Don’t Look Up’s Strained Metaphor Crashes and Burns

(Image: Don’t Look Up, 2021)

The new tragicomedy Don’t Look Up is of two minds as to what it’s trying to do. On one hand, director Adam McKay has said in interviews that the film is a serious attempt to raise the alarm about the dangers of climate change and the media’s failure to properly cover it. On the other, it’s a satirical comedy intended to make audiences laugh. Unlike other films trying to draw attention to the climate, like Al Gore’s 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth, McKay chooses not to make his point directly. Instead, he creates a wobbly allegory of a near-future world where the threat of climate change is symbolized by a deadly comet the size of Mount Everest that’s streaking towards Earth. A cabal in the government and big business, instead of acting in the best interest of humanity, put everything and everyone at risk with their greed and shortsightedness. The only people left to save the world are a small group of scientists and friends made up of Hollywood stars that includes Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence.

            If you think this sounds like an unusual premise for a Hollywood blockbuster, you’d be right. Unfortunately for Don’t Look Up, the film’s unresolved identity crisis about whether it is farce or political agitprop results in a cinematic disaster that ultimately fails to be either entertaining or galvanizing. While the film has some funny moments–thanks in no small part to its supremely talented cast–and occasionally manages to communicate the frustration many feel about inaction in the face of climate change, in the end it collapses under the weight of its own ambition. Even those disposed to care about climate change can find themselves turned off by its brusque moralizing.

            Speaking of his and writer David Sirota’s motivation in making the film, McKay said, “We’re both incredibly frustrated with the lack of coverage of the climate crisis. You know, it’s usually the fourth or fifth story. It’s never the right tone, which should be much more urgent. And we were just frustrated. And I was trying to think of a way to kind of tell the story.”

It’s not hard to detect that frustration in the script, particularly in the scenes where DiCaprio and Lawrence’s scientist characters massively lose their cool on national television while trying to get people to take the threat posed by the comet seriously. Yet, since we all know they’re really talking about climate change, these tirades have the effect of taking you out of the story and reminding you that you shouldn’t be laughing but instead very, very worried, an effect which tends to backfire in a supposed comedy. There’s only so many times that a film can hit its audience with the same dire message in the same blunt way without boring or annoying them. While a number of climate scientists have apparently found the film cathartic–possibly for these very scenes–to this non-scientist, they felt less like entertainment and more like getting hectored by a stranger on a street corner.

            Even the power of Don’t Look Up’s argument is hampered by the conceptual errors at the heart of its allegory. The film collapses a massively complicated scientific and social phenomenon into a stark black-and-white morality play that pits truth and science against a corrupt privileged class. Not identified with any party, Meryl Streep’s President Orleans is a figure reminiscent of Idiocracy’s Dwayne Camacho but meaner and smarter. She has no real political opposition, follows the orders of a billionaire tech CEO, and acts with the support of craven media outlets. The failure to deal with climate change, the film seems to say, lies with politicians writ large. This misleadingly erases the real-world differences between politicians who accept the reality of climate change and try to do something and those who cynically deny and obfuscate the issue for their own gain.

            The film fails in other ways, such as when it contradicts itself by condemning the populist President Orleans while simultaneously making use of populist tropes, like portraying a self-serving monolithic elite that’s betrayed humanity (one could say “the people” here with the same effect). Adding to the confusion, there’s a scene in a bar where a crowd starts a riot after learning the truth behind the government’s misinformation campaign. The lesson there appears to be that regular people can’t handle the truth about important issues–a viewpoint which cuts against the film’s main argument, being as it is an old standby of elites throughout history.

            Despite receiving mixed reviews, Don’t Look Up appears to be a something of a hit, having recently broken Netflix’s record for attracting the most viewing hours for a movie in a single week. That might be a victory for McKay and Netflix from a box office perspective, but there’s no way of knowing if the film isn’t just singing to the choir while being ignored by those predisposed to reject its message. There’s an old saying that for someone with a hammer, every problem tends to look like a nail. But it’s highly questionable whether satirical comedies will do much to get us out of our climate predicament, especially when they’re as flawed as Don’t Look Up.

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