By Rowan Hooper
The Netflix disaster-satire film Don’t Look Up is a thinly-veiled metaphor for humanity’s haphazard efforts to tackle climate change, told through the story of a giant comet that’s on a collision course with Earth. New Scientist podcast editor Rowan Hooper reviewed Don’t Look Up with the help of Emily Atkin, who writes the climate newsletter Heated. Listen to their conversation this episode of the New Scientist Weekly podcastYou can also read the transcript below. It has been edited for clarity.
Rowan Hooper:We are grateful for Emily’s presence. So let’s set up the movie. It’s the story of two astronomers, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, who discover a comet hurtling towards Earth. And it’s a really big one, bigger even than the one that killed the dinosaurs. And it’s what they call a planet killer. What did you think of it?
Emily AtkinIt was beautiful to me. Although it is a strange word to use to describe a satirical movie about a planet-killer comet, I found it beautiful. It was strange to me. It was both cathartic, and intelligent. It was important. I’m a climate change journalist. And everybody else sitting in the movie theatre with me wasn’t an actual movie critic, and they were also laughing as much as I was. And I’m not sure if they cried the number of times that I did, but I definitely did cry two times. It was funny.
RH: Yeah, it’s a great satire. It’s unexpectedly moving, hilarious, and Jonah Hill plays the Chief Of Staff, the White House Chief Of Staff.
EA:Meryl Streep and he do such a great job as fascists. You know, they’re just so good.
RH:Meryl Streep plays this role. We’ve also got Cate Blanchett in the cast, Ariana Grande, Mark Rylance, Timothee Chalamet, an incredible cast. The comet is headed towards Earth and astronomers need to warn the rest of the world. Meryl Streep’s this fascist US president, they have to try and convince her to take it seriously. And warn a media that’s only concerned with total showbiz gossip. Did that sound familiar to Emily?
EA: [Laughs] Yeah, I’ve been describing this movie to everybody that I tell about it as extremely cathartic. It was almost like I took all my frustrations about the media, especially the last eight years of covering the climate change issue, and put them in a satire film.
RH: Also, isn’t it amazing that it’s obviously about the climate crisis. But they don’t actually mention the words climate change or climate crisis in the whole movie, do they? Or was that something I missed? But I don’t think they do.
EA:They don’t. I was watching for it all the time. And the only the only moment that I could see a mention of something that was exactly the same as climate change was, and this won’t spoil it for anybody, but it’s when there’s protestors holding signs saying don’t look up, don’t look at the comet. There are signs protesters are holding and one of the signs says “fossil fools”.
RH:Yes, I did see that.
EA: And so that’s a climate thing. In the movie, however, tech CEOs and politicians want to mine the comet’s rare earth minerals.
RH: Yes. And so “don’t look up” refers to the slogan that these comet deniers put around, to try to literally make people not look up and ignore the threat that’s coming down, looming down on them.
EA: Impact deniers, that’s what they call them. It was something I saw and thought, “That would be a good thing!” They’re always “well, of course the climate is changing. The climate has always changed.” “Yeah, we don’t deny the climate.” What they are is impact deniers.
RH: Yeah, yeah.
EA:They deny the impacts of climate change, and they deny that human-caused changes to climate are going to be catastrophic.
RH: I don’t know if you read this, but the movie is co-written by the director Adam McKay, with the journalist David Sirota and it kind of came about because Adam had been trying to think about a way to writeThis book is engaging and funny, and will appeal to all ages. And Sirota said to him, “It’s like there’s an asteroid gonna hit Earth and no one cares!” And that’s how the idea started, they literally took that one line. It’s such an effective way to talk about the climate crisis because they don’t mention it. And it’s unexpectedly hilarious. It’s funny how scientists are often depicted in Hollywood movies as a balding white man wearing a white lab coat. This time we have Leonardo DiCaprio, who he starts off a bit nervous, doesn’t he, his character, but he finds passion and anger in the end, which is great. But then we’ve got Jennifer Lawrence’s character, she’s like Greta Thunberg might be if Greta turns out to be a scientist, you know, she’s angry. And she sticks it to the politicians. And that’s great to see.
EA: Yeah, I mean, I’m not gonna sit there and act like I didn’t feel extremely seen by that character. There were moments when I was watching it, and I thought, “Did David Sirota read that?” my newsletter?
RH: I’m sure he does.
EA:I believe there are many angry climate scientists and journalists. There are also many angry women in the climate movement. I thought of me. But I also thought about Greta. Amy Westervelt. And I thought of Mary Hegler and I thought of other angry climate writers who have been called alarmists, who haven’t been given the time of day and haven’t been credited for their work. You know, at one point in the movie, they even say that Leonardo DiCaprio’s character was the discoverer of the comet when it was Jennifer Lawrence’s character who discovered it. It’s literally named after her.
EA:I laughed so hard because I thought it was hilarious. I loved the fact that two white men made the movie. They acknowledged that white men tend not to get as much credit or be taken more seriously than their women counterparts. And people of colour, you know, the character that that played the other scientist that never got any airtime, he’s a Black man, it was very true to life in that sense.
RH:Although it isn’t clear if this will lead to emission cuts on the scale we need, it does get the message across. And that’s what we always need to do.
EA: Yeah, and I would say that what I thought the most impressive and important thing the movie did, for me was, it ended on this note that didn’t make me feel bad about myself. It didn’t make me feel like I needed to go back to work and work on the climate crisis. It didn’t make me feel like I needed to, you know, throw my whole life away to combat climate change. Really what I think the ending message of that movie was: value what’s important on the planet and in your own life, while you are alive, and that is not just the comet hurtling towards the Earth. That’s the people you love and the places you love and be motivated by the people and things that you love.
Don’t Look Up is in cinemas now and will be available globally on Netflix24 December
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