“Don’t Look Up” review

Billionaire CEO Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance) and President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) concoct a ludicrous plot to cash in on a comet that’s about to destroy the earth.

Adam McKay and David Sirota’s Don’t Look Up, about a planet-killing comet on a rapid crash course with Earth and an America that is too distracted to do anything about it, is an allegory for our inaction on climate change. As a satire of government corruption, billionaire egomania, and celebrity culture, it is effective. And while the message is critical, the focus on parody sometimes comes at the expense of fleshing out the characters.

When the film starts, the Mt. Everest-sized comet — discovered by Ph.D. student Kate Dibiaski (Jennifer Lawrence) — is about six months away from colliding with Earth. Dibiaski and her professor, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), declare the comet a planet killer and set out on an urgent campaign to convince the US government to take action. Instead, the image-obsessed President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) downplays the comet and the media drops the story when their viewers don’t engage with it.

Both the writers and the characters in the movie passionately want to change people’s minds, and in a case of life imitating art, both have struggled to get through. Reviews in The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, and Variety have accused the film of smugly complaining about how dumb everyone else is. It does, occasionally, feel like the targets are low-hanging fruit: empty-headed Zoomers on their cell phones and rubes in red hats at political rallies. Don’t Look Up could have spent a little more time trying to understand why people fall for charlatans like President Orlean.

On the other hand, how delicately must we treat climate change deniers? We are living the reality of climate change now, with 80-degree winters, statewide fires, flooding in our subways, record-breaking heatwaves and hurricanes, deep freezes across Texas, and five-state tornadoes. Like the movie characters who adopt “Don’t look up” as a political slogan — by this point in the film, the comet is visible to the naked eye — millions of Americans look the other way while big business and politicians get rich off our planet’s destruction.

Don’t Look Up isn’t at its best when going after those easy targets, though. Its best satire is of the powerful, including President Orlean, her moronic Chief of Staff son Jason (Jonah Hill), vacuous talk show host Brie Evantee (Cate Blanchett), and tech billionaire Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance). Far from being elitist, the movie is, in fact, brimming with such contempt for elites that it’s a wonder it got funded. It is unforgiving, painting these people — and their real-world counterparts in media and politics — as irredeemable.

Isherwell is perhaps the best-realized of them all. The world’s third-richest man and a megadonor of President Orlean, he strides in and out of the Oval Office and the Situation Room with full security clearance, calls the president by her first name, and singlehandedly aborts a military mission to destroy the comet when he learns he can mine it for minerals to use in his electronic devices. His delusional messiah complex mirrors Elon Musk while his creepy data harvesting satirizes Mark Zuckerberg, and he’s not far off from the real thing in either case.

The movie only really shows America’s response to the planet-wide disaster. Perhaps this was intentional, to highlight America’s general lack of cooperativeness on global issues, but the absence of other scientifically advanced nations, which don’t suffer from the same capitalist corruptions that we do, is sometimes glaring. Only one joint Russian-Chinese venture is briefly shown to have failed.

Smartly, the writers don’t talk about political parties. President Orlean is clearly a Trumpian figure, obsessed with her image, sexually promiscuous, and giving high-ranking positions to her dotard child. But it’s never clearly stated which party she, or any of the other characters, belong to. Co-writer Sirota was a senior advisor to Bernie Sanders and has covered both Democratic and Republican corruption as a journalist, and the indictment this movie makes is of our entire system, not one party or another.

Unfortunately, the human lives the movie traces are not given as much attention as the commentary. Don’t Look Up is more about systems than characters. The characters are largely stand-ins for a point of view. When Dr. Mindy gets caught up in his fame and cheats on his wife with the more glamorous Brie Evantee, it’s hard to care, because his family life has been given so little screen time. The relationship between Jason and Janie Orlean is funny, but only really exists as a satire of elite nepotism.

Kate Dibiasky is the most relatable and best-developed character. Her fear of dying and desperate pleas to the population get her labeled insane, but they are the only truly sane reactions. Her relationship with the Christian punk Yule (Timothée Chalamet) is likewise the sweetest and most fleshed-out in the movie, and he becomes an important emotional core for the third act. We also meet Dibiaski’s comet-denying parents, but only briefly, and it’s a missed opportunity for something more substantial.

One of the movie’s problems, and a problem faced by all satirists, is that the real world is almost too crazy to exaggerate. For instance, the news show the scientists take their case to, The Daily Rip, isn’t so much a parody of shows like Morning Joe as it is a one-to-one recreation of them. Either because it’s too real or the jokes are too easy, there are only a few laugh-out-loud moments. But there’s nothing too eye-rolling, either. Like Dibiasky says, “Maybe the destruction of the entire planet isn’t supposed to be fun. Maybe it’s supposed to be terrifying.”

And in that context, Don’t Look Up is a much bigger success. It’s as matter-of-fact as can be about the reality that our lives and the future of our planet are in the hands of dumb, narcissistic, immoral, shortsighted, greedy people who would rather watch humanity go extinct than admit they were wrong or suffer any hit to their bank accounts or poll numbers. They are the most entertaining characters in the film, the worst people in the world, and the most realistically portrayed.

Ultimately, Don’t Look Up is effective because it’s real. We are living out the scenario right now, only instead of “Don’t look up,” it’s “Drill here, drill now.” A montage late in the movie shows what’s at stake: everything from bumblebees to human babies, from family dinners to entire cultures. It might be sentimental in parts, but we must mourn the loss, whether from a comet, climate change, COVID-19, or whatever other disaster our twisted system tries to capitalize on at the expense of human life.

Don’t Look Up doesn’t have to exaggerate. It’s a climate change allegory, but the movie is also about the fundamental dysfunction at the core of American society. It serves more as a document of our times than a call to action, but no other big-budget movie shows just how far off-course we’ve gone. We’re not a completely lost cause. But if we continue to be led by the President Orleans and Peter Isherwells of the world, they will never allow us a way out. That’s the real lesson of the movie: it’s all up to us, because they don’t care enough to even try.

What if climate change is a hoax?

Australia blog about climate change science media coverage : Anti-carbon tax protesters in Canberra

Pro-oil protesters hold signs at a demonstration against taking action on climate change.

The most demanding issue of our time is environmental protection. Over hundreds of years of exploding populations, consumption-driven economies, and carving up the planet for resources, the human species has completely reshaped its humble home world. For decades now, scientists have warned that this behavior, unchecked, could have an ominous consequence. Science has given humanity a simple ultimatum: change our behavior or face nature’s wrath.

This has led to a deep schism. Those who are most heavily invested in the current system fight scientists’ claims aggressively. Corporate giants have spent untold millions on disinformation campaigns and disseminated their propaganda through far-right outlets. They have successfully transformed a scientific and moral issue into a political one.

But for the sake of argument, suppose the denialists are right. If we turn our resources to the fight against climate change and it turns out to be a hoax, what will we have done? Continue reading

Donald Trump’s ‘America Last’ energy policy

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Donald Trump displays an executive order reviving the Keystone XL pipeline.

With President Donald Trump’s revival of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, the gauntlet has been thrown down between Americans who care for the environment and the crony capitalists who want to pillage it. Supporters who gravitated toward Trump’s economic message applauded his executive orders, but the pipelines have little to do with job creation. Far from following through on campaign rhetoric, Donald Trump’s energy policy can best be described as America Last.

Americans will suffer the consequences of these pipelines. When they break, as pipelines routinely do – 140,000 gallons of oil leaked in Iowa the day after Trump signed the executive orders – the spills will contaminate American land and American water. When the few remaining traces of our beloved public lands are given away  by the GOP and ravaged by corporate interests, Americans will live in an uglier world deprived of wilderness and natural beauty. Continue reading

Crony capitalism goes into overdrive as Trump resurrects pipelines

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Oil giant Bechtel lays a pipeline in Idaho.

Capitalists don’t come any cronier than America’s new president. The latest example, however, is particularly egregious, destructive, and obvious. Reversing some of the most hard-fought gains of environmental activists in the last several years, Donald Trump issued an executive order to push the Keystone and Dakota Access Pipelines forward. Continue reading

Trump’s true agenda crystallizes, and it’s oil imperialism

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Trump may never have met Putin, but his Secretary of State, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, has received an Order of Friendship from him.

Donald Trump is less than five weeks away from being inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States. His cabinet picks offer Americans an ominous preview of what they can expect for the next four years. Corporate America will run roughshod over workers and consumers as Trump obliterates the line between big business and government. But it’s his Secretary of State pick, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, which bodes most ominously for both the environment and international relations. Continue reading

DAPL standoff is textbook little guy vs. big business/big government

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On one front, militarized police in riot gear; on the other, protesters with drums.

While the news cycle remains fixated on Washington politics, the biggest story in America is unfolding in a remote region of North Dakota. In the small town of Cannon Ball on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian reservation, activists are defending sacred burial ground and their community’s water supply against construction of a major oil pipeline. Militarized police and private security forces are there to ensure the project is completed, arresting reporters and assaulting protesters.

In America’s hotly divided political and social climate, it’s rare to find a conflict in which one party is so clearly right and the other so clearly wrong. Continue reading

Resurrect the concept of the commons

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Swedish artist Oskar Perenfeldt proposed this flag as the International Flag of Planet Earth to remind humanity how we are all interconnected.

Dedicated capitalists may find the idea of natural resources belonging to all people and not corporations radical, but it’s nothing new. In 1217 King Henry III sealed the Charter of the Forest, a companion piece to the Magna Carta which recognized the importance of the woods to the livelihood of Englishmen. The Charter is seen as establishing a concept of the commons: Resources such as air, water, plants, game and land should be freely accessible to barons and peasants alike, rather than paying the crown for access.

Indigenous populations throughout the millennia have often had even more forceful versions of this philosophy. In 2011 Bolivia, a nation with one of the most politically active indigenous populations on the planet, passed the Law of Mother Earth. This law took the Charter of the Forest a few steps further, protecting nature from being “affected by mega-infrastructure and development projects that affect the balance of ecosystems and the local inhabitant communities.”

Assigning sacred value to the commons is the kind of wisdom that should be informing US policy making today. Continue reading

Bundy separatists: How America tolerates right-wing protest and stomps the left

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Ammon Bundy, left, and Ryan Bundy, sons of infamous rancher Cliven Bundy, are leaders in the occupation.

A group of heavily armed right-wing ranchers and self-described militiamen have occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon. Their stated purpose is to protest the jail sentence of father and son ranchers convicted of arson charges, Dwight and Steven Hammond. More importantly, they are protesting perceived overreach from the federal government.

Leading the occupation is Ammon Bundy, son of Cliven Bundy, the rancher who made headlines in April 2014 for his armed standoff with the Bureau of Land Management. No shots have been fired and the group has no hostages, but they insist they are ready to defend themselves against law enforcement and claim they have enough resources to occupy the refuge for years. Continue reading

Criminal charges should be brought to Volkswagen

Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn issues an apology for his cars' gross emissions violations.

Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn issues an apology for his cars’ gross emissions violations.

Another major corporation has been caught in an environmental scandal, and again the news media is as sympathetic as possible. Last week, the EPA confronted German automaker Volkswagen about allegations that certain of their diesel-engine vehicles violated Clean Air Act standards. The response from Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn was the kind of “Aw, shucks” apology we’ve become accustomed to from the powerful: “I personally am deeply sorry that we have broken the trust of our customers and the public.”

But Winterkorn did far more than violate trust. According to the LA Times, Volkswagen has sold nearly half a million affected cars in the U.S. since 2009 and 11 million worldwide. These cars, which were heavily marketed as burning “clean diesel,” were emitting up to 40 times the allowed amount of nitrogen oxide into the atmosphere. Software in the car’s computer – apparently common enough in the industry that it has a nickname, a “defeat device” – tricks inspectors by switching over to a special mode at inspection time. That excess nitrogen oxide combines with oxygen in the atmosphere to form nitrogen dioxide and smog. Continue reading

National Geographic’s future editorial integrity is in doubt over Murdoch merger

A 100-year-old National Geographic from January 1915.

A 100-year-old National Geographic from January 1915.

Rupert Murdoch, the Australian mogul who owns a vast media empire encompassing, among other important holdings, 21st Century Fox and FOX News, has purchased a 73 percent share of the National Geographic Society’s media assets for $725 million. The society will join with Murdoch in running National Geographic Partners, which will henceforth produce commercial National Geographic media.

Most notably, this includes the society’s revered National Geographic Magazine, published since 1888. And while the society will supposedly continue to play a predominant role in generating the magazine’s content, there is worry that its new, profit-oriented owner will compromise its strong editorial stance, particularly given Murdoch’s denial of man-made climate change. Continue reading