Don’t Look Up is the number one hit on Netflix at the moment, despite mediocre-to-bad reviews. It’s a one-joke movie—people remain petty and self-absorbed in the face of human extinction—that cannot support its 138 minute run-time (maybe a good 3 minute SNL skit) despite valiant efforts from an ensemble cast of well-known actors.
What’s more interesting than the movie itself is that it’s a throwback to 1970s disaster movies. Of course, both natural and human-caused disasters are Hollywood staples in all eras, but the 1970s versions—beginning with Airport in 1970 and ending with Airplane in 1980—were distinguished by deep misanthropic pessimism. The disasters are always caused by a human villain, abetted by weak and dishonest officials. Ensemble casts of well-known actors play unlikeable victims, lying and bickering as the scenery crashes around them. The imminent disaster begins to seem like a salutary cleansing.
That attitude came easily in the 1970s. More than half the world lived under totalitarian communist horror regimes, and no country had ever emerged from communism into freedom and prosperity. Much of the rest of the world was ruled by kleptocrats and violent thugs. The relatively free and prosperous democracies, including the United States, struggled to provide citizens with basic necessities like heat, transportation, electricity and jobs. Terrorists ran wild in Europe and threatened in other places. Inflation seemed uncontrollable. Some major world leaders were certifiable paranoid lunatics, and the rest seemed either corrupt or ineffectual or both. Nasty wars were killing millions of people every year while the superpowers piled up more, bigger and more advanced weapons of mass destruction.
But things change. Airplane skewered the 1970s movies so successfully that studios returned to older versions that emphasized human ingenuity, courage, self-sacrifice and strength to overcome disaster. There might be a villain and some weak people, but the audience rooted for the people, not for the disaster.
There were similar changes in the world in the 1980s. Inflation was tamed for two generations. Communism began to melt away. The global economy experienced the greatest wealth-creation event in human history; bringing billions out of poverty and raising developed-country prosperity to unprecedented levels. Wars declined and weapons stockpiles were reduced. There was extraordinary progress in science and technology. While racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination did not disappear, there was a fundamental change.
For all of human history these things had been explicit unfairness enforced by government. By the 1980s, explicit discrimination of this type had been vastly reduced in developed democracies, and governments were moving to combat invidious discrimination by private actors. Arguments about the proper degree of affirmative action or police response to domestic violence was much different from the earlier arguments about whether non-whites were allowed be become naturalized citizens or how big a stick a man was allowed to use to beat his wife.
The era from 1980 to 2007 is known as the “Great Moderation” among economists, but the effects were not limited to economics. There was moderation in both international relations and domestic politics. Things in general seemed to be working today and getting better for tomorrow. War, poverty, injustice, slavery and other human ills seemed solvable in the foreseeable future.
Moods changed for many people in 2008 and many events of the subsequent decade seemed to undercut general optimism. CoVID-19 was the last straw for some people, apparently including those who made Don’t Look Up. 1970s pessimism and misanthropism seemed cool again.
In the 1970s the plagues, crashes, fires, earthquakes and other catastrophes provided cathartic escapism from real fears of war and economic collapse, plus alarmist fears of overpopulation, resource depletion, pollution and other ills. Don’t Look Up is not marketed as escapism but satire. It is supposed to call attention to irrational responses to climate change. So let’s look at how film-makers apportion the blame.
Scientists are responsible for the core failure in Don’t Look Up, their social and emotional disabilities sabotage their attempt to inspire rational action. They alternate between timid precision that fails to capture attention and childish outbursts that destroy credibility. They are either defeated by or co-opted by officials and celebrities.
In the movie, the screenwriters have to make the scientists spectacularly incompetent because their message is simple, a comet will kill everyone on Earth in six months. But climate change is complex with many nuances and uncertainties. The reason some scientists fail to capture attention and others resort to oversimplification is that accurate communication of climate science to non-scientists with limited attention spans is difficult. Pretending the failure is due to social and emotional disabilities is insulting.
Moreover, some climate scientists have been remarkably successful in communication. The IPCC reports provide an enormous wealth of research accessible to laypeople. Scientists have authored many well-written books and articles on the subject. Lots of data and analysis tools are easily available on the Internet. It’s true that the versions of climate science that make it into newspaper headlines, political speeches, movies and popular discourse are oversimplified and often wrong, but what area of science does a better job?
The next failure in the movie is by the president of the United States, who is distracted by a fight over a Supreme Court nominee and upcoming mid-term elections. This also seems misplaced. Even a president who felt climate change was the only issue of importance would have to formulate a response via appointments and Congressional action. The “distractions” are essential to the solution. For a comet threatening the Earth in six months, Supreme Court picks and upcoming elections are obviously irrelevant—but little else is more relevant. All a US president could do is get out of the way of people working on long-shot plans to deflect the comet or survive its impact.
The satire hits closer to home with the media. The serious media seizes on the claims as a gotcha story of official lying, and then drops it quickly when faced with more official lying—all driven by a short news cycle. These are brief scenes in the movie and don’t make specific points, but I would agree that journalists have not distinguished themselves as a group on climate change coverage. Story headlines are often unsupported by articles, and articles often fail to distinguish new findings from well-known phenomena, speculation from measurement, politics from science and can mislead in terms of time scales, event sizes and context. There is over-reliance on official sources and conventional wisdom, and insufficient skepticism and challenge.
Most of the media scenes involve a frothy entertainment show and a children’s program. Unsurprisingly, neither one provides a useful forum for conveying scientific information of great public interest. These shows are not satirized, they’re shown as they are, and as they are meant to be. There are scientists who can communicate effectively on these types of shows, but they’re media specialists. It’s too much to expect of a couple of random astronomers.
The other major failure is a faux-visionary tech billionaire who uses his money and political donations to push an ambitious but risky scheme for profit. The movie does not make clear whether this private-sector initiative is overall more or less promising than the government-run alternative. In real life serious research is underway on impact-avoidance missions. The precise scenario in the movie—six months warning and a comet apparently less than ten million miles from Earth—would almost certainly be impossible to stop today, but with three years warning when a comet is 500 million miles away we might have a chance.
This also seems like fair game for satire. There are tech visionaries and faux visionaries, and billionaires. Many of them are pursuing initiatives that combine profit potential with environmental, or at least claimed environmental, benefits. Many of them have political clout from donations and reputation. Some of them probably are putting personal profit above sober assessment of risk to society.
There are minor swipes against the military (petty cheats and moronic bigots), political partisans (political and partisan), slackers (slackers) and others that carry little weight. One quick gem is the guy with a button showing both an up arrow and down arrow, trying to heal the partisan divide between the “Don’t look up” and “Just look up” crowds. There’s no position so moronic—including refusing to look up to see obvious evidence in the sky—that it can’t be made worse by trying to compromise with its opposite.
I don’t think this movie tells us anything about climate change, nor does it advance the art of satire or comedy. Ariana Grand, Tyler Perry and Mark Rylance augment their careers with clever performances, the rest of the cast and creative workers fail to distinguish themselves.
The interesting thing about Don’t Look Up is the renewed popularity of a worldview I had hoped to leave in the dustbin 40 years ago. I hope it’s merely pandemic-induced hunger for any new streaming content with familiar names but I fear that events of the last decade-and-a-half have eroded public optimism and faith in human goodness. I hope we’re not in for another ten years of that.