Don’t Look Up: when a movie has an impact, there’s a reason

Within the first two weeks of its release on Netflix, Don’t Look Up racked up over 300 million streaming hours to become the second-most viewed movie in the history of the platform. This satirical allegory on the climate crisis is undoubtedly one of the most controversial movies as well, eliciting strong opinions, lively debate, and nearly equal parts positive and negative reviews on film rating websites like Rotten Tomatoes.

What is beyond doubt is that this film is a product of our time. Viewers may find it brilliant or unfunny, enraging or depressing, class-conscious or smacking of petty-bourgeois liberalism. But whatever you think of its full-frontal style, Don’t Look Up addresses a blunt statement to a mass audience that’s knee deep in this century, and says “we need to talk about what we’re living through.”

To be alive in the early 2020s is to experience a world of crisis, catastrophe, polarization, and anxiety. History is accelerating, and it’s hard to avoid the feeling that big events are hurtling our way, one after the other. In terms of scale and impact, the looming climate calamity represents the most existential threat to humanity—one which the ruling class is incapable of addressing.

And unlike the largely apathetic and pop-culture-absorbed masses depicted in the film, millions of people around the real world are talking about it. Last September, a poll asked 10,000 young people in ten countries for their thoughts on climate change. Among the findings: 81% of young people reported having discussed the climate crisis with their peers; 60% said they felt “very” or “extremely worried”; and 45% said such feelings have a daily impact on their lives. When asked about the role of governments in responding, 65% agreed that “governments are failing young people.”

For the generation that grew up in the era of the 2008 crisis and its aftermath, the climate crisis is not a meme or an abstract math equation. It’s a very tangible life-or-death scenario, inherently intertwined with the impasse of the capitalist system, and it calls forth a range of deeply felt emotions—including the kind that lead people to draw revolutionary conclusions.

Class anger resonates

Some of the most impactful films of the last few years have been those that hold up a mirror to the class nature of our society and bring out the pent-up class rage that churns just beneath the surface of daily life. Movies such as Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite had this effect, as did Todd Phillips’s Joker, both released in 2019. That year, when mass demonstrations and revolutionary upheavals engulfed one country after another, Joker masks began to appear on the streets to communicate protestors’ defiant attitude toward the ruling class: “You get what you deserve.”

tesla space Image SpaceX FlickrThe notion that a handful of billionaires are happy to send humanity into extinction if they can accumulate enough wealth to blast off into space is hardly an uncommon suspicion / Image: SpaceX, Flickr

In a similar vein, the revolutionary movement in Myanmar adopted the three-finger salute from the dystopian Hunger Games trilogy, as young revolutionaries identified their real struggle with the fictionalized fight against the wealthy Capitol.

Don’t Look Up evokes many of these same feelings, with even sharper parallels with the US in the 2020s. The discovery of an Earth-bound planet-killing comet by astronomers Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) and Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) puts them face to face with the powers that be, only to encounter the staggering shortsightedness, cynicism, and incompetence of those who run the country.

President Orlean (a Trump-Clinton mashup played by Meryl Streep) cares more about her upcoming midterm prospects than the approaching extinction event. When a sex scandal forces her to change her calculations, society is mobilized and a fleet of rockets armed with nuclear explosives is launched to deflect the comet, only to be called off at the last minute at the request of tech billionaire Peter Isherwell (an Elon Musk-Jeff Bezos–styled character played by Mark Rylance).

The motivation for this Earth-dooming decision? In Kate Dibiasky’s words: “They found a bunch of gold, and diamonds, and rare shit on the comet. So they’re gonna let it hit the planet… [the hatred in her voice erupts] … to make a bunch of rich people even more disgustingly rich!” The scene takes place in a working-class bar, which falls into a moment of stunned silence before exploding into an all-out riot.

The scene captures the enraging absurdity of a social system that threatens our survival as a species in order to accumulate capital for a tiny minority. The rage at this reality is shared by millions today. The notion that a handful of billionaires are happy to send humanity into extinction if they can accumulate enough wealth to blast off into space with a few hundred of their friends is hardly an uncommon suspicion.

Nor is it a fringe conspiracy that the ruling class has the technology and resources to take action to address the climate crisis, yet somehow they can never seem to get their act together and do it. Despite campaigning as the climate savior, Biden is on track to preside over an all-time record in US oil production. And let’s not forget that the previous Democratic administration oversaw a historic 88% increase in fossil fuel output. Just 100 companies account for 71% of greenhouse emissions, and rather than curb their activity, Biden welcomes fossil fuel executives into the White House as policy advisors.

The New York Times, while heaping praise on Biden’s “climate administration,” meanwhile continues to run ads from Big Oil companies like Exxon, Shell, and Chevron. It’s enough to make some climate scientists feel like they live in Kate Dibiasky’s world.

The outlook of the creators

The film was written and co-produced by Adam McKay and David Sirota—both self-described democratic socialists of the Bernie Sanders wave. Their own trajectories reflect the shift that has taken place in the US in recent years. McKay transitioned from producing goofy Will Ferrell comedies in the pre-2008 era—including Anchorman and Step Brothers—to critiquing capitalism in his 2015 movie The Big Short. Nowadays, he can be spotted driving around Hollywood in a DSA T-shirt. Sirota, who is new to movie-making, was a senior advisor and speechwriter for Bernie’s 2020 campaign, before joining Jacobin as an at-large editor.

mcKay Image Harald Krichel Wikimedia CommonsThe film was written and co-produced by Adam McKay (pictured) and David Sirota—both self-described democratic socialists of the Bernie Sanders wave / Image: Harald Krichel, Wikimedia Commons

Their outlook is therefore stamped with the particular strain of “democratic socialism” of the post-2016 Trump era—an amorphous and contradictory political current. On its strong side, it voices an acute sense of class anger at the “billionaire class” in a key that resonates with millions. In one scene, Kate essentially points out the incompetence of a ruling class that is unfit to rule society: “They’re not even smart enough to be as evil as you’re giving them credit for.”

But exposing and satirizing the role of the ruling class is only a starting point. When it comes to discussing what to do about it—how to end the dictatorship of capital that imperils our species—the currently in-vogue variety of “democratic socialism” falls short. It goes without saying that Don’t Look Up is meant to be a Netflix movie, and not a political program, let alone a revolutionary one. But the way the plot unfolds says a lot about the worldview of its creators.

From the beginning to the end, the protagonists appeal to the institutions of the ruling class, turning first to the US federal government, then to the capitalist media, finally organizing a “Just Look Up” awareness campaign with the modest goal of getting people to glance up at the sky and acknowledge the comet’s existence. The campaign culminates in a “for real last concert to save the world” where, before Ariana Grande and Kid Cudi take the stage, the astronomers address a stadium of young people and appeal to the nations of the world—i.e., to the capitalist governments of the world—to defy President Orlean. “Launch your own nuclear deflection mission now and save this planet!”

The protagonists are not heroes. Randall Mindy (DiCaprio) falls for the cynical host of a morning show and gullibly ends up joining the Orlean administration to provide public relations cover for the ill-fated comet-mining initiative. And despite her fighting spirit, Jennifer Lawrence’s character responds throughout the movie with despondent resignation—an increasingly common emotional response in today’s world. In the end, they meet their fate taking comfort in religion and the idea that “at least we tried.”

What is the message?

However, it’s the way they tried that reveals the logical consequences of a liberal approach to the climate crisis. The mixed responses to Don’t Look Up may in part stem from the movie’s ambiguous message. An existential threat is coming our way, and society is not reacting accordingly. Who bears the responsibility for this? The president? The ruling class? The media? All of us? What is the solution?

capitalism killing planet Image Socialist RevolutionUntil society takes collective control over the private companies responsible for the vast majority of the world’s carbon emission, they will continue to pursue profits over the planet / Image: Socialist Revolution

In one scene, after the riot breaks out at the bar, Randall asks Kate, “What do you suggest we do? An online petition? Huh? Get a mob and hold up picket signs? You wanna overthrow the government?” In fact, the only shot at saving the planet would have been a mass insurrection to install a workers’ government that could make proper use of the available technology and ensure the launch of the nuclear deflection mission. That the possibility of the working class taking such concerted action is treated like a far-fetched absurdity reveals the weak side of the “liberal-socialist” political current represented by McKay and Sirota.

In the complete absence of any class-independent or revolutionary perspective for the socialist transformation of society, the only doors open to us are impotent utopian appeals directed at the ruling class. In fact, the makers of Don’t Look Up launched an action campaign that, ironically, resembles the sterile “Just Look Up” awareness campaign in the movie. It invites movie fans to not “sit tight and assess” but instead to take “simple steps” to solve the climate crisis like keeping politicians accountable, talking to friends and coworkers, riding a bike, and making green investments. In practice, however, such “be the change you want to see” gestures are no better than the impotent “at least we tried” approach. As we’ve seen, the vast majority of carbon emissions come from a tiny handful of companies. Unless and until society takes collective control over these entities, they will continue to pursue profits over the planet.

The hard truth

In a recent interview with Vanity Fair, McKay said the inspiration for this movie goes back to the 2018 report published by the UN climate panel. “I couldn’t sleep for two nights after I read it,” he says. “I had one of those moments where I went from, ‘Hey, we gotta fucking take care of this, this is crazy,’ to ‘Holy shit. It’s happening now. It’s not 80 years from now, it’s now.’”

This is how tens of millions around the world, and the youth in particular, have responded to the intensifying onset of the climate crisis—and it’s what makes Kate Dibiasky’s distress so relatable. But neither small gestures nor despondent resignation will help. One of the most earnest scenes in Don’t Look Up was when Randall Mindy made his final TV appearance on the morning show, delivering a distraught speech that was actually written by DiCaprio.

“I’m sorry, but not everything needs to sound so goddamn clever or charming or likeable all the time! Sometimes we need to just be able to say things to one another. We need to hear things.”

The present moment demands that we speak clearly and transmit a message that is urgent, if not particularly cheerful or comforting. Nothing short of a socialist revolution can address the ongoing climate catastrophe. Socialism in our lifetime is our only shot. An entire generation of working-class youth are beginning to come to this conclusion, and many millions more will certainly follow. But we have no time to lose—now is the time to prepare.

Originally published on 17 January at |

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