DON’T LOOK UP (2021, Directed by Adam McKay)

M. Keith Booker, University of Arkansas

Much recent intellectual discourse has involved, in one way or another, the notion of the “hyperobject.” As originally theorized by Timothy Morton, a hyperobject is something that is simply too large and complex, too extensively distributed in different directions in time and space, to locate, represent, and get a conceptual grip on. Much of Morton’s work is environmentalist in its orientation, and for him the ultimate hyperobject is the climate in general and climate change in particular. The difficulty that contemporary culture has had in coming up with compelling treatments of climate change would seem to bear out Morton’s notion of climate change as a hyperobject. It seems entirely appropriate, then, that the highest-profile recent work to attempt to deal with climate change, Adam McKay’s Netflix film Don’t Look Now (2021), was co-produced by a company (founded by McKay) known as “Hyperobject Industries.”

Don’t Look Now also illustrates the status of climate change as a hyperobject by the difficulty it has in coming up with an approach to the topic that can engage audiences in an entertaining way while also conveying to them the seriousness of the problem of climate change and the dangerousness our current lack of an appropriate response to it.  Thus, Peter Bradshaw, in an early review of the film, compliments it for taking on this important issue but suggests that it’s chosen strategy of slapstick comedy falls short of being able to use its comedy to get across the underlying seriousness of its satirical point. For Bradshaw, the film is fairly successful in addressing some of its smaller and more localized political points (such as Trumpist attempts at political division) but never quite delivers on its real mission.

Don’t Look Up did, at least, attract a large audience—one of the largest in the entire history of Netflix, even if many observers found that its sometimes silly comic tone was problematic given the monumental seriousness of its subject matter. It also features one of the most impressive A-list casts every assembled in a single film (which was no doubt part of the reason why it attracted such a large viewership), even though almost all of the film’s stars are probably miscast, except for perhaps Ariana Grande and Scott Mescudi (aka Kid Cudi), who play a ditzy pop star and her wayward rap star boyfriend. Ultimately, though, Don’t Look Up is very much a “message” film that focuses (though obliquely) on the climate crisis, while conducting a satirical critique of what so far have been woefully inadequate efforts to deal with that crisis. Any assessment of this film, then, must address, not only its success as comic entertainment, but also its success in delivering this message—and in perhaps inspiring its viewers to take action to confront the problems it identifies.

Don’t Look Up garnered a significant amount of positive critical attention, including Oscar nominations for Best Achievement in Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Original Screenplay, and even Best Motion Picture. Its most positive critical responses, however, probably came from critics who were sympathetic to its message. One of its most enthusiastic reviews, for example, came from the left-leaning Jacobin website, whose reviewer, Branko Marcetic, saw the film’s absurdity and lack of subtlety as entirely appropriate to our contemporary political moment. Noting that the film actually shows considerable respect for ordinary people and their ability to respond appropriately to a crisis when given accurate information, Marketic argues that “it’s the country’s elites and institutions, including the media, that are the real problem in Don’t Look Up. All corrupted by money, they mislead, manipulate, and distract the rest of us from what really matters. Maybe this is why the film’s been met with surprising hostility from a lot of the mainstream press.”

Indeed, many reviewers in that mainstream press skewered the film far more than did Bradshaw. Writing for Roger Ebert.com, Nick Allen gave the film 1 ½ out of 4 stars, calling it a “disastrous movie,” rather than a disaster movie. And, noting some of McKay’s earlier successes, he concludes that this one “only dreams of being insightful about social media, technology, global warming, celebrity, and in general, human existence.” The film, Allen concludes, “shows McKay as the most out of touch he’s ever been with what is clever, or how to get his audience to care.” In a sense, such reviewers basically felt that the film simply wasn’t funny or effective as satire.

Whether Marketic is correct that this critical negativity arose from the fact that the film pushed some uncomfortable buttons is difficult to say, though the film’s Oscar nominations (which outraged some) would seem to indicate that the Hollywood establishment has been relatively supportive of the film. At the same time, this support might have raised even further the high bar that was set by McKay’s track record and the astonishing prestige cast. Indeed, it seems likely that some of the ore vigorously negative responses to the film have arisen largely because it has been compared against an impossibly high bar. After all, given its serious subject and its all-star cast, there was certainly reason to expect that the film might by a major masterpiece of politically-engaged cinematic art, which it certainly isn’t.

Don’t Look Up begins like any number of science fiction films we have seen before (the 1997 film Contact comes to mind), as the giant telescope in a research observatory makes an important discovery. In particular, Michigan State doctoral student Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence with bad hair and a nose stud, which is presumably meant to mark her as a grad student) realizes that the telescope has identified a previously unknown object in space. Her Xanax-popping professor, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonard DiCaprio, bespectacled and looking a bit disheveled, which apparently marks him as a professor), calls together his research team and verifies that Dibiasky has identified what appears to be a new comet in the sky. Unfortunately, it quickly becomes clear that this comet is headed straight for earth, with potentially catastrophic consequences, thus moving the film unto the realm of a whole family of cosmic disaster films such as Meteor (1979), Deep Impact (1998), or Armageddon (1998).

Mindy and Dibiasky.

What sets Don’t Look Up apart from the films just listed is that it does not center on heroic efforts to save the earth (though it does lampoon that motif as part of its satire) but instead focuses on a satirical (but sadly realistic) depiction of how political ambition and capitalist greed would likely hamper any such efforts given the current state of the world. As such, Don’t Look Up projects a certain sense of hopelessness, though its broad satirical tone sets it sharply apart from the brooding, existential despair (though tinged with dark comedy) of something like Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011). And, of course, what ultimately sets Don’t Look Up most strongly apart from other disaster films dealing with cosmic disasters is that it is not really about a celestial body that is on course for a cataclysmic collapse with earth but simply uses that motif as a stand-in for its real topic, which is the way our government, media, and corporations have rendered us incapable of responding effectively to any disasters when they occur. In this sense, the “real” topic of Don’t Look Up is climate change and our ongoing inaction in the face of the potentially apocalyptic destruction of human life and civilization by our own impact on earth’s natural environment. In addition, there are important secondary resonances with the Coronavirus pandemic that was still underway when the film was released, with much of the film’s satire inevitably recalling the badly botched response to that pandemic on the part of an American Trump administration that preferred simply to ignore the crisis because dealing with it might be difficult or seem pro-science and thus a bit too woke.

When Mindy and Dibiasky realize the importance of their discovery and try to bring it to the attention of the authorities, they do manage to get the attention of some government scientists. Unfortunately, Mindy is not exactly a superstar scientist (and Michigan State is not a top-level university), so they have a great deal of trouble impressing upon anyone with the power to do anything about it that the earth is likely to be destroyed in a little more than six months. In particular, President Janie Orlean (Merlyn Streep) and her Chief of Staff, a cluelessly pompous buffoon who also happens to be her son Jason (Jonah Hill), are far too concerned with poll numbers and day-to-day political concerns to listen to what they clearly regard as the irrelevant ramblings of a couple of egghead intellectuals. Indeed, when the scientists finally get an audience in the oval office, they find themselves in a Kafkaesque fog of ignorance and bureaucratic nonsense, as the openly bored Orleans, mother and son, scoff at the news, even though the astronomers are backed up by Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan), a government scientist who heads the Planetary Defense Coordination Office.

In particular, with mid-term elections only two months away, President Orlean wants to squelch any bad news that might potentially have a negative impact on her party’s chances in the elections. Her reaction to the news that the earth is almost certainly about to be destroyed is that, for now, they should just “sit tight and assess”—which means attempt to stall until after the upcoming elections. By this point in the film, it is already clear that Orlean is meant to parody the misplaced priorities of certain real-world politicians, and, as the film moves forward, it becomes increasingly clear that she is, more than anything, a Donald Trump surrogate, despite her gender and despite the fact that she seems to be a bit more conventional politician than Trump ever was. Orlean is clearly interested only in power and in furthering her own personal goals and has no real interest in governing or in serving the American people. At the same time, McKay is careful not to make Orlean too much like Trump so that he can identify a broader problem rather than blaming it all on a particular individual.

The film repeatedly suggests, in fact, that we should not expect the government to deal with even the most pressing of problems, because the government so dominated by self-serving politicians such as Orlean that it can’t deal with anything. This suggestion, though, is surely one of the weakest elements of Don’t Look Up, partly because it tends to support precisely the same anti-government rhetoric that was central to the political rise of Trump and that has been central to the attitudes of the Republican Party since the Reagan administration of the 1980s. The film thus inadvertently undermines some of its most important satirical points by adopting a position that actually aligns it with the one it means to criticize. As a result, assuming that one reads this film as mostly a comment on our response to the climate crisis, the film comes dangerously close to dismissing the government as playing the lead role in dealing with that crisis when, in point of fact, it is surely the case that only the world’s governments have either the resources or the motivation to spearhead the response to climate change.

Whether government itself is inherently dysfunctional in a general sense or not, it is clear that, in this film, both President Orlean and her son are clearly idiots, and it becomes immediately clear that they cannot be counted on to save the planet. Mindy and Dibiasky then decide to take their story to the media, where they have somewhat better luck getting the attention of certain well-meaning individuals. However, it quickly becomes clear that this is not necessarily because the media as an institution are any more devoted to saving the planet than is the Orlean administration. Instead, it quickly becomes clear that, while a few individual journalists might be legitimately concerned, most of the members of the media—and certainly the ones with the largest audiences—are simply interested in getting a sensational story that might help them to make their audiences even larger.

It doesn’t help, of course, that Mindy and Dibiasky are not at all savvy and do not really know how to go about bringing their case to the public through the media. They begin their media campaign by appearing on a light news talk program called The Daily Rip, which has a large audience, but which is not exactly devoted to reporting serious news. Indeed, the show’s jocular, wise-cracking hosts, Jack Bremmer (Tyler Perry) and Brie Evantee (Cate Blanchett), are both walking embodiments of the recent tendency to try to convert news into entertainment. Their show is less concerned with delivering news than in providing distractions from it by making their audience feel good about the trivial bits of information that they actually deliver. Their shockingly wrongheaded response to the apocalyptic news delivered by the two scientists causes Dibiasky to lose her temper on the air, which leads her quickly to become the object of widespread misogynist memefication mocking her emotionalism as a potential sign of insanity. Mindy, on the other hand, keeps his cool when perhaps he shouldn’t and tries to cover up the awkwardness with a wisecrack. As a result, he becomes something of a media darling.

Another weakness of the film is its assumption that a scientist such as Mindy would surely be too naïve about the ways of the real world to deal with this situation. Indeed, he is quickly seduced by all the sudden attention—both literally, when he begins an affair with the soulless Evantee, and figuratively, when he begins to appear widely in the media as a “sexy scientist.” Mindy thus becomes a walking commentary on the seductiveness of celebrity in our media-dominated culture, almost completely forgetting that he already has a perfectly happy marriage to his long-term wife June (played very effectively by Melanie Lynskey, who is nevertheless nearly wasted in a very small role).

The film also misses an opportunity by depicting Dibiasky as unable to deal with the situation, largely because she is, well, young and female and thus too emotional. The lure of fame also ruins her personal life as her boyfriend, an on-line journalist, turns his back on their relationship in order to cash in on her anti-fame by publishing sensational tell-all articles about what a wacko she is. This event, on top of everything else, leads Dibiasky essentially to clock out and to give up on the project of saving the planet. Mindy, meanwhile, also virtually forgets the urgency of the matter of the comet, selling out and starting to appear in commercials for the soulless BASH Cellular, a vast tech firm that reads something like a combination of Tesla and Apple, with an even more ruthless devotion to profit-making. BASH’s billionaire founder and CEO Sir Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance, in perhaps the film’s most effective performance), is widely regarded as a genius, which at least sets him apart from the stupidity of the government officials and television jouranlists that we have seen in the film. And big tech firms like BASH, of course, might be expected to provide some sort of leadership in this crisis, given the complete incompetence of the government response. Unfortunately, Ishwerwell (who combines the offbeat quirkiness of an Elon Musk with the showmanship of a Steve Jobs), seems completely disengaged from all reality except for the reality of his corporate bottom line, which renders him just as unable as Orlean to provide leadership.

BASH is, in fact, the object of considerable criticism in the film, some of which goes beyond the actual circumstances of the comet threat. For example, the film briefly gestures toward a critique of the attempts of BASH to gather inappropriate amounts of data about unsuspecting individuals and to intercede in the lives of their individual customers in all sorts of inappropriate ways, among other things encouraging them to turn to BASH apps on their phones for companionship and friendship and to turn away from a reliance on other people for such things. BASH, via data collected from cell phones, knows so much about most individuals that their algorithms can predict how each individual will eventually die. It is not clear, however, how accurate these predictions might be, given that the capability has not been around long enough to find out for most people. For example, the prediction that President Orlean will die from being eaten by a Bronteroc doesn’t really make sense to anyone and doesn’t seem to concern Orlean at all.

The film’s critique of the invasion of privacy by cell phone and other tech companies addresses an important issue, but it is not the issue that this film is about. This critique is, in fact, tossed in almost as an afterthought and is not particularly effective—even though it does ultimately provide the film with what might be its funniest joke. Indeed, the final joke aside, this aspect of the film’s satire (which is carried out much more effectively in the 2014 film Ex Machina) is a potential distraction from the film’s main point, indicating the way in which this film in general might lose a bit of satirical power by spreading its critique too broadly and trying to take aim at too many different targets at once. The attempt to cover so much ground also partly accounts for the film’s extra-long runtime, which has also come in for criticism from those who felt that a shorter film might have delivered its message more pointedly.

BASH is, however, also central to what is, in fact, the real focus of the film’s satire. Marketic rightly identifies the focus of the film, in terms of runtime, by noting that “in all its absurdity, the movie is a depressingly accurate portrayal of this specific era, from the vapid media landscape and the foibles of social media stardom to its mock political ad of a suburban mother earnestly telling the camera that ‘the jobs the comet’s gonna create sound great.’” And it is certainly the case that, in terms of screen time devoted, the focus of Don’t Look Up is on government inefficiency and malfeasance and (even more) on the toxic impact of the media in crippling, rather than supporting our ability to respond to any crisis, even one of an existential kind.

This focus on the media might perhaps simply be because it offers an opportunity for some highly entertaining comedy, though this comedy might divert attention from the real issues. After all, the problem with the media is not that media companies are somehow devoted to the destruction of humanity. The problem is that they are devoted to making as much money as possible, with little or no sense of social responsibility or even intelligence. The fundamental fact that the zealously economic motivations that drive capitalism in our neoliberal era are rendering our society dysfunctional is very difficult to convey in an amusing way. The rela hyperobject in Don’t Look Now might be capitalism itself, though it should be said that McKay’s earlier The Big Short (2015), about the 2008 banking crisis, comes as close as any Hollywood film to delivering complex economic information in an accessible and entertaining way.

A close look at Don’t Look Now shows that the film does actually suggest that our inability to deal with big problems resides in the neoliberal priorities of our contemporary capitalist society, which, ultimately, simply come down to maximizing profits for large corporations such as BASH. After all, the government and media ultimately (if unadvertently) do the right thing when a budding sex scandal causes Orlean to decide seriously to address the comet to divert media attention from her own political difficulties. As it turns out, though, the resultant U.S. government mission to destroy the comet is aborted when Isherwell informs Orleans that his people have discovered that the comet contains trillions of dollars worth of the kinds of rare minerals that are needed to manufacture the electronic devices that are the heart of BASH’s business, minerals the supply of which on earth is largely controlled by the Chinese. In a comment on the undue influence exercised on politicians by large donors, Isherwell is able to convince Orlean to allow BASH to take over the handling of the comet, via a plan to break it into smaller, less dangerous pieces that can then be mined for their valuable ores rather than simply destroyed in space.

Unfortunately, this aspect of the film is handled very quickly and superficially and in a way that does not insist on its fundamental importance. An actual examination of the plot of the film, though, shows that, while the events of the film clearly show that the media are distracting us and politicians are misleading us, it also shows that these phenomena are not ultimately the cause of the failure to stop the comet from striking the earth. There is every reason to believe, within the framework of the film, that the initial government-run mission to destroy the comet would have succeeded had it not been aborted due to the undue influence of BASH and Isherwell, who wish to preserve the comet in order to boost their corporate profits. All of the subsequent events of the film, including the destruction of all life on earth, are directly attributable to this irresponsible quest for profit.

When one considers that the “real” topic of Don’t Look Now is not a catastrophic comet strike but catastrophic climate change, then this aspect of the film becomes even more clear. The failures of the media and of the government as represented in the film correspond quite directly to the failures of the same institutions in the real world to ensure that the general population is properly informed about the facts of our impending climate crisis and to help mobilize all of the resources at our command to deal with that crisis. The events of Don’t Look Now also suggest that, while these failures certainly indicate shortcomings in these institutions, these shortcomings come about as the result of the fact that large corporations have inappropriate amounts of power that allow them to manipulate us into allowing them to destroy the planet so that they can make obscenely huge profits, propelling their CEOs and founders to unprecedented levels of wealth, while so many suffer in poverty.

Once the government mission is aborted, the ultimate destruction of the earth seems almost assured. Many people continue to deny the very existence of the comet threat—and many in power (especially Orlean and her political party, again reversing course) encourage them to do so, in a very clear gesture toward contemporary climate deniers, who continue to maintain that climate change is not a real problem, despite all evidence to the contrary. However, this is also probably the aspect of the film that most clearly refers to the secondary topic of the bungled response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which was initially crippled by government attempts to pretend that pandemic was not a real threat, a pretense that lent considerable energy to a variety of irresponsible conspiracy theories that made the difficult task of dealing with the pandemic far more difficult than it might otherwise have been.

Viruses, of course, are invisible, and climate change is extremely complex, whereas the approaching comet of the film eventually becomes visible to the naked eye, making denial of its existence pretty much impossible. It’s a big object, but not a hyperobject. (On the other hand, certain right-wing media outlets—Fox News, anyone?—continue simply to ignore the comet, hoping to maintain their ratings to the bitter end with various salacious appeals to the basest inclinations of their audience.) The film then seems to have a bit of trouble figuring out how to move into its final act as it moves rather awkwardly toward a somewhat sentimental semi-conclusion as Mindy attempts to reconcile with his wife after Evantee has fled their relationship, finding him too clingy. But then he weirdly brings Dibiaski, Oglethrope, and a Christian gamer/skateboarder (played by Timothée Chalomet) who has become Dibiaski’s new lover, of sorts home with him for a family dinner as they all await the outcome of the efforts of BASH to break the comet into manageable (and mineable) pieces. The effort predictably fails, which leaves the group at Dibiaski’s home to await sudden death, Mindy having decided to forego Orlean’s offer to join her and Ishwerwell, along with Dibiaski and his family, on an escape vessel that is programmed to take them to a new habitable planet after a long period in cryosleep. Scenes of people and animals around the world show the coming of the end, while the Dibiaskys and their guests enjoy a pleasant dinner. All life on earth seems to be distinguished almost instantaneously after the comet strikes, which is not a realistic depiction of the end, but then realism is not the point of this film. Meanwhile, certain media outlets stay on the air to the end, ignoring the extinction of life on earth in favor of covering sensationalist ratings-drivers, such as “topless urgent care centers.”

The BASH satire then finally delivers its punch line when, nearly 23,000 years later, the escape vessel finally lands on humanity’s new home. Those who survived the period in cryostasis (about 53% of the total, which is declared a big success) emerge onto the new planet totally naked and totally un-self-conscious about it, suggesting a new Edenic beginning for the human race. Indeed, the planet does look somewhat like a new Garden of Eden, covered with lush, beautiful vegetation amid which beautiful, exotic, and peaceful-looking animals appear to be grazing. Looks, however, can be deceiving, and one of the animals almost immediately attacks and begins devouring Orlean. “I believe that’s called a Bronteroc,” announces Ishwerwell as he consults his ever-present handheld electronic device. Then, the Bronterocs surround and begin to attack the entire group, perhaps bringing this collection of the privileged elite to the end they deserve—though there is no explanation of why BASH hadn’t predicted this, foreseeing only the Bronteroc death of Orlean. It’s an amusing ending, but it also perhaps again detracts from the real message of the film, which is that these elites are leading us to destruction. Once we are all dead, there will, after all, be little satisfaction to be gained from the fact that they, too, will be destroyed.

WORKS CITED

Allen, Nick. “Don’t Look Up.” RogerEbert.com, 24 December 2021, https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/dont-look-up-movie-review-2021. Accessed 19 March 2022.

Bradshaw, Peter. “Don’t Look Up Review—Slapstick Apocalypse According to DiCaprio and Lawrence.” The Guardian, 7 December 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2021/dec/08/dont-look-up-review-slapstick-apocalypse-according-to-dicaprio-and-lawrence#:~:text=Guardian%20Pick&text=Was%20looking%20forward%20to%20this,sure%2C%20but%20overall%20fairly%20enjoyable. Accessed 23 March 2022.

Marcetic, Branko. “Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up Captures the Stupidity of Our Political Era.” Jacobin,2 January 2022, https://jacobinmag.com/2022/01/adam-mckay-dont-look-up-climate-change-review. Accessed March 20, 2022.

Morton, Timothy. The Ecological Thought. Harvard University Press, 2010.

Morton, Timothy. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. University of Minnesota Press, 2013.