'Don't Look Up' Is a Disaster. Naturally.
Adam McKay's climate change movie fails to understand the problem of climate change
Adam McKay made his name directing some of the funniest movies of the 2000s, yet he always aspired to something greater. Beginning with 2015’s The Big Short, McKay has detoured into explicit agitprop, a development severely limited by his inability to write convincing dialogue or frame two people in the same shot. Still, he has been rewarded with box office success, multiple Oscar nominations, and now, with Don’t Look Up, a $75 million Netflix budget — approximately $55 million of which apparently went to its two stars.
The story, which McKay conceived with political consultant David Sirota, follows astronomers Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, who discover that a comet will soon crash directly into earth, killing everything on impact. In what McKay intended as a mad-cap satire of politics and the media, the scientists struggle to get the word out, confronting self-interested politicians and self-involved daytime talk show hosts, and are eventually undone by a Trump-ish president (Meryl Streep) and the corporate greed of a fey tech CEO (Mark Rylance, in the worst performance of his career). In the end, America splinters into opposing camps, and the comet annihilates humanity.
McKay and Sirota conceived Don’t Look Up as a satire of the public and political non-response to global warming. Even with humanity’s destruction assured, the pair conclude, we still won’t do anything about it. They clearly believe their film to be in the lineage of Dr. Strangelove or Network — movies that mix pitch-black satire with pained insight into the corrupting nature of power and influence — but it feels more like one of those fake movies shown in Team America World Police. The plot crawls, the performances fall flat, and Lawrence steps on every single joke in the film. McKay mimics a variety of media formats, from vapid daytime talk shows to bombastic stump speeches to tweets and TikToks, but he has no grasp of the inherent grammar of any particular form, leaving these scenes just as incoherently staged and assembled as the rest of the film. Like fellow comedy refugee Todd Philips, he frequently mistakes the sentimental for the significant.
Worse still are McKay’s “artistic” touches, from his constant use of shallow-focus hand-held camera work to the stock-footage collages that periodically make the movie look like a credit-card commercial — though at least commercial directors know how to keep an actor’s face in focus while they’re talking. He bombards you with montage after montage to keep you from asking basic questions like “how much time is passing” and “who are any of these people” and “why is this movie so long” and “why am I still watching this?”
So too does the plot keep barreling along, assembling any number of new developments, no matter how incoherently they fit together. Streep’s president agrees to fire off nuclear weapons to deflect the comet and save herself in the midterms, only to change course when Rylance’s CEO proposes that they mine it for cell-phone parts. When the comet finally appears in the sky, activists begin a Just Look Up movement, which Streep flips into her own series of popular Don’t Look Up rallies. After briefly playing ball with the establishment, DiCaprio returns to the activists, and along with Lawrence helps to lead a world-wide advocacy movement for someone, anyone with power to do something about the comet.
Late in the film, they speak out at a massive Live Aid-style concert, and then are shooed off the stage when Ariana Grande’s Ariana Grande-ish pop star performs an essentially incomprehensible song about how “we're all going to die” because we didn't “listen to the scientists” while we had a chance .
Watching this scene in the bowels of a Financial District Alamo Drafthouse, I didn’t feel rage, or despair, or righteousness, or any of the other emotions McKay hopes to draw out of his viewers, just dejection. McKay was given a gigantic budget to speak on the most pressing, terrifying, transformative global catastrophe of the modern era, and this is what he used it to say?
The slow-rolling, ever-intensifying cataclysm of global warming will hit different parts of the globe at different times, creating spirals of misery that will fundamentally change how we all live on this planet, and then will fundamentally change them again, and again, provided real, concrete action is not taken, and taken again and again. In making the source of humanity’s destruction the single, inevitable moment of a comet striking earth Don’t Look Up ostensibly ups the satire — what if we knew we were all going to die, but refused to do anything about it? — while completely failing as metaphor. The film’s crisis can only be solved by a tiny handful of elites whom the rest of us can at best petition on TV, or onstage, or alone, on the internet. And it transforms the underlying conflict from one of action into another of simple belief: do you listen to scientists, or don’t you?
Perhaps even more than its incompetence, I was offended by the film’s essential naiveté. If only people would Just Look Up, they would see the catastrophe approaching them. But the reality is that many of those people at whom Don’t Look Up is targeted both believe the scientists and believe that they shouldn’t really have to do anything about it. A series of convenient excuses — the world is already on fire, 50 corporations produce most emissions, a single space flight releases more emissions than a billion people will produce in their entire lives — provide even ostensibly concerned citizens with a self-exculpatory mechanism for changing nothing about their consumption habits, their carbon footprint, indeed anything about their lives at all.
As it barrels towards the conclusion, Don’t Look Up reveals itself to be completely disinterested in any question beyond who is most responsible.
I don’t think that we should reject systems thinking for a model of individual responsibility. But it must be said that, in order to prevent a truly catastrophic degree of global warming, quite a lot will have to change about the lives of those in the richest countries who produce the vast majority of the world’s carbon emissions. Carbon-driven modernity has made life in our countries almost impossibly comfortable, and has elevated consumption to a level of ease simply unimaginable in the past. We have been both literally and figuratively enriched by the carbon regime, and I will have to give up many of those riches in order to ensure that others around the world will live in less misery over the years to come. Our lives need to change, and we will almost certainly experience that change as a reduction. Yet this will be nothing approaching the sacrifice others will be forced to make if we refuse to be inconvenienced for their sake.
In truth, those sacrifices are already being forced on others everywhere in the world. This summer, the Pakistani city of Jacobabad experienced prolonged wet-bulb temperatures of 35 degrees Celsius, above which the human body ceases to cool and death arrives within hours. As David Wallace-Wells notes in The Uninhabitable Earth, at current levels of warning much of the Middle East will experience temperatures at or above this level by the middle of the century, which will render much of the region literally uninhabitable for parts of the year.
Where will they go? To those parts of the world less ravaged by catastrophe. Which means the question becomes: Will we accept them? Just as carbon reduction has challenged the traditional nation-state model, climate migration is already requiring a massive reconsideration of borders and citizenship and what rights belong to stateless people who cannot return to the places of their birth, because those places no longer exist, or cannot sustain human life. We know the fascist position; what is ours?
This is just one of the many issues, at once moral, ethical, and political, which climate change is raising as it intensifies across the planet. As it barrels towards the conclusion, Don’t Look Up reveals itself to be completely disinterested in any question beyond who is most responsible. When Rylance’s plan fails and the comet can no longer be halted, people riot, fuck on rooftops, race off to see their loved ones. DiCaprio returns to his family in Michigan, turns off the news, and hosts a final dinner. “We really had it all, didn’t we?” he asks, and then the world is obliterated.
There is perhaps something comforting in the idea that humanity will be obliterated all at once. That experience seems almost comfortingly communal, while our future will fracture us into different classes, suffering different sorts of pain. The film’s ostensible death-drive cynicism is deeply naïve, retreating into familiar tropes rather than questioning how an encounter with destruction might fundamentally re-order how people see themselves and their own lives. How might we broaden citizenship and rights, how can we extend a notion of family beyond the nuclear, can we create a notion of politics that demands both a measure of personal responsibility and continuous collective action? If art is to address the pre-eminent crisis of our age, then it must take up these questions, rather than jamming them into the same tired satirical molds. Don’t Look Up can’t think of anything more original than that the world is on fire and we’re all going to die. Didn’t need to look that one up.
Robert Rubsam writes fiction and criticism.