Don’t Look Up: A Disaster Film that is the Disaster

The star-studded but largely wasted cast of ‘Don’t Look Up’ (Netflix 2021).

Adam McKay’s latest film as writer-producer-director is a Netflix satire about how humanity reacts (or under-reacts) to the discovery of a killer comet that threatens to wipe out all life on Earth. But by now, most of us know that this uncontroversial story premise serves as an allegory for the much-politicized climate crisis. McKay himself has stated as much and, in case anyone missed the point, a blizzard of press articles blew in ahead of the film’s release to confirm: It’s really a story about climate change. (We actually lost count of the articles which said this — no doubt, it’s part of the film’s press kit. But why does the moral of the story need to be prefaced or telegraphed in this way? We’ll go into this later.)

Pre-screenings of the film to an industry (read: inside) crowd led to much media hype and — with names like Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Mark Rylance, Cate Blanchett and Timothée Chalamet among the credits — some early Oscars buzz too. But such talk proved to be premature as the film’s eventual release saw it widely panned by critics as witless, self-congratulatory and, worst of all for a comedy, not funny. At the time of writing, the movie was sitting on a low score of 55% on the Rotten Tomatoes review aggregator, which has earned the film the unenviable rating of ‘rotten’. This is all too bad given McKay and DiCaprio’s noble intentions and ambitions surrounding the climate cause. So how does the film fare purely in terms of climate storytelling?

Like our previous reviews, we’ll run the film through the Climate Test before commenting on the outcome and its implications for the Hollywood industry. For those unfamiliar with this new measure of climate representation in fiction, you can get up to speed on the three rules of the Climate Test in our first Medium article here.

Rule One: Does it acknowledge that the Earth’s climate is changing?

Sort of, but only briefly, and not clearly enough. At one point, the White House’s Chief of Staff, played by Jonah Hill, bemoans the number of apocalyptic crises that the administration has had to deal with. Included in his list are droughts, famines and other socio-environmental impacts which, nowadays, are increasingly attributed to climate change. However, such adverse events don’t necessarily, in and of themselves, confirm climate change (and certainly not in the minds of all people). Interestingly, the term ‘climate’ itself is never spoken as it seems to have become the new C-word that shall not be uttered in a Hollywood film. Most of this film’s climate messaging is therefore left up to the comet-as-climate metaphor, which conveniently allows the filmmakers to sidestep the challenge of acknowledging the climate crisis more clearly.

Rule Two: Does it portray unchecked business-as-usual as the cause of climate change and as a negative character trait?

No. As discussed above, climate change is mostly left out of the premise in favor of McKay’s comet metaphor, presumably to make the film’s message subtle and, therefore, palatable to broad audiences. However, the metaphor is a deeply flawed one: Humans aren’t responsible for a killer comet in the same way that they’re culpable (some more so than others) for the climate crisis, which instantly eliminates a bunch of compelling storytelling possibilities. Also, humans can’t take individual or collective action against a space object like they can on anthropogenic global warming, which leaves the human masses in this film without much to do (and our protagonists without much reason to be shrieking at them). Moreover, we can’t directly see climate change in the way that our eyes can physically perceive an asteroid hurtling toward us, which would otherwise present an all-too-easy solution to the denial problem — one that was employed to rather anticlimactic effect in the film’s comet scenario.

The very perceivable threat to Earth in ‘Don’t Look Up’ (Netflix 2021).

Instead of specifically addressing the climate crisis and its causes, then, McKay uses his comet metaphor to comment on humanity’s reaction to large-scale disasters in a more general sense, particularly the problems of denial and misinformation, which we’ve already seen play out in reality on a raft of issues including COVID-19. Does that make his film a climate story? Plenty of superior movies and shows have addressed the issue of scientific misinformation, such as the excellent Chernobyl (2019) from HBO, but we don’t tend to view them as climate stories given their non-climate content. As the climate connection in Don’t Look Up is tenuous at best, we don’t think the film engages in much climate storytelling either, despite all the press statements to the contrary. This is about more than semantics — being a non-climate story means that the film simply isn’t what its creators intended it to be.

Rule Three: Does at least one character do something at least once to help solve the climate crisis?

No. Lawrence and DiCaprio lead the cast as two astronomers who, following the discovery of their killer comet, attempt to save the world by raising awareness through the news media and at the top levels of government. But again, the crisis here isn’t climate change, just a flawed and fictional approximation of it. A notable moment is when Leo gets to belt a Network-style monologue while live on air in a television studio, denouncing the public’s inability to accept the science and to address the problem. It’s an angry speech that draws some parallels with the climate crisis, and one which the actor reportedly asked McKay to include in the script. So, to return to Don’t Look Up’s greater shortcomings as a film, it’s too bad that the moment feels dramatically unearned, exposing the actor in place of the character and, sadly, reducing what could otherwise have been a powerful speech to dismissible preach.

We urgently need more and better climate stories, and comedy can indeed be a powerful way to tell these stories. But despite being billed as a satire that addresses climate change, Don’t Look Up fails to pass the Climate Test and unfortunately falls short of being an effective or helpful climate story. Given the film’s negative reviews, subpar filmmaking and vain attempts at humor, it’s unlikely to have the wide reach and impact that its creators intended anyway. That’s a real shame considering all of the socially-conscious Hollywood celebrities who assembled for this project — we don’t know if or when such an alignment of stars will happen again.

Key to the film’s climate storytelling failure is the way that it cops out from clearly acknowledging the climate crisis on the outset. Without the preface of the film’s press kit and subsequent media coverage, audiences are free to interpret this story of misinformation as an allegory for any number of politicized issues unfolding today, not just climate change. And many audiences may fail to draw any climate connection at all, especially if they’re not already mindful of the issue — the very sort of people who need to be brought onside. It’s a huge misstep reminiscent of the similarly-metaphorical Mother! (2017), coincidentally another J-Law movie, which apparently also contained climate themes that the director needed to explain for those outside of the climate choir. Films that require explanation in this way lack the courage and conviction that effective climate storytelling demands, and resorting to such commentary to complete the picture for viewers only highlights this deficiency.

Hollywood is a closed community with its fair share of back-patting, in-jokes and yes-men, where who you are or who you know can often be more important than the actual merits of your work.

Are we seeing these metaphorically ‘coded’ climate films arise because climate-conscious filmmakers have few other choices when film studios increasingly reject explicit climate content for fear of driving certain audience segments away? Studios may be greening their productions and operations, but they still seem reluctant to produce good, clear climate storytelling. This work of transforming culture is arguably the most significant way that these companies could be making a difference on the climate front, so their neglect of this particular social responsibility makes their lesser environmental achievements seem like greenwash.

Netflix, which sponsored the recent Hollywood Climate Summit, announced at the event that 160 million households around the world had watched at least one Netflix story addressing climate change and/or sustainability last year — that’s an incredible statistic. But the company’s sustainability officer then went on to list the environmental films featured in the Netflix library, and things began to make sense: Being counted in this list were films that could only be deemed to contain environmental or nature themes because they featured animated animal characters. It’s also worth pointing out that there’s a distinction between an ‘environmental story’ and a ‘climate story’ — not all of the former are also the latter. People don’t gain exposure to effective climate storytelling just because they watch a Bugs Bunny episode featuring a recycling bin. No doubt, Don’t Look Up will soon be added to the list despite failing to qualify as a climate story in our assessment, which raises the question of whether it’s even an environmental film.

Hollywood’s major studios aren’t producing many genuine or helpful climate stories because they fear that these films will be boring, preachy or politically divisive and, therefore, turn out as commercial failures — but a good climate story doesn’t have to be any of these things. With the support of climate storytelling initiatives, writers working in television, comics and other mediums are demonstrating that it’s possible to craft climate stories that properly represent the issue while also offering great entertainment value to broad audiences. Many of them also go beyond the stale disaster narrative to offer fresh and original stories, inspiring participation instead of pessimism. That’s the climate storytelling challenge before us today, and emerging writers are rising up to this challenge and bringing new voices to the table. We know of one such writer who now has an innovative climate film in early stages with an international streamer guided by genuine sustainability goals. (Note: It isn’t Netflix.)

So we’re not letting climate-conscious filmmakers like Leo and McKay off the hook just yet. For starters, they could be telling better climate stories. Both also have production outfits of their own: Appian Way and Hyperobject Industries, respectively (the latter was behind Don’t Look Up). Yet both companies are reportedly difficult to reach, even if you have a well-reviewed climate storytelling project behind you. This strikes us as strange and counterproductive, especially as Leo himself has stated that he had searched and waited “years” for a screenplay that does justice to the climate crisis. Curiously, he has also said that McKay’s script for Don’t Look Up successfully “cracked the code” on climate storytelling. Given that the film has failed both critically and, in our analysis, on climate storytelling grounds, we think that this was an overly positive assessment of the script. And while we’re disappointed, we’re not all that surprised by the wasteful disaster that the film turned out to be. Why?

Hollywood is a closed community with its fair share of back-patting, in-jokes and yes-men, where who you are or who you know can often be more important than the actual merits of your work. The usual spiel from companies like Appian and Hyperobject is that they don’t accept any external script submissions unless it’s from a literary agency that already has a relationship with the company. We haven’t seen many good climate stories come out of this business-as-usual practice and, if Don’t Look Up was the best that the system could come up with after all these years, we’re not holding our breath for anything better to happen soon under this behind-the-times policy. So why are Hollywood’s climate-conscious producers shutting out new and emerging voices who are starting to go places, while confining themselves to established writers and elite agencies who have demonstrably failed (and continue to fail) to adequately address the climate crisis?

Climate change is the biggest story of our time because it affects all of us. To tell this story, we need new, fresh and different voices, not just those we already know from the Hollywood establishment. In the face of this global crisis and the urgent need for better climate stories, we say it’s high time for the Hollywood industry to step up and change together with the rest of us. Leonardo DiCaprio and Adam McKay: We hope you’re both taking note.

If you’d like to see Hollywood’s major studios, including streamers like Netflix and Amazon, make films with more courageous, genuine and effective climate stories, please support our Hollywood climate storytelling campaign. In collaboration with the Fridays For Future youth climate movement begun by Greta Thunberg, we’re calling on the studios to take a stance on climate change by committing to more, and better, climate stories. You can find out more on our Action Network page:

https://actionnetwork.org/petitions/hollywood

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