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I Told You So

Adam McKay’s Aesop-style fable is not about the climate crisis

Don’t Look Up, a new disaster comedy directed by Adam McKay, has debuted to rave reviews from media insiders and climate reporters. Ben Smith, writing in the New York Times, said it “nails the media apocalypse”; the climate writer Kate Aronoff said it was “so good in so many directions.” Jon Schwartz, writing for The Intercept, called it “the first film in fifty-seven years to equal the comedy and horror of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece” Dr. Strangelove. Perhaps the grandest praise came from the climate writer David Roberts, who called it “the first good movie about climate change,” a topic that he said “resists good art.”

With due respect to all these accomplished writers, this critic must disagree. Don’t Look Up may have some good actors and some funny jokes, but regardless of what anyone says, or what its director intended, it is not a movie about climate change.

Don’t Look Up’s premise has the simplicity of a megachurch parable. A pair of scientists (Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) discover a large comet on a collision course with earth, due to strike in about six months and wipe out all of human civilization. The scientists try to inform the president (Meryl Streep), who doesn’t care, and the media, who won’t listen because they’re too focused on celebrity gossip. Eventually, though, the scientists rant and rave enough that the president reconsiders her decision and launches a mission to blow up the comet before it hits. Until, at the last second, a billionaire tech baron (Mark Rylance) convinces her to mine the comet for rare-earth metals instead. Soon, a certain segment of the population decides that the comet could be a good job creator, or that it isn’t even real. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking.

I’m sure some people will appreciate the cinematic pat on the back.

From the opening act, the ultimate trajectory of this plot is as clear as the trajectory of the comet, and the broad strokes of the film’s political universe are even clearer—indeed, so clear as to be almost insulting to the viewer’s intelligence. The president is a craven populist who only cares about boosting her approval ratings and riling up her base; the country’s two most popular talk show hosts, played by Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry, are look-on-the-bright-side doofuses who dismiss the comet story because it doesn’t have good optics; the tech baron is a pseudo-Elon Musk, who preaches vision and evolution but really just wants to jack up his stock price.

These types will be instantly recognizable to anyone who has seen McKay’s two previous works of surface-level political satire, The Big Short and Vice, or who is familiar with McKay’s co-writer David Sirota, a former Bernie Sanders adviser and the reigning online Hotspur of the contemporary left. The politicians are vile, the corporations are venal, the media is vapid. None of this is exactly groundbreaking, though I’m sure some people will appreciate the cinematic pat on the back.

What about the comet? What does it represent? Well, climate change, of course. But what do we mean by climate change? Is “climate change” a process that, like a comet crashing into the planet, will bring about the sudden termination of life on earth at a point within the lifespan of people who are alive today? A crisis whose immediate resolution is being blocked only by five or six bad actors in the White House and the halls of CNN? No. Climate change takes place over centuries, strikes different parts of the planet in radically different ways, and even redounds to the benefit of a portion of the earth’s population. It is an apocalypse, to be sure, but one that takes place on timescales longer than a human life. It will split apart families, communities, nations, and force new social combinations we cannot yet imagine. We and our children and our grandchildren will live through many of those changes, perhaps even the most significant of them. It isn’t a simple choice between everyone going about life as usual or everyone vanishing in a puff of smoke. Don’t Look Up strikes a far more knowing tone than previous climate disaster flicks like The Day After Tomorrow, and its ambitions are much loftier, but its conception of the apocalypse is more or less the same as your average summer blockbuster.

This might sound like nitpicking—the movie is a parable, after all!—but the differences between the comet metaphor and the reality of climate change are the exact things that make the latter such a tangled and difficult issue. If a planet-killing comet were headed toward earth, there would be no mandate to change the way we live, no danger that society might decay and collapse, and no possibility that it might evolve into something better. We would fire a rocket at the comet, and the rocket would or would not work, and if it didn’t work, we would all die.

The film has an excuse for flattening our ongoing planetary crisis, of course: it’s not holding a mirror up to nature, it’s making a provocation. If you were facing down the possibility of certain doom, would you really care about your party’s approval ratings, or your stock portfolio, or about whom Ariana Grande is dating? No, you wouldn’t. How then can we justify delaying action on climate change, which threatens the survival of future generations and stands to deprive our descendants of all the beauty that we enjoy?

Contained in that question is a quantity for which McKay has little enthusiasm and no explanation: human nature. We fear our own deaths, and the deaths of those we love, but not the deaths of people who do not yet exist; we can wrap our minds around profound truths and grand moral quandaries in the abstract, but we also chase pleasure and avoid pain, and sometimes we get distracted by our phones. When we start our cars to go visit grandma or flick on our gas burners so we can make some pasta, we are contributing in our own small way to a grand act of self-immolation. McKay and Sirota are savvy enough to emphasize that it’s the rich and powerful who are to blame, but even they can’t resist asking why everyone waits to care about their certain doom until it’s too late. When the comet first appears in the sky, DiCaprio gets out of his car and shouts, “This is what we’ve been telling you about the whole time!”

The question of why they didn’t listen the first time is a worthwhile one, but McKay isn’t interested in any but the most superficial answers. He lets us know within the first thirty minutes that this ignorance is the product of resentment politics and social media addiction, and doesn’t have much patience for anyone who wants to spend their last few months doing something other than worry about an apocalypse they can’t control. (Even Jennifer Lawrence’s scientist character gets sidetracked falling in love with a Christian skateboarder played by the ineradicable Timothée Chalamet.)

It’s hard not to get a whiff of “serves you right” as the comet comes roaring ever closer.

This is not to say that the climate crisis is the fault of human nature, which would be the same thing as saying it’s no one’s fault at all. In the real world, as in the world of McKay, there are actual individuals who deserve much of the blame for the present calamity, and indeed many of them are so odious that one wonders why McKay didn’t just make a movie about ExxonMobil. Rather, it’s to say that any decent art about climate change should capture the ghastly irony of an industrial civilization that swallows itself whole, of a system that exploits the earth for the benefit of many people while incurring a debt of destruction for even more. It should capture the hubris of a society willing to destroy itself rather than change the way it is organized. This is the most profound truth about climate change, a truth as old as Oedipus at the crossroads on the road to Thebes. It is not the truth that it is most politically expedient to emphasize, sure, but art is not about political expediency. 

That can’t be said about Don’t Look Up, whose heroes were always going to be the scientists, the ones who tell the truth even when it’s difficult and ugly (the film may set a record for most uses of the phrase “peer-reviewed” in a major studio production). The villains, by the same token, were always going to be the emperors and robber-barons, those who would sacrifice human welfare for power or profit. But what about the billions of people who fall in between those camps? They get a less elegant treatment. McKay studs the film with scenes of babies crying, bumblebees floating, and golden Buddha statues shining in the sun, as if to emphasize the beauty we stand to lose, but he also shows people streaming Ariana Grande concerts and looting cocktail bars during mankind’s final hours. The film’s portrayal of humanity dances between the maudlin and the derisive; it’s hard not to get a whiff of “serves you right” as the comet comes roaring ever closer.

There is nothing wrong with satirizing our fallen world, and McKay has proven himself more than capable of striking a tone that satisfies both mainstream moviegoers and lefty wiseacres. It is funny to imagine what kind of bullshit Mark Meadows or Masayoshi Son would start spouting if the destruction of the planet were only six months away, and it’s satisfying to commiserate with the beleaguered scientists for the same reason it was satisfying to be told by our parents that the bullies were bullying us because they were jealous. When it comes to the climate crisis, though, Don’t Look Up’s Aesop-style metaphor fails on its own terms. It’s not thought-provoking, and it’s barely even provocative. The reason the movie fails is not that climate change isn’t real, or won’t be devastating, or demands some fence-sitting kind of nuance. It fails because the moral weight of our dawning calamity is far too great to fit within the confines of a sketch like the ones McKay tends to draw. As the credits roll and the earth goes up in flames, one can’t help but wish it were that simple.