Don’t Look Down! (A review of Don’t Look Up)
I don’t generally like broad satire, so for weeks I resisted recommendations that I watch the movie Don’t Look Up, even as it set a new Netflix record for hours streamed and occupied an impressive amount of territory in my Twitter feed. But I finally gave in, and I’m glad I did—both because I found the movie funny (mainly in its less broad moments) and because I think it’s an important cultural and political document.
But now I face a challenge: Is it possible to say anything original about something that’s been chewed over for a full month—which, in the world of online takes, is roughly as long as the Pleistocene Epoch? Well, that’s the question that I hope will keep you on the edge of your seat as this movie review (the first ever in NZN!) moves inexorably toward its stunning climax.
Before I get started, here’s a four-question FAQ about the movie, just in case you’ve somehow kept it from penetrating your awareness.
1. What’s the movie about? Two astronomers (Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) conclude that a comet is heading directly for Planet Earth and then have trouble convincing earthlings of the gravity of the situation. Calamity ensues. (Note: The ambiguity of the word “calamity” keeps this plot summary from being a plot spoiler, but a couple of medium-magnitude spoilers will crop up after the FAQ.)
2. What’s the correct interpretation of the movie? Writer-director Adam McKay has said the movie is an allegory about climate change.
3. What are some alternative interpretations of the movie? Observers have noted that the comet is a good stand-in for covid—a sudden and unexpected global peril. And Matt Yglesias has suggested that we take the movie as an allegory about existential risk in general.
4. What is your interpretation of the movie, Bob? Personally, I like the Yglesias angle. Then again, I’m the guy who keeps pushing the “Apocalypse Aversion Project,” which encompasses risks ranging from climate change to pandemics to arms races in space and cyberspace and so on. I’m a sucker for generic existential risk allegories.
Anyway, for purposes of assessing this movie, I’m not sure it matters much which risk you see it as being about. One big thing it’s definitely about is the problem of getting Americans to focus on and soberly assess evidence of grave danger. That’s what I think is important about it, and that’s where I think it demonstrates underappreciated strengths and even more underappreciated weaknesses.
A fair number of people seem to think the movie’s message is cartoonishly condescending—that it’s a two-hour dunking on right-wing dullards who refuse to trust the scientists. I can kind of see why that interpretation would take hold. As the movie’s climax approaches, there’s a political rally where a demagogic president who recommends ignoring the comet is surrounded by working-class supporters chanting “Don’t look up”—which sounds enough like “Lock her up” to dispel any lingering doubt as to which political faction is being ridiculed here.
But there are problems with the idea that the movie is fundamentally an indictment of red state rubes who fail to trust the experts. For starters, some of the experts in the movie don’t deserve trust! DiCaprio, seduced by fame and power (and, as a bonus, by Cate Blanchett), spends part of the movie telling Americans something he doesn’t believe—that there’s no urgent need to launch a big blow-up-the-comet initiative, because a creepy Silicon Valley billionaire’s plan to mine the comet for precious minerals will have the welcome byproduct of defusing it. The head of NASA also misleads the public, as do some Nobel laureate scientists who are in cahoots with the billionaire.
Indeed, when you step back and ponder this list of miscreants who aren’t red-state rubes—an obscure academic scientist, a government quasi-scientist, Nobel laureates, a tech billionaire—it’s enough to make you think that maybe the movie’s message isn’t condescending at all: Maybe McKay is saying the big problem isn’t the ordinary Americans who are suspicious of elites, but rather the elites who manifestly deserve suspicion. Or, at least, maybe he’s saying that ordinary Americans and elites are equally to blame.
Oddly, some reviewers who have noticed how many untrustworthy experts there are in this movie stick with the claim that its intended message is “Trust the experts.” Here is what Scott Alexander, a very smart guy and a revered figure in the rationalist community, writes after noting that the standard take on this movie seems to be “Believe Experts”:
I think the scriptwriter and director and people like that also thought the moral of this story was Believe Experts. I think they asked themselves “How can we create a polemical film that viscerally convinces people to Believe Experts,” and they somehow came up with this movie, where the experts are bad and wrong…
Alexander then asks this question about McKay’s movie: “What went wrong? How can you try so hard to convey your politics, yet fail so badly?”
Answering that question is hard, and Alexander’s answer is complicated. Here’s something that’s simpler: Rather than ask that question, just assume that Adam McKay meant what the movie seems to be saying. That is: the problem isn’t just the common folk—the problem is also the elites the common folk rightly mistrust, the elites against whom many common folk revolted in 2016. (Notably, McKay is a supporter of Bernie Sanders, who has a more populist sensibility than most left-of-center politicians and, correspondingly, more sympathy for people in Trumpland and more suspicion of elites.)
Indeed, the list of elites who don’t come off looking good in this movie goes beyond scientists and techies. It includes: the people at The New York Times (or, strictly speaking, The New York Herald, whose logo and offices look uncannily like the logo and offices of the Times); the people who run the morning network TV shows and the cable news networks; celebrities who burnish their environmentalist and other progressive credentials (by, for example, donating money to “the manatee sanctuaries,” as a vapid celebrity played by Ariana Grande proudly declares) while taking no serious interest in the actual issues.
In a certain sense, the movie’s message isn’t just that elites and rubes alike are part of the problem, but that everybody’s part of the problem (with the possible exception of Jennifer Lawrence, the simple but wise skateboarder she hooks up with, and DiCaprio’s admirably forgiving wife). Americans broadly are depicted as being fatally distracted by the frivolous and the pointless—by mindless social media, by low-nutrient morning TV shows, by the romantic ups and downs of celebrities who donate money to manatee sanctuaries.
I’m on board with this idea that we’re all part of the problem, and I think McKay gets too little credit for, in that sense, getting the big picture. But when I look at his picture at a high level of resolution, I have a quibble. And it’s connected to something that’s more than a quibble.
First, the quibble: