Sungleen Moon reviews Netflix’s star-studded drama film on environmental awareness.
We hurtle into the opening of Don’t Look Up (2021) where edgy-Millenial PhD candidate Jennifer Lawrence and nerdy-but-hot astronomy professor Leonardo DiCaprio are calculating figures with suspense. The uncomfortable close-ups and stylistic editing suggest that these numbers forewarn something threatening. With the help of the rising score (Nicholas Britell, you’ve done it again), and a sprinkle of jargon-filled dialogue, the tension in the room soars up and crackles down as the two leads come to the sudden realisation that these numbers add up to something far greater than they could have anticipated. No, Adam Mckay’s latest film isn’t about the financial crisis, instead, the figures idly written on a whiteboard forecast an impending comet that will soon crash into the Earth. A comet that has all the power to extinguish humanity and destroy the planet… sound familiar?
The two astronomers, Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) and Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), deal with the unexpected burden of having to warn the world — Hollywood lingo for the United States and the rest of the global West — that all earthbound living beings will face the destruction of their homes, their families, and their beautiful planet if nothing is done. Their desperate pleas to raise awareness of this newfound threat becomes increasingly agonising, to the point of utter hopelessness, as the scientists get tangled up and trapped in webs of corrupt political agendas and sensationalist media. The story introduces a myriad of questionably written caricatures during its lengthy runtime, featuring mimes of real-life figures we may recognise, as well as various social and political stereotypes. The approaching disaster causes many concerning reactions from these characters, and by the end of the film, everyone spirals into dysfunctional chaos as the world becomes more and more broken too. It is during these moments that McKay attempts to connect the film’s fictional doomsday to our own imminent one, and as a result, the director and writer births and moulds the comet as a metaphor for climate change.
Climate change is commonly understood as a slow-burning, invisible killer. As for McKay’s Don’t Look Up, the incoming disaster is visible to the naked eye and photographable by technology. The exact time it takes for the comet to strike Earth is quantifiable too; Six months. Yes, the fast-approaching metaphor is effective in creating that ‘massive sense of urgency’ in humanity to care about a cause (or not) as Leonardo DiCaprio has stated. We see characters who are leaders, political figures, celebrities, and just about everyone else reveal their truest and most apathetic selves within a short period of time, where times of empathy were needed most. Nevertheless, the comet was not the most productive metaphor and failed to land in all the right places.
The comet — climate change — assumes the form of any other natural disaster: a celestial phenomenon unprovoked by human activity. An event that only occurs due to chance and is exempt from reason. The metaphor completely undermines the lead up to why there is such a need for rapid action, disregarding years of capitalist intervention and excessive exploitation of natural resources that have reinforced and supported the structures of such a threatening, mighty comet. And the reason why these political antagonists and corporate villains have such selfish reactions in the film. The climate disaster is not terrifying because it is a chance event, it is terrifying because it has been actively nurtured through years of unsustainable systems that have continuously allowed wealth and power to be prioritised over human lives. And whose lives will be affected first?
By the end of the film, the comet strikes fairly. From a mother washing her newborn baby, to a group of people eating their last dinner together and saying their final prayers, no one is able to escape the oncoming cataclysm. The film finally offers a glimpse into the everyday lives of people around the world, exhibiting humanity’s final efforts at collectivism; they all, somehow or another, attempt to acknowledge their final breath and live. The metaphor states it clear: you and I will face the consequences of climate change equally. (Unless you’re a billionaire who somehow managed to escape into the future unnecessarily naked). Climate change will inevitably affect you, I, and everyone, but, disproportionately over time. The wealthy, and those in the global north will generally not experience climate change in the same way as those living in poverty and in the global south, at least at the moment. The comet metaphor leaves this aside, illustrating a world where the threat only has a single moment of affect, when in reality,vulnerable people are already struggling with worsened environmental conditions.
Metaphors aren’t supposed to be entirely accurate, of course, but they carry a sense of responsibility if spotlighted in a film that is itching to educate and influence. Although entertaining, Don’t Look Up fails to be the radical, thoughtful movie it wants to be. The comet is big and loud to the point where you can almost hear Adam McKay’s voice as it screeches down to Earth, ultimately ineffective as a result of its volume. As Don’t Look Up parodies particular political parties and people, it becomes a film that only calls for a change of management rather than a change of system. We’re told that a friendlier, more approachable president and a more charitable billionaire of a mega tech company under the same capitalist regime would be a solution to climate disaster… Give me a break.
The film’s portentous message becomes more unconvincing as the film itself often runs the risk of self-parody. Approximately eleven minutes into the film, the extensive list of names that comprise the star-studded cast (what some would say is the selling point of the film) floods the entire screen in flashy and immodest colours. These names are shown again at the end of the film in the exact same style. Netflix’s budget and casting connections are flaunted; these monumental names are printed onto the screen in bold typeface, taking us out of the story and disrupting the film’s metaphorical allegory by reminding audiences of how much we should care about these people. A standard way to introduce the cast for a normal film, but, this isn’t just any old story as Netflix and McKay have advertised. For a tale that critiques so much of how much the rich are prioritised in the media and society over significant issues, the film ends up investing a solid fraction of its runtime into showcasing these millionaires with such flamboyance, rather than delving into the story’s message. (Not to mention the stars of the film who received sizable paychecks and splashed their cash recently in a totally environmentally friendly superyacht).
We end up hurtling out of the film with a flimsy comet metaphor and an overall unconvincing execution. The comet, intended to overwhelm audiences, misfires and underwhelms its political message, limiting the story of a wider exploration and making for a less captivating watch.
Don’t Look Up out on Netflix: