WORDS BY HANNAH ROSE MÉNDEZ
Netflix’s latest comedy thriller Don’t Look Up serves as a metaphor for the real world crisis that is climate change. It shows us the dangers of allowing the rich to hold too much power.
Imagine a world where blind nationalism, political division, science denialism, capitalism, and an obsession with pop culture run rampant—sound familiar? In Don’t Look Up, Netflix’s latest star-studded, irreverent, witty, apocalyptic comedy, audiences come face to face with a parody of our own reality. Directed by Adam McKay, the film follows the trials and tribulations of two astronomers, Dr. Randall Mindy and Dr. Kate Dibiasky (played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) who have discovered a planet-killing comet headed directly toward Earth, and their desperation to communicate its severity to a distracted population.
The movie is a heavy metaphor for the leading crisis we face today: climate change. And while there are many lessons we can take away, one main message echoed throughout the film: It’s time to eat the rich (before it’s too late).
Mindy, a panic-ridden scientist and professor seemingly inspired by the White House’s Dr. Anthony Fauci, is a character many of us might relate to. His incessant nerves reflect the existential doom and climate anxiety of younger generations across the globe. Dibiasky, who Lawrence and DiCaprio have compared to climate activist Greta Thunberg in interviews, is a foul-mouthed and (understandably) emotional Ph.D. candidate at Michigan State University who is sick of the government’s inaction and all-around bullshit. The comparison to Thunberg is on point: While outside COP26, the international climate negotiations in Scotland this year, the impassioned 18-year-old Swedish activist famously chanted, “You can shove your climate crisis up your ass!”
“It’s about holding a mirror on us. What we’re distracted by, what we value, and ultimately—how we deal with bad news.”
Together, Mindy and Dibiasky work with NASA scientist Dr. Clayton “Teddy” Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan) to tell the world the truth about the comet—that it is coming and that, in six short months, it will kill all of humanity. A world which, to no avail, fails to respond appropriately to their message. The film mocks our society’s fixation on the seemingly irrelevant, superficial matters rather than the real issues at hand. DiCaprio confirmed that this was the message the creators wanted to portray following a screening of the film in New York City.
“It’s about holding a mirror on us,” he said. “What we’re distracted by, what we value, and ultimately—how we deal with bad news.”
When the two astronomers make an appearance on live daytime television to announce the world’s impending doom, the show sees few views, clicks, and overall engagement from the audience. Meanwhile, it sees a huge spike in engagement when pop star Riley Bina (Ariana Grande) joins the show to talk about her recent breakup with rapper DJ Chello (Kid Cudi).
The real-life irony is palpable. I found that all the top Google stories for Don’t Look Up were about what Lawrence wore to the movie’s premiere (see screenshot) instead of focusing on its central themes: the climate crisis and capitalism as the usher of our destruction. The film has other parallels to real-life too—from U.S. President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) having an uncomfortably inappropriate and nepotistic relationship with her Chief of Staff son Jason Orlean (Jonah Hill) to a tech billionaire’s mission to space.
Actor Mark Rylance plays Peter Isherwell, the third-richest man on Earth in the movie, who also happens to be the president’s main funder. His mission to send drones to extract a mineral worth trillions of dollars from the comet is reminiscent of a similar billionaire space race happening among Tesla creator Elon Musk and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Isherwell’s mission is heavily representative of prioritizing capitalist interests over human lives and of the dangers presented when the ultra-rich take charge of leading scientific innovation while ignoring actual scientists.
In the end, we’re shown who really holds the power when we allow greed, wealth, and capital to win.
In terms of the real world, we’re seeing a kindred response from society to the climate crisis. In the wake of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change publishing its latest report undoubtedly connecting “human activity” to rising temperatures and extreme weather events, world leaders have failed to respond adequately through climate legislation. COP26, where these so-called leaders convened to solve the climate crisis, resulted in very little beyond pledges that still keep us on track to hit at least 2.4 degrees Celsius of global warming above pre-industrial levels.
While the film, which features a majority-white cast, does a good job at communicating this sense of urgency, it ignores the many realities and nuances of climate change and how it will and is affecting us all differently. For one, the film only features one Black scientist—Dr. Oglethorpe—ignoring the varied expertise of scientists of color, especially from the Global South. Then, there’s the comet itself. A fiery hot rock demolishing Earth in a matter of minutes is an oversimplified allegory for climate change, which has been happening over decades. Climate change also disproportionately impacts low-income communities and communities of color whereas, with a comet, all of humanity is equally screwed (that is, except the rich).
Placing the power of solving said crises in the hands of the rich and famous, most of whom have no idea what frontline communities are experiencing, will prove to be detrimental.
Around the world, we all face various levels of the climate crisis. Placing the power of solving said crises in the hands of the rich and famous, most of whom have no idea what frontline communities are experiencing, will prove to be detrimental. In fact, the latest World Inequality Report has stated that the disparity of climate emissions between the rich and poor is just as large as the economic disparity, finding that the top 1% pollute, on average, over 16 times more carbon than the full population in a year. So, what sense does it make to trust those to solve a crisis they created in the first place? A crisis whose unwavering constant is making the rich richer and the poor poorer.
Toward the end of the film, a political division breaks out. The scientific community and its supporters encourage the world to look up. That’s all it would take to see the comet barreling straight toward Earth. Meanwhile, President Orlean’s campaign retaliated with the slogan, “Don’t Look Up,” encouraging supporters to keep their heads down, nose to the grindstone, and remain ignorant to their impending doom.
The film is the perfect metaphor for the climate denial that feeds the climate crisis today. While some of us choose to look down and ignore the reality of our world’s ecological collapse, others can’t afford to. For them, the comet has already struck, so to speak.
Leaving us to question: Will you look up?
Don’t Look Up comes out in select theaters on Dec. 10, 2021, and on Netflix Dec. 24, 2021.