Guest essay by Eric Worrall
I’m a climate scientist. Don’t Look Up captures the madness I see every day
Thu 30 Dec 2021 01.08 AEDT
A film about a comet hurtling towards Earth and no one is doing anything about it? Sounds exactly like the climate crisis
The movie Don’t Look Up is satire. But speaking as a climate scientist doing everything I can to wake people up and avoid planetary destruction, it’s also the most accurate film about society’s terrifying non-response to climate breakdown I’ve seen.
The film, from director Adam McKay and writer David Sirota, tells the story of astronomy grad student Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) and her PhD adviser, Dr Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), who discover a comet – a “planet killer” – that will impact the Earth in just over six months. The certainty of impact is 99.7%, as certain as just about anything in science.
The scientists are essentially alone with this knowledge, ignored and gaslighted by society. The panic and desperation they feel mirror the panic and desperation that many climate scientists feel. In one scene, Mindy hyperventilates in a bathroom; in another, Diabasky, on national TV, screams “Are we not being clear? We’re all 100% for sure gonna fucking die!” I can relate. This is what it feels like to be a climate scientist today.
The two astronomers are given a 20-minute audience with the president (Meryl Streep), who is glad to hear that impact isn’t technically 100% certain. Weighing election strategy above the fate of the planet, she decides to “sit tight and assess”. Desperate, the scientists then go on a national morning show, but the TV hosts make light of their warning (which is also overshadowed by a celebrity breakup story).
After 15 years of working to raise climate urgency, I’ve concluded that the public in general, and world leaders in particular, underestimate how rapid, serious and permanent climate and ecological breakdown will be if humanity fails to mobilize. There may only be five years left before humanity expends the remaining “carbon budget” to stay under 1.5C of global heating at today’s emissions rates – a level of heating I am not confident will be compatible with civilization as we know it. And there may only be five years before the Amazon rainforest and a large Antarctic ice sheet pass irreversible tipping points.
The Earth system is breaking down now with breathtaking speed. And climate scientists have faced an even more insurmountable public communication task than the astronomers in Don’t Look Up, since climate destruction unfolds over decades – lightning fast as far as the planet is concerned, but glacially slow as far as the news cycle is concerned – and isn’t as immediate and visible as a comet in the sky.Advertisement
Given all this, dismissing Don’t Look Up as too obvious might say more about the critic than the film. It’s funny and terrifying because it conveys a certain cold truth that climate scientists and others who understand the full depth of the climate emergency are living every day. I hope that this movie, which comically depicts how hard it is to break through prevailing norms, actually helps break through those norms in real life.
“Don’t Look Up” should have been titled “Don’t Look Now”.
I mean, the movie Armageddon was enjoyable. Bruce Willis’ character Harry Stamper chasing A. J. around an oil rig with a shotgun, after catching him in bed with his daughter. The entire specialist drilling team failing their NASA psych exam. The crazy guy who likes to play with explosives when they let him.
“Don’t Look Up” characters by contrast are just not that interesting.
PHD candidate Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) popping random pills whenever she can get her hands on them, and sneering at the President. DiCaprio overacting character Dr. Randall Mindy’s tiresome struggle to form coherent sentences when talking to anyone who might be able to help resolve the problem, then suddenly coming good halfway through the movie, after the pretty blonde news anchor starts feeling him up on set, followed by a kinky foreplay scene – “Tell me we’re going to die”.
Repeated inexplicable long pans of Hillary Clinton’s White House portraits during the first meeting with the President, including one of her embracing Bill.
OMG, still 1:22:55 to go.
The head pilot of the comet mission shuttle just asked for the President to make his DUIs go away. Was this an attempt at character development?
The shuttle mission aborted after launch – suddenly they want to recover the minerals from the comet, rather than deflecting it. 1:19:00 – Leonardo DiCaprio’s character just did an advertisement for the caricature capitalists who aborted the destroy mission. Then 1:31:00 DiCaprio has a meltdown on TV about why they didn’t destroy the comet. Consistency not.
For some reason main characters keep having black hoods put on their heads for rendition to a black site, but before they are driven off they have a long chat to their friends while wearing the hood. Oh hang on, next scene the hood is removed and he’s driving a car. Maybe the men in black changed their mind.
1:38:00 – “Don’t Look Up” is now a crowd protest chant, like “Lets go Brandon”.
41 minutes to go. Watching the clock. Now someone just started singing.
1:45:00 – The foreign destroy mission just blew up on the launch pad.
1:51:25 – Buying end of world groceries from the chiller section.
1:54:00 – DiCaprio’s character just bought flowers for his wife (after banging the TV personality). All hugs again, like immediately. What a doormat.
1:59:00 – Finally something a little funny – the mineral recovery mission fails, then everyone starts fleeing the situation room “I’ve got to use the rest room”.
2:04:00 – The comet strikes, wiping out the entire cast of tiresome characters. Ah bum, there are survivors. It just wiped out the less annoying characters.
2:07:00 – Weird scene with cellphones and other weirdly intact debris floating about in space.
2:08:00 – I was wrong – 22,000 years later, the President and entrepreneur disembark on an alien planet, all naked, where the President almost immediately gets eaten by an alien, shortly followed by (hopefully) all the other colonists.
Oh dear, there was another survivor – taking selfies in the middle of a smoking ruin.
I guess “Don’t Look Up” is a good metaphor for the climate crisis after all. Shallow, poor plot development, no consistency, boring unsympathetic characters with little genuine depth, and a totally unbelievable ending.
I have no problem with climate disaster films as such – I loved “The Day After Tomorrow“, its a great adventure film, so long as you ignore the bad science. “Snowpiercer” – awesome. But by the end of “Don’t Look Up”, I was rooting for the comet. And the carnivorous aliens.