Open Letters To
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Open Letters To

OPEN LETTERS

An Open Letter to Adam McKay

Critics slammed your recent film ‘Don’t Look Up’ — but I loved it.

The sunlit Earth, from one million miles away. Photo by NASA, creative commons.

Dear Adam,

Thank you for making Don’t Look Up. This is basically the crux of my letter — you’re a film producer, and I’ve learnt through an albeit limited level of exposure to film producers that they are incredibly busy. This is why I thought it best to get the central message out there in the first line, in case you suddenly have to go and do something else and don’t spend any more of your finite minutes of life on this web page.

So, thank you for making Don’t Look Up. You may have stopped reading by now. Oh well. Maybe the sentiments I express here will get picked up by the Google search algorithm and other curious people will glance at this letter before being turned off by the films negative reviews on IMDB, or Rotten Tomatoes.

Reading those reviews could convince other people that spending two hours and 18 minutes of their own finite life on this planet watching your film is just not worth it. They might decide to do something else instead, which would be a pity because it really is an excellent film and the more people who see it, the better.

At least in my opinion.

Don’t Look Up is a satirical film about two astronomers who discover a planet-killing comet hurtling towards Earth. They endeavor to convince an egomaniac President of the United States and a fractious and generally beetle-brained (predominately American) public about the need to Do Something About it before (to quote a recurring line in the film), “we all fucking die”.

They are ultimately unsuccessful. The egomaniac President delays and distracts, then mines the approaching catastrophe for political points and decides to fire nukes into the sky, before aborting this plan (and it really is the only time I have ever condoned even the fictional deployment of nukes) because her tech-billionaire donor buddy wants to actually mine the comet for rare Earth minerals.

As this new plan unfolds, objective data and scientific realities are pushed to the margins of a media discourse obsessed with celebrity gossip and transient political scandals.

Only when the comet is literally hours away from colliding with the Earth do cameo characters dressed up with very thinly disguised MAGA symbolism decide that their leaders have been selfishly lying to them and that, indeed, the comet crisis is existential, terrifying, and imminent.

Then they all die.

A few thousand very rich people escape the burning planet in a rocket ship equipped with cryogenic chambers.

The negative critic reviews that I read of the film dismissed it as ‘not funny’ or ‘too obvious’ or with less-than-adequate performances from the star-studded cast. I disagree on every single point. But I am not a film critic. Just a normal person who watches films and then critiques them, to herself.

As for being too obvious, as the narrative unfolded I did feel quite queasy. The political machinations. The blatant, self-interested lobbying of rich white men. The instantaneous, click-baity news cycle that doesn’t, at first, catch on to the urgency of the planet-killing comet because it’s not very sexy and a bit of a downer. It was all clearly exaggerated. And yet it also felt like a documentary.

Really, the only thing I think you truly exaggerated was the time scale.

In the film, Earth has 6 months and 14 days to avert existential disaster. This is within the lifetime of every major character. It is an imminent, actionable time-frame. Those who are motivated to act do so to save their own lives, and the lives of the people they love. It is a time-frame that is easy to emote with. A good choice for a movie.

The actual timescale for existential climate change makes for less compelling watching.

The most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change was published in August 2021. I read, at the time they were published, news stories that summarized the report as saying that “Within the next two decades, temperatures are likely to rise by more than 1.5C above pre-industrial levels”and “only rapid and drastic reductions in greenhouse gases in this decade can prevent such climate breakdown.” (Both quotes from The Guardian, August 9, 2021).

This was dire and strange reading. Yet reading the IPCC report itself, after watching this film, made me feel even stranger. Here I was, taking in words written by a team of expert and very polite scientists, who are shouting (metaphorically) as loud as their keyboards can manage it; the world as we know it is going to fucking die.

Many changes due to past and future greenhouse gas emissions are irreversible for centuries to millennia, especially changes in the ocean, ice sheets and global sea level…Mountain and polar glaciers are committed to continue melting for decades or centuries (very high confidence). Loss of permafrost carbon following permafrost thaw is irreversible at centennial time scales (high confidence). Continued ice loss over the 21st century is virtually certain for the Greenland Ice Sheet and likely for the Antarctic Ice Sheet. There is high confidence that total ice loss from the Greenland Ice Sheet will increase with cumulative emissions.

— IPCC, Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis, Summary for Policy Makers

I guess the problem is that, for many people, the decade that the IPCC says we have to avoid the worst effects of cumulative global warming can seem like a really long time. It does for me.

I struggle to see myself in one year, let alone five or ten. I might grow wings by then, or become obscenely rich and invested in one of those cryogenic chambers (not as expensive as you may think, if you have life insurance. Although, according to the article linked above, it costs more if you want to freeze your entire body and not just have your chopped-off-head.)

But my struggle with time-horizons is a personal failing. And it is not an excuse for inaction. Your film made that abundantly clear.

At the end of Don’t Look Up, the central characters shared a family dinner, and spoke of the things that they were grateful for in this life. The astronomer who discovered the comet began to speak, just as the diner table started shaking with an impending earthquake.

“I’m grateful that we tried”, she said.

Can we say the same?

So thank you for making the film Don’t Look Up. I’m grateful that you made it. And I’m grateful that is has motivated me to do a better job, of trying in any way that I can.

Yours in film appreciation,

Bethany Jane

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B J Robertson

Exploring somewhere between media and tech. Video editor. Former cyber security analyst. Australian Londoner living in Los Angeles.