We live in a pretty dreadful age for satire; it’s extremely difficult to exaggerate the current state of the world, so most satirical comedies choose to simply reflect it right back to us.
Hence, Don’t Look Up doesn’t hold up a funhouse mirror to our world – just a mirror. The film replaces our incoming mass extinction event, the climate crisis, with a meteorite hurtling towards Earth.
The film highlights the dismal failure of politicians to take the problem seriously (regardless of which side of the aisle they sit on), the self-destructive urges of greedy billionaires and delusional silicon valley dwellers, the scientists co-opted by corporate interests, along with the misinformation and conspiracy theories sparked by an event too terrible to acknowledge.
Although the film essentially stretches a single meme into two hours, it resonated with the public, reportedly attracting the biggest week of views in Netflix’s history. Many critics praised the film’s acknowledgment of the absurdity of the modern world, and one climate scientist wrote a moving essay emphasizing the film’s importance.
Other critics pointed out the film’s faults, and were chastised by the film’s fans, as well as climate scientists and activists, who seemed to associate criticism of the film with criticism of the film’s message.
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Don’t Look Up director Adam McKay even got defensive on Twitter, doing his best to conflate criticism of his film with climate denial.
Amusingly, this isn’t the first time McKay has defended his critically panned movie by accusing critics of lacking empathy.
Perhaps the most interesting (and honest) reaction to Don’t Look Up was that of journalist and environmental activist George Monbiot, who wrote an article stating that he saw his own struggle reflected in the film, recognizing the collective madness that the story depicts.
Not long after the Cop26 climate conference in Glasgow, Monbiot broke down in tears on live television, during a discussion in which the hosts of Good Morning Britain framed climate change protesters as annoying and disruptive.
I recommend watching the clip – it’s more powerful, more absurd, more infuriating than any scene from Don’t Look Up, and it is entirely real.
Don’t Look Up is not the first story to tackle climate change, and it won’t be the last. But fictionalizing the crisis is beginning to feel almost like a passive acceptance of our fate. And lashing out in despair at film critics, as though the right reaction to the right movie will spark meaningful change, doesn’t seem particularly productive.
Many millennials grew up watching media that was extremely environmentally conscious, such as Pocahontas, Fern Gully, Avatar, An Inconvenient Truth, and the films of Hayao Miyazaki, or playing games like Oddworld and Final Fantasy VII, which explicitly denounced capitalist greed, endless resource extraction, and emphasized the importance of protecting the planet from our worst impulses.
These stories often end with an individual successfully saving nature from being ravaged by industry. Perhaps, in hindsight, they should have emphasized collective action, but they are only stories; they are not instruction manuals on how to proceed.
Don’t Look Up marks a dramatic shift in tone, ending in armageddon, littered with dark humor that doesn’t exaggerate a thing. The film doesn’t have much to say about our world that we didn’t already know, but the reaction to it speaks volumes.