I watched Don’t Look Up on Netflix recently. It’s taken me a while to digest the movie and I’ve been struggling to put my thoughts into words. I still don’t know whether it’s all well-formed in my mind, but I do know that I would regret waiting any longer and remaining silent. After all, the climate is one of the things I spend the most time thinking about, and certainly one that I’m the most vocal about online. Honestly, I just don’t want to look back later and see that I failed to underline what is happening.
There are already plenty of good reactions out there for you to read, so I don’t intend to bore you with my take on the movie itself. If you’re curious how serious climate activists feel who have been begging the world to do something for 40 and more years, George Monbiot’s piece in The Guardian is a good place to start.
What I would like to do instead is take a step back and consider whether a movie about a civilization-ending catastrophe is supposed to be good in the first place.
The fact that critics don’t like the movie is completely irrelevant. Some things are just not meant to be evaluated and ranked. This isn’t meant to be a great film in the artistic sense. Criticizing its artistic value is like criticizing a real life event. Of course the characters’ reactions don’t make sense. Of course the plot is incredibly frustrating. That’s the whole point. Because what it portrays is what we are doing right now in real life. As the climate crisis becomes ever more dire every week, what gets media focus doesn’t make sense, and the people trying to raise the alarm feel incredible frustration.
Don’t Look Up is holding up a mirror and asking us to take a good long look at ourselves. If you have any doubt about that, the very fact that we are criticizing the movie is itself a meta reflection of the satire portrayed in the film.
Don’t shoot the messenger, the saying goes. In this case, it would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic that we are debating the artistic value of the messenger, instead of debating what to do about the message itself.
That mirror the movie is holding? Guess what, you’re not going to like what you see in it. Yes, many times while watching I felt like grabbing the closest object—the remote, the dog, the Christmas tree—and throwing it at the TV. It made me sweat, it made my heart race, it made me want to scream. And in that sense, Jennifer Lawrence’s character made perfect sense to me. If you care at all about what we’re doing to the Earth, this isn’t a comfortable movie to watch. You’re not supposed to enjoy watching it. If you do, you don’t get it and we sincerely hope a light goes on in your head. Because a sensible reaction would be to ask yourself questions. A good start is something along the lines of “what the fuck are we doing? What is wrong with us?!”
Questions. There are lots of them. I found myself wondering about the movie’s effectiveness. Is this the right movie for right now? If the goal is to wake people up—at the very least the oblivious people who are just cruising along while our way of life destroys the very air, water and soil we depend on—does it succeed at doing that?
The plot is definitely Americanized, the rest of the world being mentioned in passing with a lot of hand waving. Of course, considering the unprecedented craziness and navel-gazing we have witnessed coming out of the United States over the last 5 years, it’s arguably fair and well-deserved. But in this age of siloed Facebook nonsense, how many polarized people will actually be touched by such an angle? How many people will choose to sit through an anxiety-inducing watching experience, except those who are already sold to the magnitude of the problem?
I hope it’s more people than I think. Climate activism is very much about grinding away at the problem, in the same way that wind and water very gradually erode hard rock. Gaining traction is a slow process. Today we are nowhere near where we want to be in terms of mass awareness and societal action, but there has been constant progress nonetheless. If you had told me 10 years ago that the climate crisis would now be mainstream news instead of the purview of tree huggers and niche groups, I would not have believed you. Yet here we are considering a Hollywood movie on the matter.
So in that sense, yes, definitely, every single little bit that chips away at the problem is welcome. It’s not one single thing that will trigger the wave of awareness and willingness to act that we need, it’s a lot of small repeated ones. And if Don’t Look Up contributes to that, then it’s A Good Thing.
I have wondered whether the movie is accurate in its portrayal. I don’t know that “accurate” is even the right word here, but let’s run with it. Is Don’t Look Up accurate enough? Does it show us the true science? Are the shallow TV hosts and narcissistic politicians too over-the-top? Some people, critics certainly, if not people in the media, think that Don’t Look Up is at worse an exaggeration, at best a satire of our reality. And sometimes I agree. But then, I don’t.
You only need to read the reactions of a few professional scientists and life-long activists to know that, for some of us at least, this is all too real and dire. These folks are worth listening to. Just like other great people in the past whose convictions brought change we now consider obvious.
An angle I didn’t see coming, in the movie, is the fact that technology is pitted against science. Tech is described as the “big guys” and scientists are considered amateurs. It’s a revealing angle that underscores how, overall, we don’t really—or not completely—value science. It’s the nerd we all knew at school. It’s the mad scientist who plots to take over the world in our stories. It’s never glorified. That is reserved for the likes of Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, our tech lords. But tech would not exist without science. Tech is only how science manifests itself in our daily life. And too many people don’t know that.
The treatment that the scientific method gets in the movie is especially frustrating. The scientific method is absolutely vital and central to everything that science represents, the very least as a tool for continually refining and polishing ideas. So the fact that the layperson doesn’t know about it, as mirrored in the movie, points to an important lack in our communication of what science is and how it benefits us. Maybe it’s time to realize that science is not the enemy.
In retrospect, I was reminded of Tomorrowland, the movie. At the end, David Nix from the future reveals that they tried to warn people of what was coming. But the people gobbled up the apocalypse with a large bowl of popcorn, and asked for more. That is an effective criticism of our love of catastrophe stories, but few people paid attention to that message.
Is Don’t Look Up a good movie then? No, not in that sense. But is it what we need? Is that how far gone we are? Well, maybe it is.