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.