Don’t Look Up quickly broke Netflix viewing records upon being released late in December, and the film has become a lightning rod for opinions about global heating, AKA climate change.

The film by Adam McKay (The Big Short, Vice) stars Jennifer Lawrence as grad student Kate Dibiasky and Leonardo DiCaprio as Dr. Randall Mindy, two astronomers who discover that a huge, killer comet is headed for Earth. They attempt to warn governments and the public, but discover that few seem to care, and that those who do care appear helpless to achieve anything meaningful to stop the disaster.

The film, of course, is a metaphor for the climate crisis and a satire of those who live in denial and delusion, flooded with misinformation and distraction. “The film,” said DiCaprio “is an analogy of modern culture [and our] inability to hear and listen to scientific truth.” The film depicts what climate scientists and activists have experienced over the last 40-plus years. 

In a more general sense, this is a film about blind spots and the tendency of people to deny or ignore inconvenient truths about themselves and the world. “There’s a reason every disaster movie starts with the government ignoring a scientist,” wrote scientist Peter Gleick, paraphrasing a popular slogan from climate protests. “When you degrade, ignore, and dismiss the warnings of science you threaten all of us.”

Divided reviews take sides

Since the film had an important message to deliver, it naturally became controversial, and reviewer opinions appeared to fall along ideological lines. 

“I’ve never felt so seen,” tweeted marine biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, of the “How to Save a Planet” podcast. “I was wincing, anxious, nervous sweating, and nearly shouted at the screen, ‘Are you f**king kidding me?! Listen to the scientists!’”

David Ritter, of Greenpeace Australia Pacific, told The Guardian that he felt struck by the sense of desperation portrayed by the film’s scientists, and that “chaos and drama interspersed with the interaction of characters in a more quiet, reflective mode … was particularly striking and evocative of how one experiences a world that is grappling with the climate crisis.”

Meanwhile, those who don’t take the ecological crisis seriously enough mocked the film. The Wall Street Journal, a forum for unrelenting capitalist growth, called the film a “feeble joke.” 

The Guardian published positive and negative reviews. Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian described the film as “slapstick apocalypse,” and a “toothless comedy” that comes from a “position of lofty superiority.” Meanwhile, Donna Lu at The Guardian, praised the film as an “intentional allegory of the climate crisis” that “parodies our inaction.” 

David Vetter, writing in Forbes, broke with typical business journals in “Why Sneering Critics Dislike Netflix’s ‘Don’t Look Up,’ But Climate Scientists Love It.” He writes that the filmmakers “skewer the personalities and the structures that help prevent our status-infatuated, profit-obsessed society from taking climate change seriously. It does this whilst being extremely funny.”

Art and cultural impact

Don’t Look Up! appears in the tradition of great socially relevant films such Dr. Strangelove (nuclear war); Wag the Dog (media manipulation); To Kill a Mocking Bird (racial justice); and Philadelphia (gay rights). McDonald’s changed its menu following the release of Super Size Me; and even Bambi  purportedly inspired 50% of recreational hunters to abandon hunting.

We may witness over time whether or not this film can alter our cultural trajectory. In any case, the film exposes a full range of social blind spots, biases, conceits, and deceits, with humour and poignancy. It is powerful satire. 

The film does not set out to articulate a full-system solution or provide action tips for those who might agree with the message. The film is a wake-up call. Films that try to deliver a message can feel self-righteous, but this film avoids that, primarily with humour. I identified with both characters Kate and Dr. Mindy, their frustration at being ignored, and their embarrassment when they lost control or failed to articulate their concern appropriately. I found the final scene heart-wrenchingly beautiful, even as cast against impending disaster. 

Meryl Streep as a female Trumpish president was brilliant. Singer Ariana Grande perfectly portrayed the pop star who wants to help, but who is also trapped in a fame industry. Jonah Hill was hilarious as the wannabe politician, way over his head, and Mark Rylance nailed the dreamy technology optimist, who thinks “everything is going to be fine.” 

I was proud of director McKay for not conjuring up some miraculous miracle to save the day. He takes the story all the way, to really drive home the cost of delusion and denial.  

Both DiCaprio and McKay fully intended the climate change metaphor, but there may be even deeper relevance for ecologists and climate activists. 

The Art of Messaging

After seeing the film, I spoke with ecologist Nora Bateson. She pointed out that the film was an example of play, “playing with satire, and the play is important.”  Play involves an abstraction that requires communication. When we play a competitive game, for example, we signal to our opponent that the conflict is in fun. When animals play, they signal that their aggression is not serious, it is an abstraction. “The vagueness is part of play,” Bateson says, “and part of satire. One has to look at the various levels of the messaging. Think, for example, about what is not said. How is that significant? Play allows us to loosen up the epistemological locked box. Things are not exactly as they appear.” And this allows us to see things with a fresh perspective. 

The film is also playing with the communication dysfunction in our society, the double binds and traps that cannot necessarily be fixed with a policy or with linear “solution” thinking.

Bateson pointed out that messages, such as this film, “are often created for people who already agree with the message,” i.e. preaching to the choir, virtue signalling, or confirming a presumed truth. “Perhaps the value for those who already agree with the message is to intensify their commitment. For those who don’t understand or agree, they may learn the truth of the message in real life, as their own lives are affected.” 

From an ecological point of view, everything is relationship. Whatever we say and do, there is always a meta-level where the significance is what happens between and among us. Having a point of view is personal, but communicating a point of view is cultural/social, and thus threatened by misunderstanding. 

Greenpeace co-founder Bob Hunter coined the term “mind bomb” to describe the intended impact of dramatic activism. A mind bomb is an image or idea that can inspire people to change their perception. This film is an example of a mind bomb from the commercial film world. It has already proven its power to shake up the culture and change perceptions. Of course, like all mind bombs, including Greenpeace actions, not everyone will be convinced. 

Bob Hunter and Whaling Ship. © Greenpeace / Rex Weyler
Bob Hunter, places his hand on the stopped Soviet harpoon ship in the Pacific near Hawaii. © Greenpeace / Rex Weyler

Communication itself has become a battle zone in our society. Most public communication is designed as a manipulation to bolster some point of view or attack some point of view. The idea of collectively seeking truth has become rare. We more likely seek confirmation of what we already believe. 

“Because if we really heard the message of ecology,” Bateson added, “we would have to deconstruct our entire world that gives us stability. That might be too much for some people.”

Blind spots

Environmental activists may rightfully feel that the film justifies what they have been saying for decades, but the deeper question for activists might be: What are my own blind spots? What are the taboos that keep me silent on certain issues?

In this film, and in the public response, there is indeed a certain amount of preaching to the choir, virtue signalling, and confirming a presumed truth. “We’re in a climate crisis!” Yes, but that crisis is a symptom of a larger crisis — the overshoot crisis — that involves factors such as human population, our consumption habits, and human-centred points of view that we may avoid discussing. Some people, including environmentalists, might miss the significance of that deeper crisis. 

Serious scientists have been warning humanity for years that our ecological crisis is deeper than climate, including The Limits to Growth study, Ecological Footprint analysis, Overshoot analysis, The Planetary boundaries report, the United Nations International Resource Panel report on “Global Material Flows and Resource Productivity,” and the 2017 “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice,” compiled by eight renowned scientists and signed by 15,364 scientists from 184 countries, published in BioScience.

These reports, and more, suggest that human overshoot of Earth’s capacity is the most fundamental source of our ecological crisis, of which the climate crisis is a symptom, and that in addition to frivolous consumption habits of the rich, our economic belief in eternal growth, and the unfettered growth of human numbers, contribute to this crisis.

A deeper reading of Don’t Look Up, might inspire us — ecologists, environmentalists, or social activists — to consider our own blind spots, and to at least openly discuss controversial issues. Misconceptions about our crisis, taken together, may comprise one of the scarier comets we face. 

We cannot necessarily stop changes that are coming in Earth’s evolution. We are not in control of Earth’s evolution, even if we have affected it. However, we can adapt and help shift society to conditions commensurate to what our Earth and Sun can provide. Of course, if we fail to make these adaptations, we shall remain vulnerable to all the comets that confront us. 

It is possible that everyone in our society, regardless of our political perspective, will need to face their inconvenient truths, in personal relationships, community relations, global relations, and in all our relations.