The Crude Demagogy of “Don’t Look Up”

Adam McKay’s star-studded allegory of climate change has a cynically apolitical view of politics.

Adam McKay’s satire “Don’t Look Up” is a clever film that’s short on wit. The difference is that wit is multifaceted, like a gem that, however small, offers different glimmers at different angles. Cleverness exhausts itself in a single glint and then repeats itself to infinity.

“Don’t Look Up,” for the record, tells the story of the discovery of a huge comet that’s heading for a direct strike on Earth that would end life on the planet; the degraded journalistic environment that trivializes the discovery and minimizes the danger; and the feckless President whose self-interested blunders allow the comet to strike, catastrophically. It’s a raucous comedy in which a tale built of near-plausible elements is told by way of exaggerated character traits, absurd situations, and high-wattage star performances. It’s also a movie about the blighted mediasphere—yet, even with the best of intentions, the movie only adds to the blight.

The comet is discovered by Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), a graduate student in astronomy at Michigan State; its trajectory toward Earth is discovered by her adviser, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), and they calculate that it will strike in a mere six months. They reach out to NASA and are put in touch with Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan), the head of the Planetary Defense Coordination Office (a real federal bureau, as a supertitle informs viewers), who rushes them to the White House to deliver the news in person to the President, Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep). Her political party isn’t specified (nobody’s is—there’s no reference to real-world politics in the film) but her actions resemble those of Donald Trump: she nominates a Supreme Court Justice of dubious qualification and sexual scandal, falsifies scientific data to seek advantage in the midterm elections, and leaves an underling’s public racist remarks unchallenged.

When President Orlean treats the evidence and the three scientists dismissively, they go public with the news that the world is about to end. Kate and Randall talk to journalists from the New York Herald (its logo uses the same typeface as the Times) and go on a morning talk show, where they’re admonished to “keep it light.” Amid the quippy chat of the hosts, Jack (Tyler Perry) and Brie (Cate Blanchett), Kate and Randall’s apocalyptic warnings are brushed aside until Kate starts yelling on the air, making enemies of the hosts and becoming a derided social-media meme. When the President finds it politically expedient to do so, she mounts a mission to deflect the comet, exactly as the best science recommends—and then, at the urging of a tech billionaire named Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance), she cancels the mission and lets Peter attempt to harvest an untold fortune in rare-earth minerals from the comet instead. Meanwhile, the public is divided between those who trust the science and those who call the comet a hoax—between realists who implore their neighbors to look up at the comet and acknowledge the looming menace, and denialists whose slogan lends the movie its title.

The movie’s comedic energy comes mainly from its asides and sidebars—from the brazen rich-bully snark of the President’s fratty, young chief of staff, Jason (Jonah Hill), who’s also her son, and the promotion of a disaster film called “Total Devastation” that’s scheduled for release on the day that that comet is expected to hit, to the Internet shitposter charging that “Jewish billionaires invented this comet threat so the government can confiscate our liberty and our guns,” and the national obsession with the love life of the pop star Riley Bina (Ariana Grande), who ultimately joins Kate and Randall at the “For Real Last Concert to Save the World,” where she croons a romantic ballad with such grimly hilarious lyrics as, “Get your head out of your ass, listen to the goddam qualified scientists. We really fucked it up . . . You’re about to die soon, everybody.”

The journalists at the Herald, rather than throwing their weight behind the scientists’ discovery of the killer comet and its impending strike, obsess about social-media engagement and quickly let the depressing story die; Peter does a staged product rollout, using children as near-robotic props, where an announcer cautions audience members not to make eye contact with him and to avoid “negative facial expressions.” In the talk-show green room, Kate rejects a dress that a stylist brings over, but Randall lets the stylist trim his beard even as he’s fending off a panic attack. The scene foreshadows his transformation into a television celebrity and a sort of nerdy sex object, who then gets co-opted into government service to give the corrupt Administration the cover of scientific legitimacy. The best of the riffs—because seemingly random and oblique yet ultimately capped with a one-liner of political psychology that’s deeper and more mysterious than anything else in the film—is the trivial twist of a three-star general (Paul Guilfoyle) who, outside the Oval Office, charges the scientists heftily for chips and water (which are supposed to be free).

It’s no surprise to learn that the actors improvised copiously, because the movie has a riffy and zingy feel to it. Yet the rapid editing of nearly arbitrarily composed images creates a straitlaced rigidity. The tone of improv comedy comes without the sense of risk; the one-liners are hammered into the confines of character and story like tiles in a grid, and the only excesses are a handful of eruptive, televised tirades that play like emblematic “Network” moments to rouse viewers’ fist pumps. What is surprising is that the script was written before the COVID pandemic—the movie is a startlingly accurate view of the willful and venal denialism that afflicted responses to the crisis at all levels of government and business, and that has been matched throughout by the cultlike rejection of medical counsel by individuals in all strata and sectors of society.

Those cognate details, and the fast comedic dialogue (the President’s vain babble, Brie’s coldly cynical bedroom banter), make “Don’t Look Up” stand out, at the very least, as an on-target political cartoon expanded to the scale of a grandiose mural, with all the pomposity and monotony that such an inflation suggests. The movie lives by its place in the discourse, such as that discourse is. It satirizes the trivializing flow of celebrity gossip and light-toned frivolity, of clickbait pushing aside investigative reporting and of tech moguls not only usurping government power but commandeering public discourse. Yet its own anti-aesthetic of neutral images and predigested narrative efficiency, its celebrity feast of star turns and flashy performances, and its simplistic anger-stoking and pathos-wringing mask the movie’s fundamental position of getting itself talked about while utterly eliding any real sense of politics or political confrontation. It is set largely in and around government, but suggests nothing like any political opposition, such as in Congress or state houses, to President Orlean’s actions and inaction regarding the comet. (The closest to it is the wishful radical populism of Orlean supporters’ spontaneous uprising at a rally where they realize they’ve been lied to.)

The movie’s built-in ambition appears to be simply crude demagogy, reaching an apotheosis in viewers who’ve just watched at home opening their poorly insulated windows and yelling into the street, “Climate change is real!,” without any demand of policy or awareness of actions that the need to slow it might demand. The blame goes on the Peter Isherwells of the world, who seek to profit from it, the Orleans, who deny it or manipulate it for the sake of power; it’s assumed that their lies and distortions are all that keep ordinary people from demanding action. There’s no sense of political psychology, of the tendency of people to look first to immediate personal interest and needs—whether employment or income, convenience or sustenance—and either consider climate change to be distantly abstract or suspect that their present-tense well-being would be sacrificed to climate-favorable policies.

Instead of a political movie, “Don’t Look Up” is a cynical one. It’s basically a Jill Stein movie, a shrug that there’s no difference between the parties, that government is in the corrupt pocket of business and that the élites of all sorts are indifferent to the country’s actual interests. (Though there’s no mention of parties, the movie pointedly shows a picture on the President’s desk showing her beaming side by side with Bill Clinton.)

Why does Hollywood tackle environmental calamity? Why do stars get involved in wildlife conservation? Why are there so few celebrities who put their name and their talent behind, say, voting rights—without which no progressive project such as the Green New Deal has the slightest chance of being signed into law? It’s not only because everyone loves animals, or because movie stars prefer to spend their vacations in the distant wild than in Maricopa County but because it would be impossible to make a film about the suppression of voting rights without considering whose rights are being abrogated, who’s doing so, and which categories of voters supports the measures. The critique of climate change, by contrast, allows the targeting of mega-businesses and political leaders while leaving individuals—meaning, potential moviegoers and ticket-buyers—outside the scope of criticism. In short, what Hollywood people don’t want to do is to critique a political party, because there goes half the potential box office.

In “Don’t Look Up,” the star of “Total Devastation” (played by Chris Evans) makes a promotional appearance wearing a pin of his own devising, a double-headed arrow pointing both up and down, which he explains as his effort to see both sides of the issue and overcome the nation’s divisions. What he’s really insuring is the preservation of a single, unified, indivisible mass of prospective moviegoers and ticket-buyers. “Don’t Look Up” may be aptly unambiguous regarding the notion and danger of climate change itself, but when it comes to the politics that underlie anti-environmental policies, McKay might as well be wearing that very pin.

The movie’s merits and flaws are independent of any public remarks by McKay and the movie’s co-creator, David Sirota, including of their tweets suggesting, respectively, that anyone who thinks negatively of it is unconcerned about climate change, and that its detractors are exactly the oblivious media fools that the film is lampooning. Such remarks should be understood as part of the ad campaign, as skew to the merits of the film itself—even if the filmmakers’ assertion that their zippy entertainment is a contribution to society at large is itself a defining feature of the movie’s demagogic aesthetic. Even Marvel executives weren’t vain enough to accuse critics of “Avengers: Infinity War” of endorsing Thanos’s apocalyptic madness.

More than the filmmakers’ tweets, what gives a clearer sense of the movie’s toxic effect in the mediaverse is the response of climate scientists to negative reviews of it. Climate scientists have endorsed the film enthusiastically as an accurate representation of the obstacles they face in attempting to persuade politicians, the public, and even journalists of the urgency of the crisis. Dr. Michael E. Mann, a climatologist who is DiCaprio’s friend and adviser, calls it“serious sociopolitical commentary posing as comedy.” The climate futurist Alex Steffen tweets about negative reviews as “hot takes written by jaded culture workers from an alternate universe” where climate catastrophe isn’t happening.

Seems to me that, if the scientists don’t want film critics to quibble with the science, the scientists should stop meddling with the art. Yes, I’m joking; but, no, I’m not. The failure of topicality in “Don’t Look Up” is, not least, that the movie’s cynically apolitical view of politics contributes to the frivolous and self-regarding media environment that it decries—starting with the very celebrity power that the movie marshalls to score its points. Its blustery hectoring and colossally wide purview is most notable for its omissions and its blind spots. Its civic ambitions reflect, above all, the inside-Hollywood tunnel vision that it mocks.

All Rights Reserved for Richard Brody 

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