“Don’t Look Up” Is Cinematic Catharsis for the Climate-Concerned

Inside the funniest and most deeply un-fun film you’ll watch this holiday

By Katie O'Reilly

December 23, 2021


Photos courtesy of Netflix

Let’s face it: The climate catastrophe isn’t top of mind for many people. It can seem as though hardly anyone thinks our home planet is on the brink of becoming uninhabitable. Rather, we continue to function in a largely gas-guzzling, plastic-wrapped, extractive reality that is exacerbating the climate crisis. It’s maddening.

The latest movie from Adam McKay—creator of buddy comedies Anchorman and Stepbrothers as well as more serious satires like The Big Short and Vice—isn’t ostensibly about climate change. Yet it’s a balm to climate-addled nerves. That’s because Don’t Look Up, playing in select theaters now and streaming on Netflix starting December 24, is about what it’s like to have knowledge of an impending disaster without being able to make said knowledge change anyone’s actions. It’s dystopian satire spliced with elements of sci-fi, action flick, and political thriller, lavished in heavy-handed sociopolitical commentary and wrapped in a giant metaphor. Wildly depressing and yet very, very funny.

It all starts when a low-level astrophysicist (played by climate activist Leonardo DiCaprio, who makes for a surprisingly convincing dweeb thanks to a middle-aged gut and a Midwestern accent) and his grad student (Jennifer Lawrence, made PhD-like with nose rings and bangs) detect a Mount Everest–size comet hurtling toward Earth. The scientists try to warn people. No one wants to hear it. MAGA-esque president Meryl Streep and her chief of staff/obsequious son Jonah Hill (yes, this flick’s got a galaxy’s worth of A-list stars) insist we’ll have to “sit tight and assess.”

Don't Look Up

The media turns Lawrence into a crazy-lady meme and objectifies DiCaprio as an AILF (astronomer I’d like to fuck), and the story itself drowns in a stream of celebrity-dominated 24-hour content. Hijinks ensue when the comet becomes politicized into wild conspiracy theories—depending on your preferred corner of the internet, the crisis is either creating jobs or was invented by Jewish billionaires hellbent on confiscating our liberty (#dontbescared). Those who believe the astronomers are accused of being susceptible to “near-miss hysteria.” Ideologically motivated science denial runs rampant. The title itself is a denier’s phrase—I suppose a more explicit version of this movie would’ve been called The Expensive Chinese Hoax. The absurdity of the situation surrounding the climate catastrophe, for once, is foregrounded.

It’s dystopian satire spliced with elements of sci-fi, action flick, and political thriller, lavished in heavy-handed sociopolitical commentary and wrapped in a giant metaphor. Wildly depressing and yet very, very funny.

Part of the beauty of Don’t Look Up is that there’s nothing didactic or educational about it. My initial worry was that the conceit might not be explicit enough to be properly processed by those not immersed in climate news. But people are naturally resistant to messages they don’t want to hear, and climate change makes for one hell of a notoriously overcomplicated, incohesive villain—what with its conflicting-seeming data and projections spanning lifetimes. It’s hard to make audiences emotionally connect to a gradual rise in global temperatures. Plus, attempts to make the climate funny almost never work. (What is funny, though? Watching DiCaprio scream “We’re all going to die!” on a Sesame Street–type children’s show.)

A big part of this movie’s brilliance lies in its indirect metaphor—a giant comet that no one on Earth, no matter how rich or mobile, can avoid. The Earth-destroying threat will arrive in six months. The comet becomes a wonderful vehicle for maligning the toxic political economy and mediascape that prevails today. In the world of Don’t Look Up—an only slightly more farcical version of the sphere we occupy—anyone who hopes to be listened to has to be media-friendly, bad news must be made light and digestible, and hard truths are immediately levied as ammunition for the partisan culture wars.

What I found most effective—and, in the wake of Joe Manchin’s attempt to torpedo Build Back Better, cathartic—was McKay’s deft demonstration of how solutions to problems get deferred in favor of corporate profits. Enter Don’t Look Up’s true villain—a Musk/Branson mashup of a technocrat billionaire (played by Mark Rylance). A huge donor to the scandal-mired president, he’s able to dismiss government plans to launch missiles at the comet and instead push a private-sector effort to send a fleet of space drones that will “mine the comet for rare minerals and return them to Earth,” claiming that doing so will put an end to world hunger, nuclear threats, and somehow, biodiversity loss. (Yes, he and his wealthy investors stand to profit greatly from this risky venture.) Could this be a stand-in for carbon-capture, geoengineering, and other glittery techno-fixes that stand to get rich guys richer? And without spoiling the ending, this film’s got spot-on allegories to climate bunkers and “Planet B” too.

The movie does not offer solutions to anything it highlights. Rather, it ultimately lands like an extended riff on Chicken Little that attempts to show perhaps too many ways in which we as a species are hopelessly myopic when it comes to our capacity for collective action. Don’t Look Up is a different kind of disaster movie—the threat that’s really being highlighted isn’t something still to come, but rather the state of affairs as they now stand.

The film is successful in that it absolutely nails the hopeless, nihilistic feeling of consuming media in the Age of Relentless Disaster. But I also worry that the note on which it ends is even less motivating. But at least there were laughs. Big, vindicating ones.