Don’t Look Up: Hollywood’s Take on Self-Awareness

Hollywood's prolonged metaphor for global warming is very, very funny, but also quite, quite stupid

The notion that the rest of the universe—not just its possible inhabitants, but all the rocks and dust and stuff—is maliciously disposed toward us is a venerable one in American science fiction.

I first encountered it as a kid, reading a dusty old 1933 novel by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie, When Worlds Collide, in which a couple of rogue planets hurtle into our solar system wreaking havoc. One of them reduces the earth to an unseemly cloud of space dust; the other, happily, moves into an agreeably heliocentric orbit of the sun, where a few escape rockets land with the tattered remnants of humanity. One of the rockets is from the United States and one from the Soviet Union, so the passengers immediately take up hostilities with one another in something that sure looks like the Cold War, albeit 15 years early.

Balmer and Wylie’s grasp of astrophysics may have been shaky—those escape rockets were nuclear-powered, something we still don’t have nearly a century later—but their powers of political-science prophecy were sound.

From there, the cosmos’ lethal designs on Planet Earth drifted through comic books and radio shows and all manner of popular culture until finally alighting in Hollywood, first in a 1951 film adaptation of When Worlds Collide, then in several Japanese films in which attempts to blow up a rogue planet awaken Godzilla-like monsters, with predictably inauspicious results for Tokyo. Or nice space aliens try to warn us of impending astral collisions but we don’t believe them because they look like ambulatory starfish with giant cyclopean eyes.

The American side of this spacephobia didn’t really take hold until the 1990s, when astral-collision films like Deep Impact and Armageddon heroically—but mostly unsuccessfully—attempted to rehabilitate the lab-coated-pansy Hollywood image of scientists by depicting their nerds as manly-man guys like Robert Duvall and Bruce Willis, Rambos with doctorates. (Though my personal favorite remains Night of the Comet, in which a close encounter with one doesn’t wreck the Earth but does turn everybody into hungry zombies. Fortunately, a couple of Second Amendment-obsessed Valley Girls are around to save us.)

And a nod is probably due to Lars von Trier’s eccentric 2011 film Melancholia, in which one of those belligerent runaway planets is heading for Earth, but the scientists are on the case with months to spare. Except—spoiler alert—the scientists muff their shot and the entire Earth is burnt to a crisp even uglier than those starfish. The closest thing to a hero is bipolar advertising executive Kirsten Dunst, who accepts the end of the world with a flirty smile rather than the mewling and whining of everybody else. Von Trier’s apparent point is that the chronically depressed are better equipped to deal with apocalypse because they already think the world is crap. Philosophically sound, perhaps, but of limited pragmatic value.

So, to review the historic lessons of careening astrometric bodies in American arts: scientists, Valley Girls (at least, the armed ones) and manic depressives, good. Comets, asteroids, meteors and pretty much the rest of the cosmos, bad. But now comes Netflix’s Don’t Look Up, in which another of those planet-busting comets is headed straight for Earth. Nominated for four Oscars (including best picture and screenplay) earlier this week, Don’t Look Up is so confusing—and confused—that it threatens to upset the entire artistic ontology of astral collisions.

Okay, time for the spoiler alert. In this black comedy, two astronomers (Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio) spot a comet streaking toward the Earth. They go to the president (Meryl Streep) with a plan to knock it off course, but she’s distracted by domestic politics. (It’s leaked out that her new Supreme Court nominee misogynistically popped an erection while posing nude for college art classes. Critics see this as a sign of unwokeness far more damaging to his judicial qualifications than the fact that he didn’t go to law school.)

The astronomers try leaking news of the comet to the media but run afoul of the clickbait frivolity of modern journalism. (“Keep it light and fun!” advises the producer of one morning TV show.) America soon divides into comet deniers (the Don’t Look Ups) and progressive I-fucking-love-science virtue-signalers (the Just Look Ups). In the end, a wonky but avaricious tech zillionaire hijacks the rescue plan in hopes of scoring a mineral-mining bonanza from the post-crash remains of the comet, which works out about as you might expect.

This is all funny—very funny—but what to make of it beyond that is not very clear. And I’m not just talking about the total absence of Valley Girls, manic depressives or one-eyed starfish. Is Don’t Look Up supposed to be a lesson in the wisdom of the Follow The Science imperative? Actually, the scientists in Don’t Look Up don’t hold up very well—many of them mold their analysis to fit that of their political patrons (head of NASA, asked if a six-mile-wide comet banging into the earth isn’t an extinction event, cautions, “let’s not be dramatic here”) and mostly get distracted by the hoopla and get-rich-quick schemes surrounding the comet.

And even when they don’t, they’re hilariously inept at communicating their message. My favorite was the DiCaprio character going on a Sesame Street sort of puppet show for kids. “The president’s plan to save Earth and make it so we can all have a home is going to work, right?” plaintively asks one of the puppets. Screams DiCaprio: “Every man, woman and child on this planet is going to die!” And don’t forget to brush after every meal, kids.

Well, then, is Don’t Look Up an extended metaphor for global warming? The best argument for this idea is that Adam McKay, who wrote and directed the movie, says it is. The best argument against it is that, as a metaphor, it’s completely moronic. If a killer comet appeared on the radar, we’d have perhaps six months to do something about it if we were lucky. But even the most alarmist believers think it will be a decade or more before we face a day of reckoning on global warming. (Not that their track record is so, pardon the expression, hot.) Taking a little time to contemplate whether we should spend over $1 trillion on countermeasures that nobody is even sure will work doesn’t seem exactly like dawdling.

Perhaps the best way to view Don’t Look Up is as a documentary. After all, its characters are startlingly familiar. Streep’s propensities for appointing family members to jobs, groping anybody within reach, wearing red “Don’t Look Up” baseball hats, and novel approaches to statistics (upon being told the probability of the comet striking Earth is 100 percent, she shrugs and replies, “Call it 70 percent and move on”) is certainly reminiscent of a recent, male president. As for the lady scientist Lawrence, her perpetually sour face and tendency to scream at anybody who disagrees with her make her a dead ringer for the teenage climate shrew Greta Thunberg. (In the movie, Lawrence’s ex-boyfriend authors a tabloid expose titled, You know the crazy chick who thinks we’re all going to die? I actually slept with her. Look out, Greta.)

The look-alikeism goes on and on, through journalists, tech overlords and even the self-appointed celebrity experts on science. Arianna Grande plays a pop tart activist strikingly like herself. No, she doesn’t lick any donuts and put them back on the shelf, or offer up catchy slogans like “I hate Americans!” But she does croon a hip-hop ballad that she wrote herself that echoes with the solemn wisdom of Hollywood’s Gen Z:

Just look up
Turn off that shit-box news
‘Cause you’re about to die soon everybody

Glenn Garvin, a contributing editor at Reason, spent 25 years at the Miami Herald as a foreign correspondent, columnist and TV critic.