“Don’t Look Up,” writer-director Adam McKay’s star-studded comedic film about climate change, is causing a stir. It’s trending at the top of Netflix, drawing sharp criticism, and has been generating heated debateSince its release on the streaming website last week, it has been trending on social media.
McKay’s new movie, which comes after his uneven Dick Cheney biopic, “Vice,”The story centers on two scientists (played in part by Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence) who attempt to convince the world that a comet is a threat to Earth’s existence. However, they run into corrupt politicians, greedy Silicon Valley billionaires, and a media world obsessed with frivolity.
The debate about “Don’t Look Up” is unusually high stakes: This is a movie about how people aren’t paying enough attention to climate change; if it fails to connect with or offer insight to its audiences, then it will have failed in not just its artistic mission but also its political one.
The film’s central idea and repeated attempts at indicting the media obscure more than they enlighten.
Although the film has artistic accomplishments, it is well-intentioned and makes some good jokes and caricatures. But, many film critics lost their respect for the film’s unpredictable transition between satire or cloying earnestness. I sometimes felt screamed at for something I already know; it would’ve been more enriching if the movie had leaned more into its absurdity and wallowed less in its straightforward fallen-world moralism.
But my primary interest here is the political impact: Does “Don’t Look Up” give us a clearer picture of our society’s struggle to tackle climate change? It has mixed results on this front. While it does some good things, the central conceit of “Don’t Look Up” and its repeated attempts at indicting the media will likely obscure more than they inform. Ironically, a movie about difficulty in focus could be distracting us away from the real problems ahead.
The master stroke of “Don’t Look Up” is the role of Silicon Valley mogul Peter Isherwell, played wonderfully by Mark Rylance, who has an ethereal presence and casually overturns government policies to ensure he can profit from the apocalyptic comet. His blithe indifference to the feelings of others as he floats in and out of the White House while quietly examining his phone and dispensing information about how and when people will die using invasive surveillance data is a clever parody of today’s tech titans. Isherwell captures how Silicon Valley leaders are effectively demigods in our societies, capable of whimsically destroying and creating new worlds, building tech designed to exploit human loneliness and breathlessly dressing it up as in society’s best interests and not their own.
But the central — and titular — theme of “Don’t Look Up” is that our society is plagued by the malady of climate denialism: It’s virtually impossible for the scientists in the movie to convince people the comet exists and should be taken seriously. It makes a huge mistake here.
We’re invited to see a cable news show that repeatedly hosts the scientists who discovered the comet as a stand-in for our brain-dead media. When the scientists initially plead for the pundits to take the issue of an extinction-level threat seriously, the hosts remind them that “we just keep the bad news light.” When Lawrence’s character, a precocious but cynical doctoral student, goes on a rant about how everyone is going to die, she’s immediately memed to death, panned as crazy and ostracized by the media — “canceled” for telling the truth. These themes are repeated throughout.
Saying the media industry prefers to avoid bad news couldn’t be further from the truth.
There are two major issues here: One, suggesting the media industry prefers to avoid bad news couldn’t be further from the truth. News media are always rewarded for bad news. Consider how news media were able to consume a lot of news in the initial stages. Or how media outlets do better when they criticize the president. “good news” verticalsMedia have been motivated by the desire to challenge the negative and suffering that is prevalent in news coverage.
Climate change has been a media problem for more complex reasons (and are harder to indict) than the notion that bad news is bad for business. One problem is that climate changes involve Slowly systemic changes. There is no one villain; there are no single solutions. Furthermore, developments are slow enough to make it difficult to track change in a compelling way, except for extremely severe natural disasters. This makes the issue different from other crises in politics or crime, or business.
American media outlets absolutely deserve sharp criticism for inattention to climate change in years past — and the way journalists have Failed to put pressure on presidential candidates about climateIt is shameful. This is due in large part to structural flaws in journalists’ training and incentivization to tell stories. They are trained to tell stories using discrete narratives that are driven by characters rather than the problems of the systems we live within. This is the main feature of how news is presented. It exposes the limitations and ambiguity of the central metaphor of “Don’t Look Up.” Observing climate change — which can vary in its acceleration and effects depending on human intervention, and can be so gradual that it can’t usually be observed moment-to-moment — isn’t perfectly analogous to following the distinctly discernible, singular threat posed by a comet with one clear trajectory guaranteed to obliterate all human life.
The second issue is the agency of the audience and their responsibility. Many producers, editors, reporters and journalists have. Noted in years past that it can be quite difficult to get audience attention on climate change stories — although that has It seems that things have changed in recent years.. This isn’t to say media outlets shouldn’t be blamed for failing to tell climate stories in a more effective way or striving to be more inventive, but there are limits to what media outlets can do if audiences find important stories boring. You can see how much more attention is paid to policy stories than to political gaffes. Adding to the problem is that the unending revenue crisis in media driven by the advent of the internet makes it difficult for outlets to devote resources to an issue that doesn’t get a great deal of attention. Media outlets aren’t afraid to tell the truth or look hysterical. They are partially constrained by the fear that people won’t be interested in certain truths.
The title of the movie “Don’t Look Up” contends that the central problem we face is that society has decided to ignore uncomfortable truth — and one might be led to believe that this is all about the need for better messaging. But ignorance is not what is causing the problems. The United States is home to a The majority of people believe in anthropogenic climate change, and a majority believe that the government Should do more to address it. At this point in history, the problem has moved from recognition to action. This includes building political willpower, making climate a top priority policy priority, getting serious about ending fossil fuel dependency and investing in climate-related tech; exploring alternatives to rapacious capitalism; cultivating cultural shifts in how we handle everything from meat consumption and travel to waste. These desperately needed efforts are more about the difficulties of awakening a society of dupes than about the difficulty in generating mass mobilization for revolutionary change.
Talking heads, shortsighted politicians, and corporations with vested interest in fossil fuels deserve a lot of blame. “Don’t look up” makes some interesting points about their guilt in an entertaining manner. But what it misses is that the solution isn’t just having the courage to acknowledge the problem — it’s building the power and discipline to do something about it.
Zeeshan Aleem works as a writer and editor at MSNBC Daily. He previously worked at Vox. HuffPost. Politico. He has also been published in The New York Times. The Atlantic. The Nation, and other publications.