Dec 8, 2021 - Energy & Environment

"Don't Look Up" skewers our response to climate change

Tyler Perry, Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence in a scene from "Don't Look Up."
Cate Blanchett (L), Tyler Perry, Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence in a scene from "Don't Look Up."

"Don't Look Up", the new movie directed by Adam McKay of "The Big Short" fame, is the most ambitious, acerbic and powerful climate change and media satire ever made.

Why it matters: Pop culture depictions of climate change can start conversations and change minds, potentially clearing the way for more policies to combat the problem, or on the other hand, hardening opposition against cutting emissions.

The big picture: McKay's choice to center the film on something other than climate change pays off, as he uses the plot device of a planet-killing comet hurtling toward Earth to represent the existential risks global warming poses.

  • It also shows the absurdity of science denial when so many people, including people in power, play down the risks of the comet or simply refuse to look up.
  • How society reacts to the news of imminent doom sheds light in our distracted body politic, media outlets that are more concerned with clicks and keeping topics light than exploring real, sometimes disturbing issues, and a frustrated scientific community whose findings are often being ignored by those in power.

The movie stars Leonardo DiCaprio, who told reporters he's been looking to make a film about climate change (other than a documentary, which he made in 2016) "for decades," but that this was the perfect vehicle.

  • DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence play astronomers who make the frightening discovery that a large comet is headed toward Earth, where it will cause cataclysmic destruction if it is not knocked off course, but they find that they must go on a publicity tour to get anyone to listen to them.
  • They are largely dismissed by a Donald Trump-like president, played by Meryl Streep, in a scene that will be familiar to any scientist who has ever had to brief a political leader on probabilities.
  • "Adam really cracked the code with this with this narrative," DiCaprio said at a virtual press conference on Sunday. "I mean, there's so many comparisons that we can make to the climate crisis with this storyline."

Between the lines: The movie uses humor to expose unsettling truths about how we're responding to climate change, how distracted we are by social media, the power of corporate interests over our political system and media's desire to sugarcoat bad news in order to prevent ratings from tanking while maximizing clicks.

  • The film's all-star cast, which includes an unrecognizable, acerbic Mark Rylance and Ariana Grande (whose song written about the comet is worth the theater ticket or streaming click alone), along with Jonah Hill, Timothée Chalamet, Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry.
  • Climate scientists will find the movie to be an uncanny representation of how decades of U.N. climate panel reports have fallen on deaf ears, and many politicians have denied or ignored the reality of basic physics in choosing to oppose measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  • DiCaprio and Lawrence's futile campaign to get the American people to agree to a basic set of facts rings true in a lamentable way, given not just climate change but the extreme political polarization in recent years.
  • "I mean, it's just, it's so sad and frustrating to watch people who have dedicated their lives to learning the truth be turned away because people don't don't like what, what the truth has to say," Lawrence told reporters in a virtual press conference on Sunday.

Context: While climate change has been addressed in movies before, most famously in 2004 with "The Day After Tomorrow," no one has ever attempted the high-wire act that McKay and his cast pull off in "Don't Look Up."

  • It's a comedy about an end-of-world scenario that's a stand-in for another depressing, though not necessarily planet killing, calamity.

The bottom line: Scientists and science journalists tend to scoff at Hollywood disaster films, pointing out everything they get wrong. But finally someone made a disaster movie, about climate change, no less, that is almost so effective, entertaining and ridiculous that it's unsettling, just like the times we're living through.

Don't Look Up is in theaters Friday and arrives on Netflix on Dec. 24.

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