Just look up? Are we still capable?
The dangers facing democracy are even worse than those portrayed in Netflix satire
Who is pilloried in Don’t Look Up — the blockbuster Netflix comedy? First, a populist American president (Meryl Streep) who is prepared to manipulate a planet destroying crisis for electoral advantage, whipping up a Trump style “Don’t Look Up” movement, even as the a comet hurtles visibly towards the earth.
Second, a vapid US media elite — technically “liberal” but whose entire business model rests on trivialising serious issues and drowning them amid celebrity pap. “I have three masters’ degrees, I speak four languages and I own two Monets” declares news anchor Cate Blanchett, as she drags Lenardo Di Caprio, a top scientist, into collusion with the president.
Third, a greed-driven and hubristic tech elite, symbolised by Mark Rylance’s character — a mixture of Tim Cook, Bill Gates and Richard Branson — who convinces the president to call off a mission to nuke the comet, committing instead to the insanely comic project of trying to mine it for Rare Earth metals.
But the ultimate targets of the satire are ourselves. When the heroine, science postgrad Jennifer Lawrence, goes home, defeated in her attempt to mobilise the world, her parents greet her fearfully behind a lockded door: “Your Dad and I are for the jobs the comet will provide,” her mother warns.
No section of American society, as portrayed in Adam McKay’s movie, ever summons the agency to seize control of the situation, to wrest power from the political-tech-media elite, or even to fully understand the danger. There are, throughout the movie, a series of cutaways that can best be described as “random dumb person staring in incomprehension”: they convey the ultimate subtext of the film better than any spoken line.
And so, the world ends. Four billion years of evolution produced sentient beings capable of building quantum computers and AI, but not capable of defeating corporate power and right-wing populism. It’s an even bleaker message than Rosa Luxemburg’s “socialism or barbarism” — because in barbarism at least humans survive.
But it’s a realistic possibility. The power of Don’t Look Up — which has surged to #1 in every market Netflix operates — lies the crude simplicity of its satire. Initially conceived as a spoof against anti-science in the face of climate change, it has obvious relevance now to the Covid-19 pandemic. But its wider appeal is as a story about powerlessness.
One of the most telling subplots concerns an Arianna Grande-type character (played by Grande), whose celebrity trivia dominates the news cycle even as the comet approaches.
In the end she stars in Live Aid-style concert organised by the liberal “Just Look Up” movement. I don’t know whether the song she sings — a classic Instagram-era narcissistic warble — is itself meant to be a self-parody, or just a stereotypical example of its kind. But it doesn’t matter. The world ends not with a revolutionary anthem but an autotune ballad.
Don’t Look Up has been panned for the crudeness of its satire: “a blunt instrument in lieu of a sharp razor” says Rolling Stone; “One joke told for 132 minutes” says Forbes. But given the scale of humanity’s crisis, I think the satire had to be crude.
Because the real problem is not Covid, not even climate change — it is the collapse of a few, elderly but precious democracies into the state of democratic decay pilloried in the film.
We don’t need to see how the comet crisis pans out in Britain, France or Italy because we know that, by now, they too would be led by Trump-like characters, and that their scientific establishment would be gulled into collaboration with hubristic tech corporations.
The narrative arc of Lawrence’s protagonist is desparately symbolic: she spots the danger, she warns of the danger, she is trolled, doxxed, hounded and ultimately abducted by the FBI; forced to work with a nominally technocratic state to save the world, she watches it consumed by greed and right-wing populism; so she retreats to her home town to spend the final days with people resigned to the disaster.
Watching it, I repeatedly thought about the victims of fascism: the Italian anarchists and communists who fought Mussolini, were jailed, and then released back to their villages to tend their grape vines, powerless, while Il Duce drove the country to destruction. And, for that matter, of how democracy campaigners and anti-fascists are treated today.
If anything, Don’t Look Up spares us from the worst monstrosities that surround us in reality. Streep’s president is a pre-Charlottesville Trump — still reliant on red hatted backwoodsmen, not armed militias pledged to insurrectionary violence. Rylance’s tech guru, Sir Peter Isherwood, is played as more of a Branson figure than a Peter Thiel-like character: a stuttering internet pioneer naively obsessed with AI, rather than a committed tech authoritarian determined to weaponise tech in the service of elite power.
The movie — because (not despite) of its simplicity and crossover appeal — is one of the most powerful artworks created in the face of democratic decay.
It tells us: if we could not defeat this elite — the Trump-lite president and the liberal news anchor — we will not defeat the real monsters of the mid-2020s: Trump 2.0, Zemmour, Palantir and the clear and present fascism they thrive on.
We need to “look up” clearly at the dangers, find angrier songs and swap our dumb, blank expressions of incomprehension for those of people determined to save the world through action.