The Failure of ‘Don’t Look Up

Christopher Sloce, socialist writer and co-host of the It Can Be Done podcast brings us The Poverty of Popcorn Politics: The Failure of Don’t Look Up. This is the first installment of The Culture Column, a new bi-monthly series criticizing the culture we have so we can create the culture we want.

The last polar bear struggles against an ice cap, rapidly melting. He looks like a mangy Pyrenees. The cities are flooded, rusted vehicles covering highways.

As his paws grasp the shelf, he plunges into the water, balmy. He falls to the bottom of the bathwater now surrounding the Antarctic. And he thinks to himself, “If only Don’t Look Up had won an Oscar.”

Too bad the polar bear’s last thought was bullshit.

The one word I can use for Don’t Look Up is depressing. On one hand, it is ostensibly about climate change. On the other hand, First Reformed, a film that caused me so much solastalgia it actually probably helped me have a nervous breakdown, was not this depressing.

The depressing of Don’t Look Up is not the depressing of a heavy subject matter or in its tone. The film, helmed by former comedy director Adam McKay and written by former Sanders press flack David Sirota, views itself as a righteous, epic fuck you to the entire American political system, helmed ostensibly around climate change. 

The strategy might look something like the following: do a big, broad comedy about the insanity of refusal to square up to the realities of climate change because we’re so married to the existing state of capitalism that we’d rather let the world end than change.

Using those yuks, create  a fertile ground for discourse to hopefully get people talking about climate change (which we do every time we kvetch about how hot it is in December, whether we admit it or think it’s just small talk) by showing the gravity of the situation.

But if we just shot this in our backyard, we’d look like cranks, so we need a big glossy production, helmed to the brim with stars like Leonardo Dicaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, and other luminaries.

In order to show the gravity of the situation, we need an absurd calamity, like an Armageddon style asteroid that you can see from space, the shockwave of which will destroy human life as we know it, because people are being stupid about climate change as opposed to being powerless and scared to death.

From there, things are hazy, but prestige remains its own prize, and creating discourse is worth Oscar gold, especially if, like McKay, you have a vested interest in being the progressive truth teller comedic director du jour. 

But look: it’s a couple of months later. The film went bupkis at the Oscars. The IPCC released another one of its reports telling us we needed action yesterday. All the Netflix Laughs tweets that say stuff like “Leo in Don’t Look Up is mood AF!!!” are deep on their timeline.

The film, finally, has wound up the equivalent of telling your bad boss to go fuck himself with a very professional two weeks notice and acting like you’re Johnny Paycheck. After all, the two weeks’ notices wind up in the trash, and aren’t recycled, either.

And beyond all its artistic failure–as if shitty movies don’t ever get huge– there has to be an underlying reason a climate change movie failed, especially as all us frogs are sitting in a pot wondering why our blood’s running hot. It’s very simple.

If the film is about climate change, it’s a failure to be about what it’s about in any meaningful way. If your climate change movie is made to Start A Conversation and the Conversation ends with a whimper, you fucked up, and there is no amount of Twitter browbeating that will change that. 

Quoting directors or writers about their own work is a morass, but McKay and Sirota, of course, creating an object of discussion that they couldn’t leave the hell alone makes them fair game.

Sirota, at the height of Don’t Look Up mania, said that “A climate movie is the #1 most popular film on the world’s largest streaming platform. This is an enormous win. If you can’t at least acknowledge that, then it’s a safe bet that you’re a character in that film.”

Why on the Earth the two of them need acknowledgment is beyond me. Like Don Draper once said, “That’s what the money’s for!” But it’s interesting, then, to see this and view it as a lens through which to view the movie. Walter Benjamin said revolution was humanity reaching for the emergency brake.

Adam McKay and David Sirota would see the train hurtling towards a chasm and shout “Will anyone PLEASE acknowledge us?” But the goal of the film is to create discussion, capture the discourse, and deliver unto good progressive boys, Kay and Sirota a fat golden goose named Acknowledgement.

The film has the flop sweat feeling of a carefully crafted viral tweet. If you’ve ever seen one of those interminable posts that posits the difference between a Republican and a Democrat is the difference between stepping on a landmine and a rake, you’ll know the tone here: that outraged, glasses befogged gesticulation that believes in the pure ability of facts to win the day. Ask Keith Olbermann how that’s working out for him. 

    But being the number one movie on a streaming platform and being a good movie are two different things, and as a climate change movie, it’s politically unserious as any Extinction Rebellion dance mob. 

The film posits a disaster that will be immediate, painless, and require only six months of existential despair–even though not a single person kills themselves in the film, which if you’re making a film about the world ending, needs to be considered as a very real possibility (and something First Reformed understood innately).

An asteroid is nothing like climate change. Climate change’s terror comes from the idea that the world we loved will disappear, the way it will with an apocalyptic maelstrom, but it is a slow disappearance, with no moment for the powerful spectacle of the end.

It’s not the dying, it’s the dread.  Spectacle, in the face of dying slowly, is a cop out: the ultimate destruction of the world as a money shot. The film allows itself a spectacle, in the asteroid’s approach to Earth, with a Koyaanisqatsi-style montage of final moments, including an indigenous man in what appears to be the Andes, completing a ritual as the world ends.

There may be temporary spectacles, as the awesome and terrible visual of California wildfires will show us, but as spring and fall grow shorter, as summers grow more unbearable and winters require short sleeves,  we will experience the sense that everything is exactly the same, with nothing to break it up. 

And as we slowly erode the ability for any other way of life than lifeboat nationalism, a lot of people are going to drown.

Not that the movie has thought, of course, about the inequality climate change causes. The beauty of an asteroid is everybody’s fucked. Climate change will empower the vicious and punish everyone else.

While it may be a bit of a cliche to imagine the apocalypse as Mad Max, the idea of roving warlords who hold their resources and from that outgrowth develop ideologies and cults is much more accurate than anything Mckay and Sirota here have cooked up.

If you doubt that a simple resource and its extraction can take on the fever pitch tone of religion, go into a small Appalachian town and see how many stickers you see that say “Friends of Coal”. 

    So what is it about? It’s a movie about how the failures of culture will cause the world to end. Which is exactly what media flaks will tell you it has the power to do (witness the overcooked fear in “fake news”, a phenomenon that has existed since time immemorial).

But the sense you get as you watch the film is that the authors of destruction will not be oil companies or endless extraction, but of a media obsessed landscape. Social media dominates the film, from memes to Leonardo Dicaprio’s character’s Twitter.

They get bumped for the sexual imbroglios of Ariana Grande’s pop star with Kid Cudi’s DJ. The film is right to locate power inside of the media, but it has the lapsed believer’s sentimentality.

While the ultimate goal of the scientist’ character’s “Just Look Up” campaign is to get other countries to blow up the asteroid, the method is social media and protests and big, splashy events with pop stars. 

At no point is anything occupied, no barricades are erected, and nobody gets shot. There is a brief riot that comes about after Jennifer Lawrence tells patrons at some Foggy Bottom pub the government is lying about the asteroid, but it’s a punchline, and not a show of any sort of spontaneous, if ineffective protest.

Adam McKay and David Sirota are not looking at the situation and giving you a parable of why “a las barricadas” is a sensible reaction to climate change and all the hashtags in the world won’t change that the destruction of the world is profitable.

They’re pulling punches because they lack imagination, which sometimes is just the intellectual wherewithal to follow something to its conclusion. In this fantasy world McKay and Sirota have created, there is not even a right wing to contend with other than a depiction of a right wing news network briefly.

For a movie about climate change, ignoring that the right wing’s stochastic terrorists do believe that there’s an finite amount of resources and only violence delivered with iron will can cull the herd.

Ignoring that somebody may use this violence to advance their goals is ludicrous. Crisis for any insurgency is an opportunity, and the film’s response to crisis as a political motivator is best found in its title. 

Perhaps lambasting a mainstream comedy for being politically bland may be silly, but considering the evangelical tone the film takes in its serious moments, like Leo’s meltdown on side piece Cate Blanchett’s tv show, you can’t allow it to have its cake and eat it too.

These scenes read like someone who watched Network and thought Howard Beale was telling it like it is, instead of the more complex interrogation of media and capital at the heart of Network. Howard Beale was a hollow, empty man who would kill himself rather than lose a news show, not a prophet.

Don’t Look Up would rather destroy the planet than show a cop crack someone’s head open with a baton. Neither serve anybody but themselves, but only in the shortest of terms. The film understands that that thrust creates our myopia towards climate change, but it itself remains blinkered. 

The most instructive moment of the movie’s attitude towards the media, the one that tells us its ambitions, involves puppets. As Leonardo Dicaprio’s scientist character, who earlier, Fauci-like, helped a group of hapless little puppets work their way through the asteroid issue.

As he goes back on, he ends up going ape-shit, grabbing the camera, screaming the President is a sociopath. Underneath, some hip hop inspired dreck plays. For a moment we are supposed to be enraptured in the righteousness of anger, the feeling of a moment, of someone finally saying it. 

But in the face of inevitable disaster, a planet killer, it speaks to the paucity of the film’s conception of apocalypse that at no point can it even hint there may exist an approach other than screaming on tv or lifeless protests soundtracked by pop stars.

In order for the day to have ever been won, politics would have to come into the occasion. The film is scared of politic’s entire swathe. In the face of slow death and what feels like an impossible calamity, one could say it’s understandable.

But Fourier wanted a sea of lemonade. Bolivar claimed, “If nature opposes us, we will fight against her and force her to obey.” As Peter Linebaugh wrote of Bolivar, “The leaders of the bourgeois revolution were prepared to conquer nature.” Don’t Look Up was only prepared to conquer Twitter.

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