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When Disaster Strikes: Don’t Look Up’s Rally Cry Against Climate Change

“You cannot go around saying to people that there’s a hundred percent chance they’re going to die.” So says President Orlean, played by none other than Meryl Streep, in director Adam McKay’s new apocalyptic black comedy Don’t Look Up. And yet this is exactly what Dr Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and PhD candidate Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) did. They discover a comet is heading straight towards earth, a so-called “planet killer”, that will wipe out all life. And there are only six months before it hits.

The film follows the two scientists’ attempts to persuade the world, including the US President, that there really is a comet hitting. Yet their desperate calls for action are left unheard. McKay encompasses the world of social media, fake news, political manoeuvres and mass inaction that we live in, providing frequent parallels to events taking place in real life.

McKay makes clear that the film is intended to be a representation of our current inertia about climate change. According to scientists, the earth is facing a crisis, with increasing global temperatures bringing with it warming oceans, rising sea levels and extreme weather events. If we do not soon reduce the high levels of carbon dioxide we are producing the crisis may be irreversible. Scientists have been seeing the trend in rising temperatures for many years, with most of the warming occuring in the past forty; 2016 and 2020 were the joint warmest years on record. But little action to prevent global warming has been taken by governments and businesses: those that McKay targets in the film.

Impending disaster. And yet little to nothing is being done about it. The film’s portrayal of a disaster that could be averted but is being ignored offers a clear message about the climate crisis to the audience. So is the movie’s intention to push people into action? 

Clearly, a film needs to be entertaining, but this is not mutually exclusive from also creating a reaction from audiences, in this case a shock factor. The use of comedy intends to make its serious message more palatable. But tonally the film did not quite hit the mark. At moments it was funny, but at others it was cringe-worthy. The dark comedy aspect sometimes became jarring and a little forced. Especially at moments such as when they discovered the scientists discovered the comet was going to hit, I felt unsure as to whether this was supposed to come across as comedic or devastating.

I struggled at points with the lack of subtlety in the direction. The frequent allusions between President Orlean and Donald Trump became increasingly exaggerated, especially when it came to her speech against the scientific evidence, using the slogan ‘Don’t Look Up’ – comparable perhaps to Trump’s 2016 election campaign slogan ‘Make America Great Again’ or claiming something he disagreed with was ‘fake news’. Her wearing of a cap similar to Trump’s crossed the line into being almost farcical. Despite a star-studded cast, the execution of the film failed to live up to its hype. As Mindy says: “Not everything needs to sound so clever, or charming, or likeable all the time. Sometimes we need to just be able to say things to one another. We need to hear things.” Perhaps this is a valid point. Often all we want is for politicians to not avoid questions or skate around subjects for their political advantage. But this is taken too far: the film could do with a little less obvious.

McKay’s focus on an issue like this is well-meaning, with an intention of creating shock at our lack of action in the face of apparent world disaster, but it is important to recognise the intelligence of the audience to avoid seeming condescending. However, it is undeniable that the meaning of the film could be lost on anybody, and personally I did find that it made me think. I frequently consider the future, what it will look like with global warming, and try to make an effort as an individual to reduce my carbon footprint. But is this enough? McKay’s focus in the film is an important one. It looks at the big actors in politics, business and technology, and how they are loath to act, concentrating instead on the financial and political benefits or disadvantages, rather than taking responsibility. The monetary gains seen in the minerals available on the comet outweighed the need to prevent the comet from hitting, perhaps an apt metaphor for our financial-driven world. In relation to the climate crisis, it is of course vital to individually contribute to reducing emissions, but the only way we are going to prevent a disaster is wider government action. In comparison, with a comet hurtling towards earth, the individual could do nothing: only those in power had the capacity to try to stop it.

Not every film has to have a deep moral message, and can be there purely to entertain. Don’t Look Up did prove to be an engaging watch whilst also clearly intending to educate its viewers. Its comedic elements and overall premise provided an entertaining piece, but the unconvincing and shaky handling of the black comedy and excessive emphasis on its parallels to the real world impacted its intended rallying call against climate change.

Artwork by Wang Sum Luk. Image credit: JuergenPM//Pixabay

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