Spoilers for Don’t Look Up (2021)
Don’t Look Up is a 2021 satire-ish (more on that later) film distributed by Netflix and starring a barrage of the biggest names in the entertainment industry, from Jennifer Lawrence to Meryl Streep to Ariana Grande. The premise seems simple: an Astronomy graduate student and her supervisor discover a giant comet which has the potential to wipe out all human life–a “planet killer” as it is called. The satirical elements of the film lie in the responses of the United States government and the public, and the ways that the two influence each other to create a perfect storm of disinterest. The film currently boasts a 55% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is less of a universal condemnation and more a testament to the polarizing nature of the plot’s more political elements. Due to the nature of the genre, Don’t Look Up isn’t judged as a film about a giant comet, it’s judged as a film about COVID-19, climate change, and real-world politicians with similar modus operandi to Streep’s President Orlean. Though the film was originally intended as a climate change metaphor, the timing of its release coincided rather well with a new kind of widespread skepticism–the global response to the threat of the Omicron variant of COVID-19. We continue to see case numbers plunge in the wake of governmental recommendations to not get tested, which isn’t particularly reassuring. One can’t help but wonder whether the impetus for the modified guidelines is public interest or a failure of the government to support businesses as their workers go on sick leave following positive test results. Don’t Look Up’s occasionally heavy-handed satire is open to far too many interpretations to be pinned down, leaving some viewers disappointed based on their own personal choice of which metaphor matters most, and whether they agree with the film’s perceived message on that topic.
One of the problems with Don’t Look Up is that it’s painfully easy to forget that it’s a satire film. The state of the US government serves as a heat sink of comedic relief, but then again, wouldn’t the Trump administration have done the same had it been fictional? The film leans hard into an absurdly dysfunctional government, but not hard enough that a jaded viewer won’t see it and think it’s plausible that the actual White House will soon come to resemble the narcissistic goon squad presented in the film. Actions such as nepotistic hiring by the President are no longer funny to see on screen given that it’s already happened, and it’s a huge problem that it did. Don’t Look Up isn’t telling a joke here. It’s taunting us with reality. It’s fair to make the argument here that satire doesn’t need to be funny to accomplish its goal, but the problem is that the film lacks a clearly defined satirical goal at all. We got out the cathartic rants about nepotism when it was happening for real, so the film gives us nothing novel or clever to laugh at. Few people thought Donald Trump’s hiring practices weren’t worthy of mockery to begin with.
Where Don’t Look Up begins to succeed in its satirical catharsis, however, is in its portrayal of media and celebrity culture. Do I honestly believe that a mainstream talk show would prioritize Ariana Grande’s relationship drama playing out on live TV over a “science story” about a comet? Absolutely, but to be fair, they have every incentive to do so. For an analogy of how the early media coverage of the comet in the film might have been received had it been prioritized, I can’t help but think of COVID-19 developments and the ways they’re covered. Media companies are well known for manufacturing big stories for clicks, which is why early coverage of new COVID-19 variants have the potential to be useful, informative works of journalism. However they also have the potential to be fear mongering. Without the test of time and vast amounts of peer reviewing, it can be almost impossible to tell the difference. By contrast, Ariana Grande will always get clicks, and if it’s happening live, it’s hard to be accused of reporting fake news. It’s incredibly frustrating as a viewer of this piece of fiction, knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that the comet is a real threat whilst seeing the public brush off warnings, but to empathize with in-universe media consumers, the doubt is understandable.
The public serves as a looming presence, almost a character in its own collective right, throughout the film. Just like in real life, the public of the film can get incredibly frustrating. After becoming overly heated on a talk show appearance, Jennifer Lawrence’s character is relentlessly mocked for her behaviour on the Internet in a way that feels depressingly childish. This is one of the points where the satirical goal becomes clearer. As she is a main character, we’re meant to empathize with Lawrence when we see her unable to function in society as a result of her newfound Internet fame. That being said, the jokes at her expense are also kind of funny, and it’s easy to tell why people latched onto the crazy doomsday woman meme. But is the humour worth it? There are plenty of viral content creators on social media who cash in on all sorts of questionable material, from “pranks” that involve doing legitimate harm to others for the entertainment of an audience, to sexualization of childish imagery, to stealing the creative work of BIPOC and queer artistis and dancers. This has become normal to the point where content creators regularly produce apologies of questionable authenticity, but mostly get off scot-free. By having us look at the people being harmed by the content creation machine, Don’t Look Up asks us to question our values when it comes to the content we consume and perpetuate. Much like fast fashion, social media content is often enabled by processes which cause harm to people in ways we are expected to ignore. At best we are aware of this harm yet unable to prevent it, and at worst we are kept completely unaware by those in power who profit off exploitation. The companies and individuals that profit will not only disregard their own harmful practices, but they’ll go out of their way to make sure you ignore them too. This is why it was so controversial when Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen openly admitted to the company’s morally bankrupt values. We always knew it was the case that Facebook was lining their pockets at our expense, but it’s out of the ordinary to see an insider admit it. It’s a moment that makes us “Look Up,” if you will.
The really defining plot point of Don’t Look Up to me is, fittingly, the intervention of big tech. Around the midpoint of the movie, the United States government is convinced to take action to deflect the comet, but moments after the mission launches, the President is persuaded by a billionaire donor to call off the entire operation on account of the comet containing expensive metals they want to extract. Through careful messaging, the public comes to believe that the giant planet-killer comet is actually a net good given the financial benefit, even though said benefit will be reserved for tech moguls. The latter half of the movie plays out an even more depressing plot than the first half: the wealthy minority will always overpower the majority. In a functional democracy, the President is always considering the public opinion in the interest of their and their party’s continued political success. However, when public opinion can be swayed by the media they consume, and media companies can be bought out, those with money will always matter more. And so, in Don’t Look Up, we see an apathetic public lulled by propaganda into believing that a poorly-thought-out plan by an insane billionaire will save them. A concept that feels perfectly, bitterly believable in a world where Elon Musk fans continue to talk about Hyperloop as if it will revolutionize transit despite evidence otherwise. Here, Don’t Look Up becomes a cautionary tale of the potentially disastrous consequences of ignoring experts in favour of billionaires with different agendas.
Don’t Look Up offers a fun, cathartic perspective on whatever social issue you want it to, and the ways the media manipulates us to ignore expert perspectives. It’s not a perfect movie. You could have a whole discussion about its choice to criticize social media using the voices of actors with massive social media followings themselves, such as Ariana Grande and Timothée Chalamet. You could also talk about the smug, hamfisted way the movie grabs you by the collar and tells you social media is bad in a way that can at its worst feel reminiscent of an unfunny conservative political cartoon. But the satirical beats of Don’t Look Up, despite their hit or miss nature, are objectively entertaining. It’s a movie that’s worth a watch and a discussion, which makes it a rather valuable piece of art, and one that strikes a chord in the midst of rampant confusion about how society should adapt to the latest COVID-19 developments.