The real message of Don’t Look Up is: ‘look around’
Posted on 25/01/2022
Debs Grayson explores Don’t Look Up’s deconstruction of the myth that solutions to the planet’s problems can be found at the heart of the empire that creates them.
Netflix’s latest star-studded original feature, Don’t Look Up, was released on Christmas Eve to a mixed reception. The story follows two astronomers who try to alert the world to a ‘planet-killer’ comet they’ve discovered, heading directly towards Earth, but meet a wall of denial and inaction – and it has widely been interpreted as an allegory for climate change and/or the pandemic. The critics who have felt it was too heavy-handed to work as satire have missed the point: climate scientists and campaigners have been writing about how validated they’ve felt at seeing these dynamics portrayed so accurately.[i] What has received less attention so far is the specific genre that the film is satirising – the Hollywood Global Disaster Movie – and what this tells us about US and Western leadership in the context of current crises.
In the Hollywood Global Disaster Movie, humanity faces an existential threat such as a deadly virus (Pandemic, Contagion), alien invasion (Independence Day, Signs) or, of course, a meteor strike (Armageddon, Deep Impact). While the threat is being experienced by everyone, everywhere, the action is almost entirely focused on US settler society which is placed at the heart of the story. US-based scientists are the ones who discover or define the threat, the US government, military and/or corporate institutions immediately swing into action, and their heroic efforts are ultimately successful at averting disaster.
The rest of the world largely features as suffering or cheering crowds, oblique references to ‘world leaders’, or as junior partners in a rescue mission led by US ingenuity and daring.[ii] The Hollywood Global Disaster Movie therefore has a similar ideological structure to the Hollywood Terrorism Movie, which also became a popular genre in the 1990s. Both position the US as uniquely capable of protecting civilisation, legitimising its role as the world’s policeman and its continuing enormous military despite having no obvious enemy now it had ‘won’ the Cold War.
Don’t Look Up begins by hitting the usual beats. Astronomers at Michigan State notice a new comet, which they calculate to be on a direct collision course with Earth in six months’ time, and within hours Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) and Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) are on a military jet to the White House. But when they get to the Oval office it all goes awry. The President (Meryl Streep) keeps them waiting overnight and then grants a 20-minute interview where she denies the certainty of the calculations and says she wants to ‘sit tight and assess’.
Later it becomes politically expedient to do something, but government plans to blow up the comet are derailed by corporate interests wanting to mine its precious metals. Kate and Randall go to the media and find their doomy message ridiculed or minimised. Eventually they start a public campaign, complete with badges and a Band Aid style concert with Ariana Grande and Kid Cudi, but these tools are also distinctly limited. I’ll leave you to watch the film to find out the ending, but it’s not much of a spoiler to say that the US does not end up looking heroic.
In keeping with the genre, Don’t Look Up retains the Hollywood Global Disaster Movie focus on the US. The rest of the world is once more largely represented through National Geographic-style montages of exotic people and animals to remind us what is under threat, brief mentions that experts in other countries have confirmed the science, and a single reference to the UN. Towards the end, we do hear of another plan to break up the comet, led by Russia, China and India, but this is largely offstage.
In other words, the film is a commentary not so much on ‘climate change’ or ‘the pandemic’ as on the role that the US – and other Western governments – can or should play as their hegemony is waning. If the Hollywood Global Disaster Movie reinforces the message that the US deserves to monopolise the world’s resources because it will step in to protect humanity when needed, Don’t Look Up depicts US elites as ideologically, culturally and technologically incapable of the most basic acts of self-preservation, let alone saving the rest of the world.[iii]
An important element of these stories is the relationship between knowledge of impending doom, and the US’s ability to take action. I re-watched Armageddon and Deep Impact while writing this, and in both films the US is not only the first country to discover the meteors hurtling towards Earth, it also manages to keep this a secret from almost everyone else for a significant amount of time.[iv] The Presidents use this time to devise their action plans, which kick into gear as soon as the threats are identified. The media only have a bit part in Armageddon, but in Deep Impact a central character is a journalist who has stumbled on the story and becomes a key mouthpiece as the story progresses, reporting seriously on the rescue mission to serious, trusting Americans in their homes.
In Don’t Look Up, the seamless relationship between US scientific, political, corporate, military and media institutions as depicted in the Hollywood Global Disaster Movie has almost completely fallen apart. Rather than leaping into action, political leaders look for excuses to do nothing; rather than leading the world-saving mission (as Bruce Willis’s oil drillers do in Armageddon), private companies pursue their own agendas while risking all of life on earth; rather than seeking the truth and informing the public, media institutions promote distraction, disinformation and conspiracy theories.
More fundamentally, the US is shown as incapable of even really knowing the danger it faces. The title of the movie comes from the moment halfway through when the comet becomes visible to the naked eye. For Dibiasky and Mindy this is a turning point, the moment when they realise that their focus should be on organising the wider public to ‘just look up’ rather than trying to persuade elite institutions to act. But the context is so polarised, and so lacking in a basic level of trust, that the President’s counter campaign, ‘don’t look up’, builds significant support (along with those taking the extreme centrist view that people should ‘look up and down’).
Ways of knowing (and not knowing)
This moment of the comet’s visibility points to a notable development in the last five years, where climate change has become visceral for those living in urban centres in the West. Where a decade ago the focus of western environmental campaigns was largely on sites far away – the Amazon rainforest, the Arctic sea ice, the permafrost – it is now on the wildfires, flooding and deadly temperature extremes being experienced closer to home. Knowledge of climate change has shifted from abstractions like ‘average global temperature rises’ to immediate experiences like the fact you can’t use the tube because your local station is under water. We have reached the point where the allegorical comet is visible in the sky even to those living in New York or London – if you look up, if you trust the interpretation given to you about what this new point of light means.
But of course this way of knowing climate change through immediate experience is not actually a recent development. For anyone who lives in close relationship with land, this has been an embodied reality for decades – and the disruption caused by climate change is continuous with the impacts of colonial and capitalist extraction that have been destroying biomes and ecosystems for far longer. To continue the allegory, you could say that the world’s indigenous peoples and peasant farmers have been the ones with the equivalent of the gigantic telescope, catching those streaks of a new comet and trying to resist and raise the alarm for far longer than Western scientists or environmental campaigners.
And just as they are able to know the problem far more intimately and holistically, these are also the people practising viable solutions. Solutions like Cuba’s Life Taskforce, who are building the physical, social and emotional infrastructure to relocate entire cities away from coastal areas. Solutions like African farmers engaging in participatory plant breeding to develop and share new plant varieties that can cope with changed weather patterns. These solutions do exist in the West, too, often in marginalised areas and communities – for example those pursuing a just transition away from profit and pollution in Detroit, or those reclaiming collective crofting practices in the Scottish Highlands. But such solutions are almost completely divorced from the Climate Agreements being led by western governments in Washington, Westminster and elsewhere, which function largely as a cover for inaction – and in which any action they can imagine is the equivalent of throwing nukes at the problem.
If this failure to ‘look around’ is apparent with climate change, it is even more screamingly obvious with the pandemic. In a Twitter thread, Independent Sage’s Deepti Gurdisani reflected on her own response to Don’t Look Up, as a scientist who has been relentlessly attacked as alarmist and hysterical for suggesting that mass infection with a deadly and rapidly mutating virus might be a bad thing. She highlights many of the ways the UK media has failed to keep the public properly informed, including their myopia about lessons that could be learned by looking internationally:
Sri Lankan writer Indi Samarajiva spoke about these dynamics at an event I ran last year on international coverage of the pandemic. He quoted C.L.R. James: ‘[colonial] mythmaking conceals another virulent poison for the myth makers. It insists that they see themselves always as … the teachers and Africans as the taught’. When coronavirus hit, this poisonous myth meant that UK elites were unable to recognise the expertise existing elsewhere – particularly in East Asian countries that had experienced SARS – and to see their early lockdowns, widespread masking and traveller quarantines is something to emulate. ‘Learning from them’, as Indi said, ‘would have saved tens if not hundreds of thousands of lives’. And yet still, two years on, there has been minimal learning or even recognition of this failure.
This wall of imperialist denial cannot be breached by more data or facts or scientists giving dire warnings on TV.[v] No fact could be starker than our horrendous mortality rate. Surely anyone comparing our 157,000 dead with Taiwan’s death toll (850) or Ghana’s (1300) would conclude something had gone catastrophically wrong here.[vi] Yet for many the penny refuses to drop. People who are crude empiricists when it comes to ‘facts’ like GDP suddenly discover their inner deconstructionist (‘can we trust these numbers’/‘how did they collect their data’/‘is this deaths “with” or “of” Covid’, etc) Meanwhile, well-meaning liberals remain wedded to British exceptionalism, even when this means a terrifying fatalism (‘our countries aren’t comparable’/‘it wouldn’t have worked here’/‘our leaders couldn’t have done any better’).
They are staring at the comet, first of all insisting it is a star, or a collective hallucination, and then deciding that there’s nothing ‘anyone’ can do about it anyway. Even while other countries have created viable survival plans, and have made them freely and publicly available for anyone to try.
In her book Emergent Strategy, US activist adrienne maree brown writes: ‘At this point, we have all the information we need to create a change; it isn’t a matter of facts. It’s a matter of longing, having the will to imagine and implement something else’ (p21). If there is hope to be had at this moment, it’s that, by adopting the simple expedient of looking around, we don’t need to long in the abstract, or imagine something that doesn’t exist. We can long, quite concretely, for the rapid pandemic responsiveness of Taiwan, the public health messaging of Ghana, and the vaccination roll-out of Cuba. And we can also long for tree-planting on the scale of Ethiopia, or a shift to buen vivir economics as in Bolivia and Ecuador, or towards the moral leadership of Barbados.
This optimism of the will, as always, requires pessimism of the intellect – a true reckoning with the stupidity and backwardness in which those of us living here in the heart of Empire are immersed. And it also requires letting go of the saviourism of the Hollywood Global Disaster Movie, and of stories which presume that global problems can be solved by the systems of power that created them. Don’t Look Up is perhaps the first culturally mainstream expression of this necessary pessimism. The question is whether we can find the longing, and have the will, to look around us for a better world.
Author: Debs Grayson
[i] They have also been some interesting reflections on the limitations of the meteor strike as an allegory for climate change.
[ii] In both Armageddon and Deep Impact the rescue missions are nominally joint ventures with the Russians, which amounts to a single Russian astronaut being involved in each mission, and, in Armageddon, the ship landing for refuelling on a Russian space station, which promptly blows up.
[iii] Those who’ve seen the ending might dispute this – but I would argue (while trying not to give too much away) that it’s highly unlikely that the ultimate end of those who feature in the final credits is going to be long and healthy lives.
[iv] This is particularly ludicrous because in both films the meteors are named by amateurs who spotted them first. Somehow teenager Elijah Wood can see the meteor in Deep Impact in his astronomy club, but no one in China has a good enough telescope …
[v] In another ironic twist, the UK has actually been producing world-leading data during the pandemic, including multiple measures of prevalence, widespread genetic sequencing and real-time symptom tracking. It’s just that this knowledge has minimal connection with policy, particularly in England. The Zoe symptom study, for example, has been used around the world to inform people about what symptoms to look out for with each new variant. Yet as of January 2022 Westminster guidance still focuses on cough, fever and loss of taste or smell, despite these not having been the most common Covid symptoms for well over a year.
[vi] Many countries have done better than the UK, but Taiwan and Ghana are good comparators as they are both multi-party democracies with populations in the same ballpark as the UK (23m for Taiwan and 31m for Ghana).