How would the world react if a comet was going to destroy Earth in six months and 14 days? That is the question explored in “Don’t Look Up,” an Oscar-nominated film written and directed by Adam McKay that premiered on Netflix in December.
The film is not subtle in its critique of contemporary society — U.S. leadership abandons its efforts to destroy the comet after discovering it is made up of profitable resources; sensationalist media outlets are more concerned with ratings than telling the hard-hitting truth; and the president’s “Don’t Look Up” campaign results in widespread denial of the world’s impending doom. Hard-hitting stuff.
In addition to its thrilling and somewhat provocative plot, this film’s appeal can be attributed to its star studded cast. Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio play Kate Dibiasky and Dr. Randall Mindy, the astronomers who first discover the comet. They rush to present their findings to President Orlean, played by Meryl Streep, who expresses more concern about how the news would affect the next election than the imminent destruction of the Earth.
With no help from the Orlean administration, Dibiasky and Mindy take their findings to a widely viewed talk show called, “The Daily Rip.” Before appearing on the show — whose charismatic hosts are played by Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry — a producer tells Dibiasky and Mindy to “keep it light, fun.” The first question the scientists are asked is: “Is there life on other planets?”
The lighthearted, morning-show-style banter continues until Dibiasky finally snaps: “Maybe the destruction of the entire planet isn’t supposed to be fun! Maybe it’s supposed to be terrifying and unsettling, and you should stay up all night, every night, crying!”
While you would think Dibiasky’s shouting would serve as a wake-up call, instead, she suffers through an intense trial-by-social-media, as memes of her tantrum circulate the Internet. Mindy, on the other hand, earns the favor of the public by belittling the comet’s impact and playing into the feel-good rhetoric that the viewers find easiest to swallow. Dibiasky is shunned, while Mindy is praised, as the astronomers head in two separate directions — Dibiasky, to spend her last months on Earth accepting its fate, and Mindy to play into the falsified and profitable narrative of big media, corrupt politicians and corporations.
Everyone with Internet access has likely seen at least one memorable pop culture moment turned into a meme and said, “Hey, I don’t know if people should be joking about this.” This film explores the idea of how, nowadays, the delivery of a message is just as important as the message itself. Dibiasky is quite literally warning people of the end of times, yet people only focus on and joke about the manner in which she said it. This part of the film encourages the viewer to look beyond someone’s mannerisms, no matter how ridiculous, and seek to understand the message at the root of their behavior.
From this point on, the film becomes more and more difficult to stomach. The general public is plunged further into a state of denial when the president calls off an Earth-saving mission for the sake of corporate greed. The comet eventually becomes visible, and even that isn’t enough to convince people of the severity of the situation.
The viewer is left wondering, “How could everyone be so ignorant? So blind to the truth?” The mastermind behind the film, McKay, knows what he’s doing. Known for films such as “Anchorman” and “Vice” that serve as parodies of the relationship between politics and the media, McKay is deliberately planting these questions in our head.
Ultimately, we can draw upon real-life examples to find the answers. Scientists warn us everyday about the dangers of COVID-19, climate change and other phenomena that threaten the well-being of the globe, but do we listen? Or would we rather scroll through a Daily Mail story on Snapchat to see the latest on “Celeb’s Biggest Beach Blunders.”
Now, I’m not saying that all news stories should focus on our inevitable doom and the hopelessness of the planet, but I think McKay does a fantastic job of showing us the dangers of when these stories are washed out by celebrity gossip and debates about aliens.
But wait, there’s more! The U.S. decides to take on a comet-destroying initiative which would move Earth out of the comet’s trajectory. Oh, thank goodness, right?
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The destruction efforts are abandoned after multi-billionaire tech mogul Peter Isherwell — played by Mark Rylance — convinces the president that the profitability of the comet, which is determined to be made up of valuable resources, is worth risking an extinction-level event. Isherwell, who shares many of the uncanny-valley type features of today’s tech billionaires, begins to design rockets that would bring the comet to Earth safely. The Orlean administration, the hosts of The Daily Rip and Mindy all publicly announce support for the plan, which wins the favor of the public.
Any sensible viewer can determine that this plan sounds absolutely ludicrous, but is it unrealistic? This past decade has proved the power of politicized messaging and misinformation campaigns more than any other time in history. If Elon Musk were to propose a profitable but not necessarily foolproof solution to an Earth-destroying comet, would his fans support him more than their own government? If McKay wants the viewer to consider these questions, he succeeded.
SPOILER WARNING — the paragraphs that follow contain information about the film’s climax and conclusion.
The movie hits its climax when Dibiasky, who has accepted the Earth’s fate, is gazing at the stars and finally sees it: the comet, visible with a plain eye, hurtling towards the Earth. She calls Mindy, who had recently snapped out of his obsession with fame upon realizing he had played a role in brainwashing the world.
Mindy and Dibiasky, in one last attempt to save the Earth from impending doom, post a video online pointing to the comet to prove its existence. Dibiasky yells: “Just look up into the sky!”
Her quote is immediately switched around for President Orlean's “Don’t Look Up” campaign, one last attempt by the profit-over-people oriented elites to have the public disagree with their own best interests. People buy it.
This film does not have a happy ending.
In the end, the big-tech corporation's mission fails, the comet hits and the Earth explodes. The president, Isherwell and other select billionaires escape moments before the impact in a rocket programmed to find the nearest planet similar to Earth. In a rather comedic, yet tragic, ending, the billionaires arrive decades later on a planet resembling Earth’s prehistoric era, and Orlean is devoured by a dinosaur-like creature.
In my opinion, “Don’t Look Up” is political commentary done right. It’s intriguing plot, obvious allusions to real life characters and events, and star-studded cast result in a film that could peak almost anyone’s interest. The messaging is in no way subtle, but as attention spans grow smaller and misinformation grows larger and more advanced, I think it’s necessary to get Mckay’s point across.
One of the most frustrating elements of the film is the refusal of people to trust Dibiasky and Mindy. The viewer is left wondering, “Why would anyone trust the authority of talk-show hosts over astronomers when looking for information about a comet?” Unfortunately, we can ask parallel questions about the real world. For example, “Why would anyone listen to Tucker Carlson instead of scientists on the issue of climate change?”
The film gives us some, but not all, of the answers to this and other pressing questions about today’s society. If the viewer wants all the answers to the questions posed in the film, they’re left to fill in the gaps themselves. McKay invites the audience to contemplate and possibly reconsider who they’ve been listening to when searching for information. When people ask themselves these questions with an open mind, they can begin to distinguish between what information is real and what information is falsified for the sake of supporting a narrative.
The moral of the story is this: the truth is right in front of you, you just have to “look up.” Don’t buy into the rhetoric of the people whose best interest is to stop you from doing that.
Contact Features Editor Kathryn Kimmel firstname.lastname@example.org
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