“Don’t Look Up!” and Satirical Extinction

A couple months ago, I found myself watching the 2021 disaster film “Don’t Look Up”. The premise of the movie is that an extinction-level asteroid is hurtling towards an inevitable collision with Earth, and the great minds and governments of the world only have six months to prepare for disaster. The film features a star-studded cast list and is a (in my opinion) pretty hilarious but also deeply reflective satire-comedy.

Don't Look Up's Comet Could Have Been Destroyed, Says Scientists

*** (Summary below, it’s sort of long)

The movie opens with the two main characters, Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), a PhD candidate at Michigan State and Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo Dicaprio), her professor, discovering a comet that is unknown to science. Much to their dismay, they actually find out that the comet is on a collision course with earth and will make an impact in six months. At about nine kilometers long, the comet is large enough to cause an extinction-level event on Earth, potentially wiping out humanity. Accompanied by the head of the Planetary Defense Coordination Office leader of NASA, the scientists head to Washington DC to formally inform the president, Janie Orlean. Played by Meryl Streep, Orlean’s character is probably meant to be a riff on several modern politicians/the ridiculous nature of modern politics in general, but she most noticeably represents a lot of the more absurd mannerisms of Donald Trump. The scientists spend an entire day waiting in the lobby of the White House as they are informed that the President is busy figuring out how to confirm her Supreme Court nominee who happens to be an ex-porn star. In an effort to get the news out, Dibiasky and Mindy decide that they will take the risk of leaking the news on a popular television show. Much to their horror, they find that the news anchors, so engrossed in the morning talk show gossip, are not really interested in the comet, apparently not grasping the enormity of the incoming event. Finally, the White House makes time for the scientists, and they inform them that they have confirmed their findings and will do anything in their power to prevent the collision of the comet. However, as Dibiasky points out, this meeting takes place on the heels of news that Orlean herself had a sexual affair with the previously mentioned Supreme Court nominee, and the White House is likely looking for something to divert the public’s attention; an incoming extinction-level asteroid being the perfect candidate. Just as the government is about to launch a mission to destroy the comet using nuclear weapons, Jeff Bezos/Elon Musk global billionaire stand-in Peter Irshwell discovers that the comet actually contains trillions of dollars of rare minerals. Suddenly seeing the opportunity for profit, the government partners with BASH (Irshwell’s company) to devise a plan to mine the comet of its valuables while still destroying it before it makes impact. Of course, this new insanely ambitious plan must be drawn up from scratch before the comet makes impact in only a few months. Whether she genuinely believes it or is brainwashed by the pursuit of power and profits, Orlean and the government forge ahead with Irshwell’s plan, which notably, cuts out other major countries in the world, forcing them to create their own missions. Mindy sells out, becoming the face of the government’s propaganda campaign to not be worried about the comet; helping the government create ads praising the incoming comet for the jobs and boundless opportunity it will create. Outcasted and frustrated, Dibiasky starts a campaign begging people to just “look up” as the comet is now so close to earth that it is visible at night. Trying to quell public panic, Orlean responds with her own campaign with the slogan, “Don’t Look Up”; out of sight, out of mind, right? The comet approaches, and the joint non-US mission to destroy the comet blows up, leaving only BASH’s mission left to save humanity. Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering it was devised in less than six months, BASH’s comet-mining/comet-destroying mission ends up failing, and suddenly it finally hits Orlean and the elites of the world that the collision is inevitable and humanity is doomed. The comet makes impact, and the movie ends, humanity presumably going extinct in the process. 

*** (Summary above, actual analysis below)

I would highly recommend watching this movie on your own because there really is a lot going on and it’s very interesting and quite funny to watch. It may not be the most technically perfect movie, but it’s definitely good for a lot of laughs and some reflection. This brings me to the actual satire of “Don’t Look Up”. Many elements of society from modern politics to the general public’s relationship to science and nature to our TV shows are satirized. Orlean and her completely ridiculous persona are a clear critique of several modern politicians who seem to treat their office as if it is almost some sort of game show. The Supreme Court nominee is definitely a bit absurd, but in modern America, it seems that it is becoming/has become much more possible for traditionally unqualified and generally absurd candidates to arise to occupy our most influential positions of power. Similarly, the president is so engrossed with her approval ratings and her nominee that she lets her politics inform her approach to science, rather than letting science inform her politics, another theme that may seem all too familiar to many Americans. Much like how the president is misguided by the institution of politics, the media is misguided by the need to feed their viewers with the latest gossip on celebrity breakups and fast-paced, easy to understand, dopamine-filled entertainment. The viewer sees that the world of “Don’t Look Up” has devolved into a state where people are unable to process the factual information that is right in front of them. Put simply, the people of “Don’t Look Up” have grossly misidentified the things in the world that are most meaningful and impactful (literally). In this misguided world, people are unable to face reality and the very real and pressing issues that come with it. Dibiasky is eventually driven insane by the fact that people cannot seem to understand that they are literally going to die in six months. 

I think all of this comedic, almost drunken ineptitude ties into the themes that the movie’s satire is trying to communicate. I believe the movie is trying to make a commentary on how modern society has become alienated from nature and basic critical thinking. Watered down by a world full of social media and urbanization, where people can basically live their whole lives surrounded by human institutions and societal constructions, people are losing touch with natural reality. The characters of “Don’t Look Up” are plagued by a modern, anthropocentric world, where six months may simply seem like it’s too far away to really care, where everyone assumes that some smart scientist people will fix the problem, and where the nature of the physical world and our own mortality are taken for granted. People are too busy being concerned about what they’ll do on social media tomorrow, where they’ll party over the weekend, living vicariously through celebrities and influencers, or listening to politicians without any semblance of critical thinking, that they are becoming societal robots, so engrossed in finding profits, power, or meaningless satisfaction in human institutions that they can become complicit in the completely insane “Don’t Look Up” narrative (Or similarly ridiculous campaigns that exist today). I’m not trying to say that all of the above-mentioned things are necessarily bad things to participate in – there’s a lot of wonderful things about the modern world, and for most of us, they’re definitely worth indulging in – however, the film is reminding the audience to stay grounded, remembering there’s a world beyond us and beyond humanity, and what happens there DOES matter. In fact, it matters more than most of us can probably comprehend. We may take for granted our institutions, products, and technology, but the undeniable reality is that we are born into a world that is an incredibly complex, interconnected system. While it is important to focus on ourselves, set personal goals, and strive to live our lives how we desire, we need to remember that we are part of a world where our actions can have impact (for good or bad) and where life is fragile.

The movie has a great moment at the end when there is nothing left for the characters to do other than await the incoming impact. Dr. Mindy remarks, “We really did have everything, didn’t we? I mean, when you think about it”. Facing certain doom, the characters finally realize the things that they had taken for granted. Mortality is a constant in everyone’s life, but the comet is a literal reminder to the characters and the audience that life is temporary and no amount of engrossment in modern, anthropocentric institutions can, or should shield us from that. The comet also reminds us that we have the amazing power to be able to think for ourselves, discover science, and have the potential to solve even the most daunting of challenges. It reminds us to be thankful about what we do have, and to be excited to use it to live in a meaningful way. Tragically, in the film, lust for power, money and brain-deadness, sourced from an obsession with the relatively shallow parts of modern humanity, lays to waste the enlightened side of it. The result is an epic collapse in which humanity pays the ultimate price for its ignorance: extinction.

In this way, the film’s satire means to inspire its viewers: to remember to develop critical thinking skills, to be considerate of science, to stay reasonably well informed with the world around them, and to remember that they can be independent agents of change whether it be on a big or small scale. It also promotes an environmental message, reminding its audience that science only matters if people listen to and act on it.

In conclusion, “Don’t Look Up” is a satirical piece that also uses comedy and a dramatic scenario to promote a message of self-awareness to its audience: do not just exist in the modern world; be an active citizen of our global world, capable of resisting the modern world’s worst temptations in favor of experiencing and improving on its best ones. The movie is reminding its viewer to not just exist passively, but to live zealously, think critically, act with purpose, and live life to its fullest.

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