Can’t look away: in Don’t Look Up, science, media and power collide in a train wreck that you can’t unsee

The recently released film Don’t Look Up (director Adam McKay) has generated plenty of critical attention — positive and negative. Most of that attention has quickly moved from the film itself to the themes of existential threats, media, US power and so on. In a politically polarized world, whether you liked the film aligns you immediately with certain groups and views. Instead of seeing the film on its own terms, the media commentary on the film positions it as part of the media frenzy.

Such commentary is being called “meta-discourse.” The fact that the film itself is the subject of meta-discourse is ironic, since meta-discourse is one of the social trends it pillories.

Speaking of irony, Canadian critic Northrup Frye said that satire was “militant irony.” He divided myth and, hence, literature, into four modes: comedy, romance, tragedy and satire/irony. Satire (or irony) moves from tragedy to comedy. It has a foot in both. Some critiques of Don’t Look Up complain that it has these two tones — comic and tragic. But I think this double-edged nature is at the heart of satire.

If this were a scientific article — and scientific literature is also at the heart of Don’t Look Up — here I would write a review of the literature to date. Such a review is just as relevant for art reviews. Understanding the context for any art form is essential, because all art is about other art.

“I am still uncertain as to whether I should call it a comedy or a straight drama,” said Henrik Ibsen of his 1882 play An Enemy of the People. A doctor in charge of a spa that is the main employer in a Norwegian town discovers contamination of the spa’s water. What follows includes scenes that you would recognize from Don’t Look Up. The newspaper doesn’t want to publish the information because it will hurt the local economy. The doctor is pressured not to tell the townspeople at a town meeting, despite the risk to their health. Frustrated, he instead upbraids the stupidity of the town authorities and says the smug town elite should be exterminated. Townspeople attack his home and his former friends and colleagues want him to leave town. He decides to stand his ground, as the sole person in the town who speaks the truth.

Don’t Look Up is An Enemy of the People for our times and place. It’s about the resistance to an inconvenient truth.

The other obvious comparison is Dr. Strangelove (1964, Stanley Kubrick), where the tragedy is nuclear destruction and the comedy is, well, the rest of it. The rich parody of Cold War mutually assured destruction arguably contributed to the political and social discussion of the nuclear threat and eventually to disarmament. Don’t Look Up owes a stylistic debt to Dr. Strangelove and references the film in the character of military officer Benedict Drask (played by Ron Perlman), who pilots the rocket that is intended to blow up a comet, probably a suicide mission. Drask bears more than a little resemblance to Slim Picken’s character Air Force Maj. T. J. “King” Kong, who physically rides a bomb to its target in Dr. Strangelove. And both films trace catastrophe to decision-making by people who have taken leave of their senses, as an allegory for systems that no longer make sense.

Dr. Strangelove lacks the scientist characters who are the tragic heros of Don’t Look Up. Scientists, because today’s existential threats are not political and military, but from the natural world.

Director Adam McKay evidently said in an interview that Don’t Look Up was intended as an allegory of climate change. It’s unfortunate that he said so, as many works of art that have their genesis in one idea end up going in many other directions, as I believe this film did. Many critics have dismissed Don’t Look Up because the threat is much different from climate change. Absolutely true. For a film with the genre expectations of suspense and conclusion, the writers needed to invent a more immediate threat. But the satire of our society’s inability to act on existential threats stands. Just look at what is happening with COVID. As of this writing, 2288 people are dying of COVID in the US every day.

Regardless of the precise threat, the film parodies the current moral bankruptcy of the United States, which would cripple it in the face of any threat. The populist president (with elements of both Trump and Hillary Clinton) is obsessed with her popularity and re-election to the exclusion of real issues. The government’s only paradigm for response is secrecy and security. This echoes the scenario in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, Robert Wise). The government ignores an alien’s plea to speak with world leaders about disarmament and instead suppresses the alien’s message and detains him under tight security.

The United States’ self-view — and dubious ability — as world policeman was also parodied in Team America: World Police (2004, Trey Parker). If you want the comedy without the tragedy, see that one.

The United States’ moral bankruptcy also involves the media — both traditional media, such as network television, and social media. The film is one of the best depictions of the gross distortions that media creates I have ever seen. Critics to date have failed to mention the contender in this category, Network (1976, Sidney Lumet). Like the Randall Mindy character in Don’t Look Up, Network’s Howard Beale rides a roller coaster of popularity — from being nearly fired because of low ratings, he ascends to super-stardom by threatening to commit suicide on air, telling viewers to yell out their windows “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,” and becoming the “mad prophet of the airwaves.” In both, the media has become about the media. It cares only about its own predominance. But it influences millions of people, who get their information from it — information that has less and less to do with reality.

Which brings us to techno-Utopianism. Has anyone else satirized the hollow promises of tech companies? The tech guru character, Peter Isherwell, a sinister autistic autocrat who has come to believe his own vapid happy talk, is Steve Jobs, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos rolled into one. Because they once had a solid tech invention at the right place and time, they think they run the world and can find a tech solution to every problem. But they can’t.

From this rich ground of satire, I found there was a single shining insight from Don’t Look Up into the current morass for science, media and power.

As I write this, a small group of truckers, with hangers-on and infiltrators, are driving around my city saying they shouldn’t have to get a COVID vaccine to cross the Canada-US border, which both Canada and the US are requiring. They have been duped into believing a lot of misinformation about vaccines and the virus on social media.

We have all struggled to understand this phenomenon of the social media “echo chamber” that feeds back whatever people want to hear, and its chicken-and-egg relationship with the polarization of political views and the emergence of populist politics. But, when I saw Don’t Look Up, I suddenly realized…

It’s not just that the information is false. It’s not just that it’s lies.

It’s that it’s delusional.

It’s not even real.

And reality is right in front of you. All you have to do is look.

One thought on “Can’t look away: in Don’t Look Up, science, media and power collide in a train wreck that you can’t unsee

  1. Hi Carolyn! Well done. I thought your review was fascinating. I loved how you reached out and made connections to other films, both old and new. I found the movie unsettling but could not put my finger on why. You hit the nail on the head for me at least five times! I was unable to articulate ANYTHING afterwards. All I said was: “It was important to see it because everyone was talking about it.” Thanks for sharing this!

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