Review of Don’t Look Up

Review of Don’t Look Up

Steven Holmes

McKay, Adam, director. Don’t Look Up. Netflix, 2021.

“Dr. Mindy, I hear you. I hear you,” President Orlean (Meryl Streep) says after Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) emphasizes that a comet racing toward earth will be an apocalyptic event. This scene is a critical point in both the film and audience reception of the film, as Streep’s Orlean seems indebted to the trappings of the Trump presidency, even though this specific line seems to more evoke the Bush presidency. The line echoes Bush’s “I hear you” line during the Bullhorn Speech at ground zero after 9/11. In such a moment, the film clashes between Saturday Night Live-style direct political commentary, and the attempts of the film to push its critique and satire into a broader reflection on 21st century political norms and discourse.

Adam McKay’s apocalyptic black comedy set records for streaming on Netflix. Apocalyptic black comedy has become its own sub-genre, with iterations going back at least to Dr. Strangelove (1964). Like Shaun of the Dead (2004), Don’t Look Up acts as a comment on capitalism, complacency, and the power of denial and indifference. But the closest tonal analogue may be 2013’s This is the End, an apocalyptic black comedy that used as its chief form of irony the discord between celebrity personas and actual personality. Don’t Look Up is particularly focused on the interplay between celebrity persona and personal politics both in the dramatic narrative and in the production of the film. The individual conflict and character arcs for the film protagonists—DiCaprio’s Dr. Mindy and PhD candidate Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence)—centers around these scientists suddenly being thrust into the limelight, and the differing ways they respond to their newfound celebrity. This is contrasted with bit parts, such as the arc of celebrity Riley Bina (Ariana Grande) who goes from overshadowing the comet in the news with her personal life to encouraging people to “look up” through her songs. Behind the scenes, lead actor Leonardo DiCaprio had significant control over the script of the film;      DiCaprio, who produced and promoted the film Before the Flood (2016), a documentary on climate change, has used his celebrity status to actively advocate on behalf of the issue of climate change. Don’t Look Up is a meditation on the role of celebrity in shaping political issues, starring an actor who uses their celebrity to shape political issues.

This is not the first narrative to use a comet or celestial body as a foil for political reflection. In H. G. Wells’“The Star” (1896), the near-miss of a comet forges a new brotherhood among men. In W. E. B. Du Bois’ “The Comet” (1920) the cataclysm of New York serves as a pretext to explore race relations. The narrative overtones of these stories seem in line with many apocalyptic narratives, where dramatic disturbances in organized human life allow for the re-examination or re-organization of human society. But the narrative that Don’t Look Up most directly evokes is the 1998 film Armageddon, with its celebration of heroic blue-collar oil drillers who absurdly end up more fitted for saving the world than astronauts. Don’t Look Up is not a direct parody of Armageddon (indeed, it also is drawing heavily from Deep Impact [1998]), but it doeshave a brief arc where it telegraphs the Armageddon plot structure. Orlean brings in Benedict Drask (Ron Perlman), a casually racist parody of Bruce Willis’s hero of Armageddon, to pilot a spaceship and use nukes to blow up the comet. That is, until the plot is foiled by Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance), an amalgam of Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, who in trying to profit off the comet dooms earth to annihilation.

Despite its viewpoint characters both being scientists, Don’t Look Up is not interested in the science behind astronomy or astrophysics. The locus of its exploration of technology is less on the exigence of the comet, spaceships, and nukes, and more on the capacity to exchange in rational-critical debate and the functionality of the state. Unlike Deep Impact, where nukes are detonated but fail to completely offset the comet (only for a spaceship to fly in and use even more nukes to save the day), it seems like in Don’t Look Up the original plan to offset the comet would have succeeded had the plan not been undermined by Isherwell and his desire to profit off the comet. In turn, President Orlean’s capitulation to Isherwell highlights the extent that greed and corruption can lead to the full-scale agency capture of the state by privatized interests. In essence, the film suggests that the mechanical technology to solve largescale problems may exist, but it is the social technologies of democratic government and public discourse that are failing.  

Although the comet is a metaphor for climate change, the discourse surrounding it has clear parallels in the Covid-19 pandemic. In a historical survey, Don’t Look Up could be positioned as one of the most direct comments on the Covid-19 pandemic (and state responses to the pandemic) that was written, produced, and released during the pandemic itself. It is probable that in creating literary histories both of science fiction and apocalyptic narrative, Don’t Look Up serves as a compelling touchstone piece indicating at least some of the concerns of the post-pandemic era: collective denial in populism, the capacity of institutions to handle emergent issues, the agency capture of state institutions by privatized interests, and the totality of the warping of popular discourse around celebrity. Likewise, the strength of the film is encapsulated in the conceit of its title, where the president begins to advocate the public “don’t look up” (don’t acknowledge the comet) in a way that evokes how conspiratorial ideas can be intermixed and interwoven with both political and financial interests. Furthermore, in its interplay with Armageddon, Don’t Look Up emphasizes the cynicism and hopelessness of contemporary mass media entertainment in one of the sharpest possible contrasts to the optimism of the 1990s. To that extent, Don’t Look Up is a film that is highly productive when considered in relief to historical and literary histories.

Dr. Steven Holmes is a lecturer at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, where he is currently finishing a book project entitled Exploding Empire: Imagining the Future of Nationalism and Capitalism. His publications include articles in Studies in the Fantastic, The Written Dead: The Zombie as a Literary Phenomenon, War Gothic in Literature and Culture, and Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Popular Fantasy. He teaches classes on argumentative writing, science fiction, fantasy literature, digital art, and Shakespeare.

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SFRA Review is the flagship publication of the Science Fiction Research Association since 1971.

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