“Everyone, deep in their hearts, is waiting for the end of the world to come.”
—Haruki Murakami, 1Q84
“We are obsessed with cosmic catastrophes: the whole life on earth disintegrating, because of some virus, because of an asteroid hitting the earth, and so on. So the paradox is, that it’s much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth than a much more modest radical change in capitalism.”
—Slavoj Žižek, Mapping Ideology
In one of the more piercing scenes in Fantasia (1940), Disney’s feature-length experimental symphonic film, starved dinosaurs crawl across the landscape, buffeted by sand and dust. There is no more vegetation, and the sun hangs in a darkened sky. The harrowing scene is set to Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” a piece that depicts the sacrificial rituals of a pastoral Russia where girls would dance to their deaths to celebrate the arrival of spring. The mass die-off of the dinosaurs takes place in a hazy, desertified world. Their deaths and suffering marked the end of one epoch and the beginning of another, one ruled by drought and volcanism. This was the prevailing theory concerning the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event during Disney’s heyday.
The earliest disaster films can be traced back to the beginning of film as a medium, though their scale would stretch from intimidating house fires to earthquakes and floods. In 1980, the paper “The Asteroid and the Dinosaur” brought forth a new theory about Earth’s fifth extinction event and with it a new scale for the culture of disaster films to explore. Don’t Look Up (2021) continues the legacy of world-ending flicks like Deep Impact (1998) and marries it with political satires like Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964). Director and self-proclaimed democratic socialist, Adam Mckay, uses a planet-killing comet as an allegory to humorously explore attitudes in American politics and media toward impending climate doom and our shared impotence in saving the world.
The film follows two astronomers, PhD candidate Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) and her supervisor, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo Dicaprio), who attempt, in vain, to warn humankind of a just-discovered planet-destroying comet on a collision course with Earth. Along the way they encounter largely indifferent politicians, including the opportunistic President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) and news organizations, as they frantically try to spread awareness and attempt to save the world.
The billionaire tech entrepreneur and cultist Peter Ishervell, played by Shakespearian stage actor Mark Rylance, could be considered the film’s main antagonist. Using his money and influence to stall plans to divert the comet, Ishervell proposes to mine the bolide for its estimated $32 trillion worth of rare minerals—a not so subtle jab at the nascent ‘asteroid rush’ and the celestial pipe dreams of extractive firms the world over, including in Canada. These mounting obstacles to diverting the comet cause Dibiasky and Mindy to have multiple public meltdowns until they reach the final stage of nihilistic acceptance. The world is going to end, and their warnings are falling on deaf ears.
McKay has said that the premise of the film came to him during a conversation with his friend David Sirota—a journalist and one of Bernie Sanders’ former speechwriters—in which he expressed his dismay at the media’s general failure to convey the urgency of the climate crisis. In his words, the inability of the global press to commit to treating runaway global warming as an existential dilemma felt “like a comet […] heading to Earth and it’s going to destroy us all and no one cares.” Sirota co-wrote the story with McKay.
The film is the third in McKay’s self-proclaimed what-the-eff-is-going-on trilogy. Don’t Look Up abandons the detailed essayist structure of his two previous films and instead leans heavily into allegory. The Big Short (2015), McKay’s first disaster film, remains one of the landmark movies to deal with the 2008 US subprime mortgage crisis that led to the Great Recession. In that film, McKay made accessible the dizzying details of the financial crisis through a clever mix of humour and heavy-handed montage. He used stars including Margot Robbie and Selena Gomez to explain complex economic processes alongside Nobel-winning economist Richard Thaler. This project of making the dynamics of American decay accessible and entertaining was continued with Vice (2018) which explores, with some poetic licence, the life and times of Dick Cheney and the lead-up to the US invasion of Iraq. Vice is a political disaster film that allegorizes the destruction of the most powerful vice president in American history.
While The Big Short and Vice took great pains to make their subject matter accessible, Don’t Look Up begins from a point of accessibility. The Big Short’s Oscar-winning script written by McKay and Charles Randolph begins with a quote from Tolstoy that best describes the goal of the earlier two films:
The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.
In Don’t Look Up, there is no convoluted web of financial or economic concepts to make simple, nor the need to map out neo-conservative projects or networks. Instead, the film projects a simple, if dubious, message: the root of our inaction on climate change lies with public indifference, not with systemic issues that allow inaction to gestate. This departure point is one of the film’s biggest limitations, and it puts a damper on McKay’s explicatory prowess. However, this isn’t to say that Don’t Look Up doesn’t deconstruct or unpack structural issues.
The film criticizes the short-term prerogatives and obsessions of American media. McKay’s fictional stand-ins for The New York Times and MSNBC are unable to apply any sort of pressure to alter the fate of the planet or build awareness about its impending demise, but this isn’t tied to a lack of intelligence or wit. Morning show host Brie Evantee (Cate Blanchette) is shown to be underplaying her smarts for television. Slowly, Dr. Mindy falls into the gyre of the 24-hour media cycle and its degenerative qualities, represented by his affair with Blanchette’s character.
The film also offers an entertaining critique of the cultish nature of today’s richest tech moguls. Ishervell’s character represents one of the film’s stronger elements. Rylance’s performance blends the vocal timbre of Jordan Peterson with the cold and calculating ego of tech billionaires like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk. His character is a memorable amalgamation that highlights the personas of contemporary tech figures, revealing them to be much more like Heaven’s Gate leader Marshall Applewhite and less like the savant, Ivy league liberators they’re often portrayed to be in the mainstream media.
President Orlean reflects elements of both Democratic and Republican politicians. Her public denial of the comet mirrors Trump’s initial intransigence towards the COVID-19 pandemic and his dismissal of global warming generally. Orlean’s titular rallying cry, “don’t look up,” is exemplary of the denialism that is the film’s main antagonistic force.
To McKay and Sirota, the main drivers of climate denial can be traced to a toxic media culture and its engendering of paralysis and apathy. They are concerned with impediments to mobilization efforts rather than organizational ones. This focus on the response of mass media to the Anthropocene lends itself to the film’s myopia and helps to explain the main wedge between opinions of the film.
The Big Short was based on the book of the same name by financial reporter Michael Brooks. By comparison, McKay had less source material to utilize for Don’t Look Up, and the film suffers for it, as it relies too heavily on McKay’s imagination. It’s also hampered by his ideological limitations, the underpinnings of which are unable to explain our current crises nor imagine alternatives.
Despite these shortcomings, McKay’s film is far from irredeemable. Disaster films are, as Kate Knibbs writes, “communal experiences,” and Don’t Look Up has demonstrated this through its record-setting streaming numbers.
At best, the film is an emotional salve for those activists and climate scientists experiencing frustration at government inaction on climate change. For others who are already familiar with this inglorious trend, McKay preaches to the choir without offering any viable road to salvation. Though it is said the function of satire is not to offer solutions, I’m doubtful McKay is able to see any from the vantage point of his 70-acre estate.
Kalden Dhatsenpa is a Tibetan writer and artist based in Tio‘tià:ke, or Mooniyang, or Montréal, and a member of the Canadian Dimension editorial board. He is the national anti-oppression coordinator for Courage, host of the film podcast Cheapy Tuesdays, and a former federal candidate for the NDP in Longueuil—Charles-Lemoyne.