Review: Don’t Look Up

Maybe not the Strangelove de nos jours, but still …

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I sat down yesterday and watched Don’t Look Up, Adam McKay’s movie about what happens when a couple of astronomers in Michigan find something not altogether good in the sky.

NOTE: SPOILERS. If you don’t want to know, skip to the “So What?” part.

So, What Happens?

Kate Dibiasky is a doctoral student working in an observatory in Michigan when she spots a new and distant object. So she, her fellow students, and her supervisor, Dr Randall Mindy, examine it, then look at checking its path through the solar system. It’s between five and ten kilometres wide¹, and in just over six months it’s going to smash into the Pacific Ocean: an Extinction Level Event. On the whole, not ideal. They do what any repsonsible scientific team would do, and contact the authorities. Their contact at NASA is Dr Oglethorpe, and he brings them through to the White House to brief the President, Janie Orlean, on the momentous (and terrifying) news. There’s only one problem: the President is embroiled in a political scandal, has mid-terms coming up, and she and her staff (in particular, her Chief of Staff) aren’t really paying attention. The scientists are effectively ignored and told to sit on their findings and maintain a watching brief.

The scientists decide this is too important be kept quiet, so they leak their findings to the press. A journalist contact gets them a spot on a popular morning show, but it all goes wrong. Kate loses patience, live on air, ending up being the butt of endless social media memes. While Kate is vilified, and sidelined by the authorities, Brie (one the show’s presenters) takes something of a shine to the nervous professor. Gradually he gets sucked in by the glamour, and even begins an affair with her. As a result of this, he ends up closer to the White House as a science advisor.

The problem for Mindy is that the White House isn’t much interested in science: there’s a huge reality distortion field at work around it. In a sideswipe at movies like Armageddon and Deep Impact, the first plan once they realise something does need to be done is to launch a fleet of spacecraft to attempt to destroy the comet, piloted by a media friendly “All-American Hero”, Colonel Benedict Drask. This mission is turned back on the advice of one of the President’s main donors, a tech CEO named Peter Isherwell, who heads a company called BASH. He proposes that instead of destroying the comet it can be split up and mined for mineral resources, though it will mean allowing some comet fragments to hit populated areas. The White House back this approach, which proves hugely divisive in society. Mindy initially (and not without reservation) supports this line, but the cracks are beginning to show. Eventually he has a breakdown on national television after his wife discovers his affair with Brie and leaves him. At this point, he too is sidelined by the administration. Kate has been forced home to live with her parents, who are keen supporters of the comet mining scheme. Comet denialism surges. Disillusioned and resigned to her fate, Kate turns to nihilism, and begins a relationship with a skater named Yule.

The comet, as it was always going to, becomes visible to the naked eye in the night sky. You’d think that this would finally mobilise the human race, wouldn’t you? Think again. The sight of the comet does bring a reconciliation between Mindy and Kate, and together with Oglethorpe they decide to make one last push to try to make the world listen to what they know. They come up with a social media protest they call, “Just Look Up”, including a call on other countries to calling on other countries to try to deflect the comet if the US insists on its current course. The government opposes them, launching its own campaign, which gives the film its title.

Orlean and Isherwell move to exclude China, India and Russia from the mining deal. Those nations launch a joint attempt to intercept the comet, but it fails at launch. The BASH mission launches, but as the world watches, that too fails, and the comet ploughs on. Orlean and Isherwell, along with other “chosen” people launch themselves in cryogenic suspension on a spacecraft prepared to escape the oncoming end². Mindy is offered a place on this ship, but turns it down to spend his remaining time with his wife, family and friends.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

Keep watching the credits though. There are two post credit scenes. In the first, over twenty two thousand years later, the spaceship carrying the last remnants of the human race deposits its cargo on a habitable exoplanet, where they are (with a not hugely guilty sense of satisfaction) almost immediately devoured by the indigenous fauna. The second is briefer, and feels a bit like a neat, and rather satisfying, Home Alone gag.

So What?

Some of the takes have been sniffy, to say the least, but usually that kind of thing says more about the writer’s own attitudes than the film itself, so I’ll leave running down that particular rabbithole as an (optional) exercise to the reader.

Yes, it’s broad. Yes, it’s probably about half an hour too long, but it’s useful to note the synchronicity of things. Production was delayed by the onset of the COVID pandemic, and while the film was probably trying to make wider points about climate change denial, the emergence of anti-vax radicalism has thrown quite a lot of this material into painfully sharp relief. It’s extremely uncomfortable to see just how much of the social media landscape around the serious, and urgent programme of public health and vaccination has echoed events in the film in the last few months. We’ve had to watch the likes of Laurence Fox pump out his particular kind of post-truth criticism of scientific research over the last year or more. Sadly, the management of news media to favour short term public mood in the film seems to be all too plausible a model for modern politics, and we are seeing it altogether more often than is healthy.

In an interview at the turn of the century³ David Bowie talked about the fact that, at that point, the exhilarating and terrifying possibilities of the coming internet revolution hadn’t made themselves fully apparent. It was incredibly prophetic, especially when it came to the terrifying part: the relationship between people in the online world, and the notion of objective truths. This film, however unsubtly for the taste of some, is grappling with these questions. Perhaps we should worry that our attention span as a society is constantly distracted by all the shiny things, and wonder if reality would play out all that differently to what is in the end supposed to be a comedy. Sadly, I’m not all that convinced it would. We are, to borrow words from Roger Waters⁴, the species that is amusing itself to death.

¹ Yes, America. Sorry to break it to you, but US scientists (physicists especially) mostly use metric too. It’s so much quicker.

² Echoes of Ben Elton’s debut novel, Stark, there.

³ Especially from around 7 minutes in.

⁴ Who himself was borrowing from Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death

A man shouting at passers-by on teh Interwebz

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