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Netflix's 'Don't Look Up' misjudges the effort to tackle climate change

The Netflix film has set off a debate about whether it's an effective satire of our problems confronting global warming.
Image: Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio in a movie still from \"Don't Look Up\".
"Don't Look Up" centers on the quest of two scientists (played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) to persuade the world that a planet-killing comet is hurtling toward Earth.Niko Tavernise / Netflix

“Don’t Look Up,” writer-director Adam McKay’s star-studded comedic film about climate change, is causing a stir. It’s trending at the top of Netflix, drawing sharp criticism, and has been generating heated debate on social media since its release on the streaming site last week.

McKay’s new movie, which comes after his uneven Dick Cheney biopic, “Vice,” centers on the quest of two scientists (played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) to persuade the world that a planet-killing comet is hurtling toward Earth, only to run up against a corrupt, self-interested political class, avaricious Silicon Valley billionaires who want to mine the comet for rare minerals and a media world addicted to frivolity.

The debate about “Don’t Look Up” is unusually high stakes: This is a movie about how people aren’t paying enough attention to climate change; if it fails to connect with or offer insight to its audiences, then it will have failed in not just its artistic mission but also its political one.

The central conceit of the film and its repeated attempts to indict the media actually obscure more than they enlighten.

In terms of its artistic achievements, the film is nobly intentioned and lands some solid jokes and caricatures, but it probably lost many film critics due to the way it veers unpredictably between satire and cloying earnestness. I sometimes felt screamed at for something I already know; it would’ve been more enriching if the movie had leaned more into its absurdity and wallowed less in its straightforward fallen-world moralism.

But my primary interest here is the political impact: Does “Don’t Look Up” give us a clearer picture of our society’s struggle to tackle climate change? On this front, it has a mixed record: It gets some things right, but the central conceit of the film and its repeated attempts to indict the media likely obscure more than they enlighten. Ironically, a movie about the difficulty of focus may be distracting us from some of the real problems that lie ahead.

The master stroke of “Don’t Look Up” is the role of Silicon Valley mogul Peter Isherwell, played wonderfully by Mark Rylance, who has an ethereal presence and casually overturns government policies to ensure he can profit from the apocalyptic comet. His blithe indifference to the feelings of others as he floats in and out of the White House while quietly examining his phone and dispensing information about how and when people will die using invasive surveillance data is a clever parody of today’s tech titans. Isherwell captures how Silicon Valley leaders are effectively demigods in our societies, capable of whimsically destroying and creating new worlds, building tech designed to exploit human loneliness and breathlessly dressing it up as in society’s best interests and not their own.

But the central — and titular — theme of “Don’t Look Up” is that our society is plagued by the malady of climate denialism: It’s virtually impossible for the scientists in the movie to convince people the comet exists and should be taken seriously. Here, it stumbles in a big way.

We’re invited to see a cable news show that repeatedly hosts the scientists who discovered the comet as a stand-in for our brain-dead media. When the scientists initially plead for the pundits to take the issue of an extinction-level threat seriously, the hosts remind them that “we just keep the bad news light.” When Lawrence’s character, a precocious but cynical doctoral student, goes on a rant about how everyone is going to die, she’s immediately memed to death, panned as crazy and ostracized by the media — “canceled” for telling the truth. These themes repeat throughout the movie.

Saying the media industry prefers to avoid bad news couldn’t be further from the truth.

There are two major issues here: One, suggesting the media industry prefers to avoid bad news couldn’t be further from the truth. Bad news is consistently lucrative for news media. Consider how the initial stages of the pandemic drove tremendous news consumption or how media outlets tend to fare better when they oppose the president in office or the fact that “good news” verticals in media have been inspired by an ambition to counteract the norm of negativity and suffering in most news coverage.

The reality is that climate change has been a media challenge for reasons that are more complex (and harder to indict someone for) than the idea that speaking truthfully about bad things is bad for business. One issue is that climate change involves gradual and systemic changes. There is no one clear villain; there is no single solution; and developments are slow enough that, outside of exceptionally catastrophic natural disasters, it can be hard to chronicle change in a gripping way. That makes the issue unlike crises in politics, crime or business, for example.

American media outlets absolutely deserve sharp criticism for inattention to climate change in years past — and the way journalists have failed to pressure presidential candidates on climate is beyond shameful. But much of it has more to do with structural flaws in the way journalists have been taught and are incentivized to tell stories: discrete narratives driven by characters, rather than problems in the systems we live in. This feature of how the news is generally told exposes the limitations of the central metaphor of "Don't Look Up." Observing climate change — which can vary in its acceleration and effects depending on human intervention, and can be so gradual that it can't usually be observed moment-to-moment — isn't perfectly analogous to following the distinctly discernible, singular threat posed by a comet with one clear trajectory guaranteed to obliterate all human life.

The second issue to consider is the agency and responsibility of the audience. Many producers, editors and reporters have noted in years past that it can be quite difficult to get audience attention on climate change stories — although that has begun to change in recent years, it seems. This isn’t to say media outlets shouldn’t be blamed for failing to tell climate stories in a more effective way or striving to be more inventive, but there are limits to what media outlets can do if audiences find important stories boring. (Consider how much more attention political gaffe coverage gets than policy stories.) Adding to the problem is that the unending revenue crisis in media driven by the advent of the internet makes it difficult for outlets to devote resources to an issue that doesn’t get a great deal of attention. In other words, media outlets aren't afraid of looking hysterical or telling the truth. They're partially restricted by the concern that people aren't interested in certain truths.

The title of the movie “Don’t Look Up” contends that the central problem we face is that society has decided to ignore uncomfortable truth — and one might be led to believe that this is all about the need for better messaging. But ignorance is not the main obstacle. In the U.S., a majority believe in anthropogenic global warming, and a majority believe the government should do more to address it. At this stage in history, the problem is moving from recognition of the problem to action: building political willpower; making climate a top-tier policy priority; getting serious about ending fossil fuel addiction and and investing in climate-related tech; pursuing alternatives to rapacious capitalism; and cultivating cultural shifts in the way we handle everything from meat consumption to travel to waste. The obstacles to these badly-needed efforts are less about how hard it is to awaken a society of dupes than they are about the difficulty of generating mass mobilization for radical change.

Talking heads, short-sighted politicians and especially corporations with vested interests in fossil fuels deserve a great deal of blame. "Don't Look Up" makes some decent points about their culpability in an entertaining way. But what it misses is that the solution isn’t just having the courage to acknowledge the problem — it's building the power and discipline to do something about it.