (Mark Rylance, combining the creepy smarter-than-you spookiness of Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, with a voice channeling Herbert from Family Guy). In other words, the rich have a plan to either make money from the comet or somehow escape.
Despite its many imperfections, Don’t Look Up works as a simple satire of a lot of American culture that has been in our faces for at least the last four years – as far as US presidents are concerned – and for a lot longer than that as far as climate change goes. Meryl Streep has a ball being a really awful scandal-prone president, appointing her son (Jonah Hill, playing the type of character Jonah Hill usually plays) as Chief of Staff, and her boyfriend as an unqualified Supreme Court justice, and doing whatever the billionaire phone-magnate tells her to do.
Honourable mention goes to Cate Blanchett, who is note-perfect as a morning TV host, all gleaming fake smile, wide eyes, and perfect hair, also to Ariana Grande who sportingly plays a shallow pop-star called Riley Bina who is like a lot of people’s idea of what Ariana Grande is like.
However, there are some missteps with this movie.
Don’t Look Now telegraphs very clearly that it’s a funny movie about climate change. That’s what we go to see it for if we’ve been paying any attention to the trailers. So it gives us denialism, people not taking the issue seriously (the terrible president decides she wants to “assess” meaning “do nothing.” We are also served up with delaying tactics (“lets make sure there’s a consensus”), inane techno fixes, with plans to mine the approaching comet standing in for carbon capture and storage, or Scott Morrison’s appeal to technologies that don’t yet exist, but which he’s so sure will exist that he doesn’t have to make any effective use of the technology we have now. Not all of this stuff works and the importance of peer-reviewed science compared to just making things up goes by us a lot faster than the spaceships in the movie.
Ron Perlman’s turn as a lovable right-wing gun-nut celebrity flits past with no impact. Jennifer Lawrence’s parents fall for the line that the comet will bring jobs so quickly they just say it at her through a screen door. Early in the movie, a senior White House official rips off Jennifer Lawrence over a bag of peanuts. Lawrence keeps coming back to this, and it’s funny, but she comes back to the gag again and again long after it stops being funny.
More importantly, a major difference between Don’t Look Up and the actual situation we’re in that this movie is about is that all the profit from the comet that’s going to make awful billionaires even richer is all potential.
More importantly there’s a major difference between the world of Don’t Look Up and the world you and I live in right now. In the movie, the profit that the billionaires want to make is all potential. They”re not making money from it as the story proceeds. The film’s billionaires are doing fine from mobile phones, banking, wage theft, and fossil fuels (which curiously aren’t mentioned) without the comet. In our world, a lot of billionaires either owe their money to climate change or are making fortunes from making it worse. while associated media and politicians are making serious money from helping them. A closer analogy would be if all the cartoonishly evil rich in Don’t Look Up were somehow making their billions from a machine that pulled comets towards us. As climate and clean-tech author Ketan Joshi has observed: “the engine of the entire problem is absent.”
I’m in two minds about this film. On the one hand, Don’t Look Up is the kind of movie that leaves a lot of viewers mentally editing it, throwing out the bits that didn’t work. My critical eye noticed a lot of misses, but as a viewer, I enjoyed the experience overall. There don’t seem to be any other climate change analogy comedies on offer just now. Some climate scientists seem grateful for the movie because it mirrors what they’ve been going through for ages. I don’t expect Don’t Look Up to change any minds, but I’m glad they made it.