WARNING: This article contains major spoilers from the movie Don’t Look Up.
The comet-as-climate-change-metaphor Netflix movie Don’t Look Up clocks in at 138 minutes. The title refers to the slogan of those who refuse to accept the clear evidence that a comet is on a collision course with Earth. Yet, for the first 100 minutes of the movie, I was confused because references to comet denial were scant and peripheral to the plot.
The movie’s root conflict is not whether the comet existed, but what to do about it: alter the comet’s trajectory away from Earth with a nuclear military strike, or send robot drones into outer space to mine the comet for lucrative rare earth minerals, breaking up the comet in the mining process into smaller, harmless chunks that could safely fall to Earth.
Before the 100-minute mark, President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) has abruptly aborted the nuclear strike mission at the urging of one of her donors—tech CEO Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance)—who then sells his mining plan as a panacea for poverty and social injustice. Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), the PhD candidate who first discovered the comet, quickly sees through Isherwell’s self-serving pitch, and starts a riot in the streets of Washington by angrily informing the customers of a bar that “they’re gonna let it hit the planet to make a bunch of rich people even more disgustingly rich.”
Dibiasky’s opposition to the mining plan causes a split with her astronomy professor, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), who works with the glibly calculating Orlean and the guru-like Isherwell. Mindy becomes the public face of the mining plan and appears to defuse public opposition. (Dibiasky returns to her parents’ home in Illinois, only to be locked out. Her mom sternly says, “Your dad and I are for the jobs the comet will provide.”) But Mindy eventually sours on the mining plan when he learns of scientific research showing that the plan won’t work, and Isherwell—dropping the New Age act and letting his smug elitism show—refuses to listen.
Only after the comet becomes visible to the naked eye do we see a debate about whether the comet exists, between the “Don’t Look Up” campaign led by Orlean and the “Just Look Up” campaign led by Dibiasky, Mindy, and their ally from inside NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office, Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan).
The debate is efficiently resolved in just nine minutes, when the people at a Don’t Look Up rally, uh, look up. The moviemakers, suffering from a case of reverse West Wing brain, have a rallygoer with a MAGA-esque “Don’t Look Up” cap cry out, “They fucking lied to us!” The crowd turns on Orlean and pummels her chief of staff son (Jonah Hill) with glass bottles. Huzzah! The scientists win the debate!
Yet they still lose the planet. Comet mining was never reliant on comet denial—quite the opposite. Therefore, proving the comet was real doesn’t derail the justification for Isherwell’s scheme. The scientist-activists don’t even try to use the revolt at the Don’t Look Up rally for a last-ditch attempt to pressure the White House into nuking the hurtling rock. Having already given up, they return to Michigan so Mindy—who indulged in an extramarital affair while in Washington—can reconcile with his wife. They have a final dinner together before Planet Earth meets its fate.
David Sirota, the journalist and activist who shares story and producer credits with the writer-director Adam McKay, told Vanity Fair that they wanted to make a movie that was mainly about “the rejection of science and facts embedded in the climate discourse.” But that’s not the movie they made. Closer to the mark is the analysis from Nathan J. Robinson, editor of the socialist magazine Current Affairs:
The crucial turning point in the plot is when the president decides the comet is too valuable for future GDP to destroy, and thus Silicon Valley needs to be allowed to try something experimental … the “tech solution” to the comet is a clear commentary on geoengineering, the cheap-but-incredibly-risky approach to climate favored by those who don’t want anything to be done that would substantially hurt the bottom lines of fossil fuel companies. (The first, ultimately abandoned approach to dealing with the comet, based on massive government investment, is the comet equivalent of a Green New Deal.)
I’m not nearly as confident as Robinson that McKay and Sirota were specifically targeting geoengineering. To my eye, Isherwell is a stand-in for Bill Gates, who through his Breakthrough Energy operation is trying to solve climate change with massive private-sector investment in clean energy innovations (including geoengineering). Moreover, Gates has deemed fossil fuel divestment campaigns as inferior to his venture capital approach, a view wholly antithetical to the movie’s message, and the worldviews of McKay and Sirota.
Just as Gates is not a climate change denier, Isherwell is not a comet denier. But Don’t Look Up doesn’t draw any distinctions between those denying the problem and those looking to profit off a potential solution. On the contrary, the film purposefully conflates those two camps, with a story arc that doesn’t make any sense when examined closely, hoping that the audience will lump together climate change deniers and those who are trying to solve the climate crisis through capitalism.
McKay and Sirota not only want to lump together environmental capitalists with climate science deniers, but they also want to lump together Republicans and Democrats. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, McKay said President Orlean represents “all the disastrous presidents we’ve had,” mixing in “plenty of Bill Clinton” and “a little pinch of Obama.” In August, several months after the filming of the movie wrapped but before its release, Sirota argued in a column for The Guardian, “At its core, the climate crisis is a product of bipartisan corruption and greed.” While “Republicans were more explicit about their corruption … Democrats settled on a different, but similarly pernicious, form of climate denialism: They acknowledged the science and issued progressive sounding press releases about the environment, and then they continued supporting fossil fuel development.” Sirota’s they-both-suck worldview drives the script.
It’s also wrong. There are genuine and difficult debates within the Democratic Party over whether we need to immediately leave all fossil fuel in the ground because of global warming, or whether there is still time for a slower transition away from fossil fuels with less economic disruption that could hurt both CEOs and workers.
The Sirota view also elides the ongoing intraparty debates over differing policy approaches, the parameters of which are fluid. When Barack Obama was president, he sought to implement a “cap-and-trade” policy (in which the government issues companies a limited number of greenhouse gas permits that they can buy and sell with each other). At the same time, some progressives demanded a tax on carbon pollution untethered to market forces. In 2018, a small bipartisan group of congresspeople introduced a version of the carbon tax, but progressives in Congress gave it the silent treatment, having moved on to the Green New Deal strategy that would cease fossil fuel extraction in short order and deploy massive government spending to ramp up renewable energy production fully. Today, Democrats are trying to support clean energy technology through large tax credits included in the Build Back Better bill, though the Democrats’ most coal-friendly senator, Joe Manchin, has put the brakes on the bill after already stripping out some of the more ambitious climate provisions.
The underlying message of Don’t Look Up is that the policy solution is simple, and achieving that solution is simple. After Lawrence’s Dibiasky starts the riot, her incredulous mentor, DiCaprio’s Mindy, sarcastically says to her, “What do you suggest we do, an online petition, huh? You want to get a mob and hold up picket signs? You want to overthrow the government?” But he later comes around and embraces the grassroots activist “Just Look Up” campaign.
The campaign doesn’t work, but at least our heroes die nobly, seated at the dinner table with friends and family, sharing warm memories and feeling loved as the comet does its business. Our villains, Orlean and Isherwell, share an ignoble fate, escaping in cowardly fashion on a rocket ship. They are cryogenically frozen until the spacecraft locates a habitable planet 22,740 years later. (In what was, in my view, the only truly funny scene of the movie, Streep’s Orlean exits the spacecraft only to be devoured by a birdlike creature called a brontaroc.)
“You did lose the thread in a big way,” Oglethorpe scolds Mindy, for acquiescing to the mining plan. So does Don’t Look Up. Noble failure isn’t a good enough response to the climate crisis. Holding the righteous position means nothing if it can’t be translated into concrete action.
We’re past the debate over whether or not global warming is real. Nearly every nation on the planet has signed the Paris Accords. Even Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell says, “I don’t think there’s any question the climate is changing [and] it’s something we ought to address.” Of course, far from every country, let alone politician, is prepared to act boldly. The political challenge in the U.S. is crafting a consensus around a sustainable plan of action. Since we’re not in a Hollywood movie, that will require compromise, which will likely be initially insufficient but can be strengthened over time with additional legislation and regulation. Perhaps someday that will happen and make for a good Netflix documentary.