Adam McKay's Don't Look Up highlights how the capitalist class’s relentless pursuit of profit is leading us to disaster, argues Lucy Nichols
Don’t Look Up, directed by Adam McKay and featuring just about every A-Lister you can think of, seems to have divided people more than the crisis it is an allegory for.
The film, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, and Meryl Streep is satire, though not particularly subtle. The premise is that a planet-destroying comet is headed towards Earth: it can be stopped but only if world leaders start to take the impending doom seriously. The two scientists who discover this comet (Lawrence and DiCaprio) are initially ignored by the US government, until the US President (Streep) sees that the USA taking down the comet would mean a popularity boost for her campaign.
It doesn’t take a genius to work out that Meryl Streep is a caricature of Donald Trump, the comet is climate change (or perhaps the pandemic), and the impending doom is made worse by people refusing to ‘listen to the science’.
The press refuses to take the comet seriously, and Lawrence’s character Dibiasky is turned into a meme when she tries to impress the gravity of the situation upon people. Later on in the film, Mark Rylance appears, playing the billionaire owner of a suspicious tech company that focuses on spying on its customers through increasingly clever technology. Enter Elon Musk.
Don’t Look Up doesn’t really require a lot of analysis, and it isn’t hard to deduce what the story is really about. There are no subliminal messages, you don’t need to read between the lines, and it certainly isn’t particularly deep. But this doesn’t matter.
The reality is that we are heading very rapidly into a complete crisis. Pandemics will seem pale compared to the climate crisis. It’s not just polar bears dying, or slightly higher temperatures, it’s the end of the world as we know it. This is what Don’t Look Up is about, and McKay wasn’t fussed about being subtle about it.
It is probably obvious that the film largely takes aim at capitalism: the US government is guided by the pursuit of profit which is why they initially ignore it, then switch to wanting to destroy the earth-shattering comet when it’s politically expedient, until the billionaire tech mogul argues that this comet is full of minerals worth trillions of dollars, and suddenly the focus moves towards mining the comet rather than destroying it.
But the film also portrays sections of working-class people, parodies of anti-vaxxers, Trump supporters or climate deniers, as idiots who won’t listen to ‘science’ and who literally won’t just ‘look up’. If you ask your liberal family members (if you’re unfortunate enough to have any), this might even be the main point of the film.
The film however very clearly makes the crux of the issue the decision by the ruling class, with the corrupt relationship between big business and government on open display, as the problem. A crisis they have created which they are then able to escape while the rest of humanity suffers the consequences of.
As for where people’s ideas may be being manipulated from, it’s the mainstream media that is attacked for its refusal to tell the truth about the comet that is hurtling towards Earth. When ‘sexy scientist’ Dr Mindy (DiCaprio) is asked onto the fictional talk show headed up by Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry, he is met with cheery indifference. As he begins to break down, and eventually asks why the presenters of this talk show refuse to take the comet crisis seriously, Cate Blanchett replies that they’re ‘keeping the bad news light, helping the medicine go down’.
Perhaps this is why mainstream media has been so critical of the film; it feels too attacked, McKay hits too close to home. The Guardian, for instance, can’t make its mind up: one minute the film is ‘laboured, self-conscious and unrelaxed satire’, and the next it’s interviewing climate activists who love the film, which ‘parodies our inaction’.
Despite a few minor pitfalls, Don’t Look Up is brilliantly entertaining. The acting is phenomenal (as to be expected from such a cast), and the comedy doesn’t detract from the seriousness of the subject matter. Above all, it is an important film, and ought to at least be watched. It’s not going to tell you anything you don’t already know, but it’s satisfying to see some of the problems we fight taken relatively seriously on such a huge stage.
It is easy to see where some of the criticism of Don’t Look Up is coming from, especially when the film comes from the liberal establishment and with its elitist portrayal of working-class people. But the film does focus on the nature of power, the corruption and self-interest of those with it, and that the solutions won’t come from them.
Like the analogy of a comet hurtling through space, the individual beliefs of people are neither responsible for nor can they solve the climate crisis or a pandemic. Clearly, the solution requires systemic change.
As fantastic as Don’t Look Up is, the reality of climate change is that it isn’t going anywhere. Even if it does include Timothée Chalamet, no Hollywood blockbuster is going to push the global elite into action, nor will it roll out the red carpet for the vanguard and lead to global class consciousness around the destructive nature of capitalism. Only we can do that, through mass mobilisation and collective action, and that’s the point socialists should be arguing from this film.
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