Not even this dark comedy about the stress of disaster prevention could match the absurd incompetence of our real world leaders
Every disaster movie starts with a scientist being ignored. It’s less common for a disaster movie to continue and end with the scientist still being ignored, but that’s the kind of world we live in now.
Don’t Look Up, the latest film by writer and director Adam McKay, narrates the quest of two astronomers to warn the world about an imminent danger: a comet is on a direct course to hit our planet, it can kill everything that lives, and we’re running out of time. In terrifyingly believable fashion, the government and the media are more concerned about how the end of the world affects their stock value and poll numbers than, you know, the end of the world. The film was originally conceived as a satire of inaction against global warming, but at the end of the second year of a devastating pandemic, it hits even harder.
Don’t Look Up takes delight in mocking the vulgar banality of rating culture. Every character in a position of power has their priorities backwards, but this movie doesn’t lose sight of the way our choices as consumers and as voters have been feeding those twisted priorities. The plot is science fiction, but a news cycle where celebrity breakups get more attention than human survival, a political system where disaster prevention is perversely timed for electoral advantage, a billionaire class willing to burn the world for more profit, and an internet where life-saving science is ridiculed by charlatans are not fictional at all.
In the film, as in our world, basic standards of scientific rigor are ignored for the sake of appearances, politicians turn matters of life and death into catchy slogans to ramp up partisan support, media strategists distort the facts because it doesn’t look good to scare the public, and the only experts who can help solve the crisis are reduced to frantic rants on television as viewers yawn and click away.
Drowned as we are in alternative facts, it’s exhausting to stand on the side of reality. Yes, global warming is happening, and yes, it’s our fault, and yes, we should replace individual cars with mass public transportation. That’s a fact. Yes, the coronavirus can kill you, and yes, you should still be wearing a mask, and yes, you need to get vaccinated. That’s a fact. We’re sick of talking to a void of smug, willful ignorance. (A few reviewers have had the outrageous nerve to say that no, this movie is the smug one.) Experts have tried all conceivable ways to get the message across, and yet reactionary pundits get to shout louder, because reptilian overlords and poisonous chemtrails get more online engagement. We’d be on our way out of the pandemic by now if our own governments hadn’t contributed to making it worse time and time and time and time and time and time again.
There’s no happy ending in Don’t Look Up, because of course there isn’t, because the people in charge are so selfish and callous that they deserve to blow up in a shower of raging lava. As for us here in reality, we don’t know what other methods to use to get the world to take existential threats seriously. That’s a point that critics of this movie have missed: of course it’s crass, and unsubtle, and moralizing, and aggressive, because scientists have already tried civilized patience without success, and it’s not a movie’s job to give them the solution. Sometimes, the catharsis of watching the end finally come is a respite from the stagnation we’re in. In such irrational times as these, the rational choice may be to yell in desperation.
Baseline Assessment: 6/10.
Bonuses: +1 for the eerie prescience with which this movie coincided with the real world’s disastrous indifference for the COVID crisis.
Nerd Coefficient: 7/10.
POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.