‘Don’t Look Up’ Never Answers A Key Question: Why Is The Planet Worth Saving?
Don’t Look Up (2021, Netflix) presumes the planet is worth saving. The film’s plot exists because of this idea; moveover, the fear, disbelief, rioting, media clamoring, and cultural profiteering that make up the anarchistic, ecstatic response to the news that the planet will be destroyed in six months involves a feeling of indignation around life ending and everyone dying. It’s like people heard the comet was coming, skipped processing, and went straight into reacting, in various stages of SOS and denial.
I want to pull back a moment to examine the missing processing piece. Adam McKay, who wrote the screenplay, directed, and co-produced, is a deliberate auteur, so there are no existential riffs on purpose. Instead, a range of inane, horrific moments push the idea that life is a construct being lived and paid no attention to, yet we (eventually, if not initially) freak out if it’s taken from us. We see this behavior in U.S President Janie Orlean’s (Meryl Streep) position to assess, when astronomer Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Ph.D. candidate Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) tell her about the comet, and in the panicking “don’t look up” crowd when they finally see it.
Life in Don’t Look Up assumes we deserve saving, but the problem is that obliviousness; we don’t see wonder in life anymore, so we can’t feel full devastation about its ending. That rush from losing touch with our lives to an assaultive fear for them looks like, at best, vulnerable, understandable, and workable, with introspection and effort, and, at worst, self-serving with our heads up our asses. There is a pitch for gratitude here, not the kind you momentarily experience on a meditation App but the kind that infuses then directs your life, so you are living for the planet, not for yourself.
Ignorance leads to these freaky llama creatures at the film’s end, who evolve 20,000 plus years after the destruction of every thing, body, and place. The eukaryotic creativity and karmic horror is on point: the rich, nearly all white survivors, who escape on President Orlean’s plane when the comet hits earth, are eaten alive by them nearly as soon as they disembark. The rest of the world, minus, somehow, Chief-of-Staff Jason Orlean (Jonah Hill), is decimated when the comet hits. Vignettes of a baby’s bath, hippos canoodling, cafes, and solitude show earth’s magnitude; we are big in our cells and tundras but also minutiae, fleeting, yet special.
Dr. Mindy, his wife, June (Melanie Lynskey), their sons, Evan (Robert Radochia) and Marshall (Conor Sweeney), Kate, her dude, Yule (Timothée Chalamet) and scientist Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan) — all sub- or grande-culture fighters for earth and science justice — carry this message home by cutting carrots and tasting string beans in the Mindy kitchen, holding hands in prayer over their meal, and discussing the beauty of store bought apple pie, as the comet hits them. From dust to dust, right? At the end, we hold in our mouths what we love the most. President Orlean calls as the comet strikes to offer her plane; Dr. Mindy declines, turning back to his beloveds.
It’s a more obvious angle that, in Dr. Mindy, Kate, and the other earth advocates, the film offers a version of humanity that believes in science and an imperative to be better. But, McKay is more concerned with the texture of thinking than pushing overtly blue and red messaging — if the film feels political, though, it’s doing good work. Politics are a way of revealing the things people actually care about. McKay may be suggesting we don’t deserve to keep living because we destroy the earth in so many ways. If the planet isn’t worth saving, the film, then, is a joke, joking with us as much as its characters, who are, by the way, also us. The question is ours: are people worth saving?