2022 is already feeling as stressful as the worst stretches of 2021 – and without the prospect of a fresh start with a new administration.

Newscasters report that COVID-19 cases are arising at three times the rate posted during the peak of last summer’s wave. And on TV, phone, and computer screens, first-anniversary autopsies of the Jan. 6th attack on the Capitol are repeatedly streaming videos of angry Trump supporters breaking windows and battering security officers.

Everyone needs a break, some comic relief.

Don’t Look Up, the new star-studded comedy directed by Adam McKay and now the most watched film on Netflix, seems the perfect remedy. It’s even billed as a climate film. Should YCC readers see it?

That depends – on their solar plexuses.  

The film has been widely promoted as a kick-in-the-pants send-up of American inaction on climate change. But what the two-plus hour film actually delivers is a kick-in-the-stomach depiction of America’s narcissistic (social) media and its dysfunctional politics. Like this critic, some viewers may finish the film feeling even more pessimistic about the prospects for real action on climate change. But they may also realize something important in the process.   

Mismatch between climate change and human psychology

Communicators have long struggled to resolve the mismatch between climate change and the human psyche. Because humans evolved a nervous system that responds effectively to acute threats, the seemingly distant, chronic, and wickedly complex problem of climate change does not readily prompt concern.

In their responses to this challenge, previous filmmakers have transformed the chronic-but-ignored problem of climate change into an unavoidably acute threat. In The Day After Tomorrow, for example, Earth falls into a new ice age in a matter of days. Other movies presume that a cataclysmic transformation had already occurred; in these plots humans encounter imminent threats daily, living on an Earth flooded, desiccated, or frozen by climate change.

The purpose in depicting these bleak futures, one infers, is to persuade humans to choose another path. Yet filmmakers themselves seem unable to imagine such paths.

In Don’t Look Up, writer and director Adam McKay takes a very different approach. Instead of trying to get humans to care about climate change by finding yet another way to transform it into an acute problem, he starts with an authentically acute problem, a comet barreling straight toward Earth, and then imagines how the world, in particular Americans, might ignore even that. “How absurd it is to ignore climate change?” the film seems to ask. As absurd as ignoring a planet-killing comet.

The plot of Don’t Look Up

McKay’s story begins with a PhD student in astrophysics, Kate Dibiasky (played by Jennifer Lawrence). She discovers that a comet has been knocked loose from the Oort Cloud at the edge of the solar system and is now headed toward the sun. And straight toward Earth, her faculty adviser, Randall Mindy (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), quickly determines. Humanity faces a planet-killing, civilization-ending threat. They alert “the authorities.” Answering their call is Teddy Oglethorpe (played by Rob Morgan), director of the U.S. Planetary Defense Coordination Office. (That is the real name of the office, the filmmakers inform us through an overlaid comment.)

Then follow a flight in an otherwise empty military transport, dismissive meetings with the president (played by Meryl Streep) and her chief-of-staff son (Jonah Hill), and demeaning interviews with media (catty local TV hosts played by Cate Blanchet and Tyler Perry). Prospects brighten briefly when circumstances force the president to promise heroic action, but that promise is broken when the president’s “platinum level contributor,” tech/media trillionaire Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance) learns the comet is loaded with highly valuable metals.

All the while the threat draws closer, so close it can now be seen with the naked eye. The scientists and their allies start a social media campaign, “Just Look Up,” to promote immediate action to divert the comet away from Earth.

In response, the president and Isherwell, who has a plan to break up the asteroid into smaller and less destructive pieces that might be mined after entry, lead a conte-campaign, “Don’t Look Up.”

“Do you know why they want you to look up?” Streep’s President Orlean shouts at a rally. “Because they want you to be afraid. They want you to look up because they are looking down their noses at you. They think they’re better than you.”

It is in these moments that the real global threat becomes visible: the surreal toxicity of American politics, especially on the right. The “Don’t Look Up” chants in the film eerily echo the anti-mask and anti-vax chants of Donald Trump’s post-presidential rallies.

And they divide the family of Kate Dibiasky, the discoverer of the comet and now a “Just Look Up” influencer. When she tries to reconnect with her parents, they bar the door: “No more politics. Your father and I support the jobs the comet will create.”

Screaming truth to power(?): Meme-able? Or memorable?

Even in this poignant moment, however, the performances of the cast, who can collectively claim more than a dozen Academy Awards and/or nominations, are often more meme-able than memorable.

Leonard DiCaprio portrays astrophysicist Randall Mindy as an anxiety-ridden, pill-popping, mantra-murmuring neurotic. But when he is seduced, literally and figuratively, by powerful people misdirecting the response to the potentially planet-killing comet, his symptoms disappear. Corruption heals?

When the characters speak truth to power – or at least to studio audiences – they deliver it in full-tilt rants, with voices, blood-pressures, and swearing rising to a pitch. In his profile in Vanity Fair, Adam McKay acknowledged that DiCaprio had repeatedly pressed him to add an “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” jeremiad to the script, patterned after the classic rant scene from the movie Network.

But in Network, that manic expression of rage by a news anchor who has suffered a mental breakdown is immediately coopted by the marketing executive who now runs the news division. She re-labels the anchor a commentator and then uses his nightly rants to drive up ratings and increase advertising revenues. In their homage to Network, DiCaprio and McKay seem to miss its satirical point. Or perhaps they just want to have their parody and yet profit, too – by pushing the same psychological buttons they’re ostensibly warning their viewers about.

Watching satire in surreal times

It is during the last third of Don’t Look Up – with its Network-style rants, its concert raves, and its Trumpian rallies – that viewers may start to feel a disconnect between the buttons being pushed on the screen and what they’re feeling.

After six years of Trump’s norm-busting behavior, after two years of social distancing under COVID, and a year of witnessing delusional denials of the 2020 election results, including the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, the wiring and voltage of Americans’ psycho-political buttons have been altered.

Much of what the new film offers as over-the-top parody, Americans now see regularly on the news or in their social media feeds. Seeing it writ large on the screen, however, reminds viewers that the kind of politics they’ve come to accept as the norm is, in fact, dysfunctional and dangerous. Further degradations of American politics could make it impossible to act in a sustained and meaningful way on any problem whatsoever, not just climate change.

Comets and asteroids may actually be an exception to this rule. Dramatic impacts are possible but extremely rare. Truly dangerous comets are quite large and thus easier to detect and, when engaged at the greater distances early detection affords, deflect.

Just two weeks before Don’t Look Up began its limited theatrical run, the U.S. Planetary Defense Coordination Office supervised the launch of the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (or DART) mission. The spacecraft has been aimed at a pair of asteroids for the purpose of testing whether their orbit could be changed by a precisely timed impact. Aware that planet-killing comets and asteroids are real, Americans are already testing real ways to avert the risk.

Dealing with climate change, by contrast, is a much longer, slower, broader, and costlier process.

The next 10 months will be critical in determining the intensity and tenure of climate action in the United States and, as a consequence, across the world. This is not much more time than humans were allotted after Kate Dibiasky discovered her comet. Can the buzz now surrounding the new filmbe redirected toward that effort? Perhaps.

It’s just not clear to this reviewer how Don’t Look Up, which vividly portrays Americans not solving a comparatively simple problem, will help Americans solve the truly wicked problem of climate change. But maybe that process can start by adjusting the lenses through which they view politics.

Michael Svoboda

Michael Svoboda, Ph.D., is a professor in the University Writing Program at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he has taught since 2005. Before completing his interdisciplinary...