Amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, the fires and flooding and hurricanes, we need no reminder of how near we are to the collapse of human civilization. Unfortunately, many of us fail to grasp the frightening reality of a world in which each year marks new heat records and more calamitous natural disasters. Director Adam McKay, of The Big Short and Vice, has just the wake-up call we need — guaranteed to make you simultaneously laugh as you cry, cursing your own doomed mortality.
Don’t Look Up opens with the discovery of a nine kilometer-wide comet on a path to intercept and annihilate the Earth. The film then charts the tireless struggles of a lovable, piss-and-vinegar ragtag band of scientists (played by Leonardo di Caprio, Jennifer Lawrence, and Rob Morgan) to educate the public about the gravity of their discovery. However, they’re thwarted by an insane totally-not-based-on-any-person-living-or-dead (wink, wink) U.S. President (Meryl Streep) who’s more interested in securing her political base and satisfying corporate interest (Mark Rylance) than in saving the human species from extinction.
This movie is a tour de force that interweaves politics, science, social commentary, comedy, nihilism, skillful acting, and a propulsive yet poignant score that reflects on the ignorance-is-bliss business-as-usual spirit of capitalism and humanity and on the myriad crises that we face, here allegorized quite pointedly as an imminent planet-killing comet.
A song from the film, “Just Look Up” by Ariana Grande, puts it quite bluntly, but exactly right, and we all need to hear this:
Look up, what he’s tryna say / Is get your head out of your ass, / Listen to the goddamned qualified scientists / We really fucked it up, fucked it up this time / It’s so close, I can feel the heat big time / And you can act like everything is alright / But this is probably happening in real time / Celebrate or cry or pray, whatever it takes / To get you through the mess we’ve made / ‘Cause tomorrow may never come / Just look up / Turn off that shit box news / ‘Cause you’re about to die soon everybody1
This is explicit, yes, but also bona fide — and yet it’s only the initial step: first we must recognize the severity of the challenges we are facing not tomorrow but today, and next we must actually put words to action and to rectify our grievous but not unforgivable mistakes; though I believe that actually solving the problems we face is far more feasible compared to overcoming our own collective intransigence (and, frankly, stupidity) to arrive at the stage in which we are seriously ready to undertake any meaningful action.
McKay, in his film, is quite literally shouting at us, at humanity, to wake the heck up. He’s not so sure we even care enough to effect the basic change integral to our own survival, not to mention all the myriad species on planet Earth. For me, there is a moment of poignancy when everyone realizes — from the exhausted scientists to the conniving politicians to the nonchalant newscasters to the blind rednecks — that it’s too late to stop the comet, and the lead scientist, Dr. Mindy (Leonardo di Caprio), and his Ph.D. student Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), the discoverer of the comet, Dr. Mindy’s family, and Dr. Teddy Ogelthorpe (Rob Morgan) all have dinner and debate homemade versus store bought mashed potatoes and the merits of fresh ground coffee as the comet smashes into the planet, destroying all life on Earth — that is, except for the President’s son and Chief of Staff (Jonah Hill).
This is poignant for me because, if you draw out the movie to span not two and a half hours but decades and thus cover not only the impact of a comet but the warming of our planet, we’re already well on our way to that fiery denouement. And how long will those few moments last? Perhaps a couple of years? A decade? Poignant because it leaves one to wonder what we might do — or not do — differently if given not six months and fourteen days but years in which to act. And then you consider — as Dr. Mindy, ardent Carl Sagan fan, may have pointed out — the Earth as a pale blue dot, a mote of dust, a tiny pixel set against the vastness of space, suspended in a sunbeam, drifting in nothingness, and you realize just how tenuous our existence is: how small and vulnerable, how divided and conceited we are, how we have the capacity to effect our salvation and may throw that chance away — for avarice like Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance), for power like Madame President (Meryl Streep), or just for apathy like General Themes (Paul Guilfoyle).
It’s worth noting the powerful and vibrant #justlookup movement that emerges in the film, determined not to let humanity destroy itself by its own incompetence; and yet even with this surge in public support — counterweighted by the equally fervent #dontlookup response — the action taken by the superpowers is too little, too late — a whimper to the bang of the comet obliterating the planet.
The end scene feels like a retelling of Genesis, in which the 2,000 humans who escape Earth — all owners of major corporations or lobbying agencies who supported the President — emerge after 22,000 years of cryostasis on an Earth-like planet and you imagine that there’s no reason it won’t be any different this time around.
The film is laden with sardonic doom and yet also harbors a seed of hope: the story underscores the importance of the role of art, be it literary or cinematic or otherwise, in telling the story of climate change. So maybe, maybe, if we just look up, if, in the words of Dr. Mindy, quoting Sagan, we “take it back to first principles”–if we remember who we are and our place in this vast cosmos — our species will have a chance.
And yet, it is noteworthy that in McKay’s universe, despite the efforts of the scientists and the #justlookup public outcry, humanity still managed to destroy itself and the planet Earth. Some may take issue with this apparent nihilistic resignation — and see the film as merely a glum reminder of our deeply flawed nature: the New York Times felt that McKay hadn’t accomplished much in the movie beyond “yelling at us,” while acknowledging our collective need for a little scolding; New York magazine called it a “harangue,” and the Baltimore Magazine derided the film as “mean-spirited and smug.”
However, I see the film as a call to those who have seen it and looked up to recognize that we cannot expect our problems to solve themselves. To those who understand that, in the spirit of Leo Tolstoy, to change the world one must first be willing to change oneself. To those who rise to speak for the human species, for the Earth and the bounty of life, including our own, which she makes possible. To those who view the Earth and every fact of life, from the microscopic to the macroscopic, as a single organism, which surely cannot be expected to survive waging a war against itself. And to those who choose today and every day hereafter to conserve and cherish that pale blue dot.
We hold in our hands all the tools necessary to build a more sustainable, equitable world for all the denizens of Earth — our technology, our knowledge, our capacity to wonder and dream. But will we use this borrowed time to constructively shape our future, or will we, through our negligence, greed, myopia, let our tools become weapons?
In any case, Don’t Look Up is a terrific, terrifying, poignant, thought-provoking, depressingly-hilarious film seriously worth catching before the end of the world.
Just Look Up, Ariana Grande, 2021 ↩︎