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Against Subtlety: ‘Don’t Look Up’ Is the Movie for Our Moment

Don’t Look Up is The Movie about what it feels like to be alive right now. It’s a masterpiece of 21st-century climate anxiety and, more importantly, class rage.

Sybil Davis

December 30, 2021
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Image: Netflix

“The earth is not dying, it is being killed, and those who are killing it have names and addresses.” 

— Utah Philips

I work in live entertainment in New York City — a city that, as you almost certainly know, is experiencing quite the Covid surge currently. For weeks — if not months — my coworkers and I have had the same basic conversation every shift: “How the hell are we still open? Surely it’s just a matter of time till we close, right?” This leads to a complex combination of fear, disbelief, and hope-beyond-all-reason in those who have shown, time and time again, that they can’t be trusted. This is a deeply disorienting, aggravating, and depressing feeling. This feeling is increasingly common as workers realize that those with power truly don’t care whether we live or die.

It is in this context, this rage, fear, and despair, that I sat down to watch the new film from Adam McKay: Don’t Look Up (out on Netflix now). Don’t Look Up is written by McKay (who has gone on record calling noted Hollywood liberal Aaron Sorkin “the right-wing version of me”) from a story by McKay and Jacobin editor David Sirota. This writing team — combined with McKay’s typical in-yer-face directorial style — find a way to capture the current feeling of rage, gallows humor, and resignation.

The basic plot of the film hinges on an (intentionally) unsubtle metaphor about climate change — represented in the film by a comet that is about to crash into earth and eradicate all life. This comet is discovered by a graduate student (played by Jennifer Lawrence in her triumphant return to motion pictures) who then embarks with her professor (played against type by Leonardo DiCaprio) to Washington to convince the uncaring president (Meryl Streep). Other cast members include Jonah Hill as the White House chief of staff, Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry as media hosts more interested in ratings than the news, Timothée Chalamet as a Gen Z skater, and Mark Rylance as an amalgamation of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos.

As the film goes on, McKay almost gleefully withholds hope from us. We know immediately that Streep and Hill aren’t going to take Lawrence and DiCaprio seriously —  after all, the researchers are from a state school, not an Ivy, a plot detail that hits particularly hard as a critique of technocratic governance. And we know that even once the politicians do take the warnings seriously, it won’t come of anything — it’s just political theater. When Lawrence and DiCaprio go on Blanchett and Perry’s news show, we know that won’t matter either. McKay never lets us have any hope throughout the film — and the one time he does, it is painstakingly taken away in perhaps the most enraging scene of the film, when Rylance’s capitalist character intervenes to literally turn the plan to save the planet around.

This could easily be read as nihilistic. But, to me, it never did. Rather, it seems as if McKay was reminding us (and then re-reminding us) that we can’t have any faith that the same people who are killing the earth are going to save it. More than anything, Don’t Look Up is a critique of liberalism, of the idea that the system will correct itself. Much of this critique is seen through the arc of the DiCaprio character — a professor who decides to be the “adult in the room” for Streep and Rylance. Through DiCaprio we see the folly of working within the system and trusting the state and big business to set or follow any rules to protect the planet. McKay is forcing us to watch the liberal strategy play out and see how it ends.

Much criticism has been leveled at this film. People find the film unfunny, poorly written, and ham-fisted. While the first two are subjective complaints — I am not going to attempt to tell anyone what they should find funny — the critique of the film as unsubtle or on-the-nose bears further exploration.

To put it bluntly: we are living through a devastating and unprecedented environmental crisis. Fires swept across the world this year, thousands lost their lives, refugees are drowning in oceans, and power grids are failing under the weight of snow. In NYC, multiple people drowned to death in their basement apartments due to flooding. Allison Noel compared the scenes of New York earlier this year to The Day after Tomorrow. None of this is subtle.

To bring the pandemic into it, the CDC just changed quarantine guidelines because the CEO of Delta Air Lines asked it to. Schools are staying open in urban centers facing record-breaking infection numbers. The president of the United States — a man who was elected explicitly to better handle the pandemic — basically told the unvaccinated that it was their fault that Covid was still going on — even as he continues to refuse to lift vaccine patents, enact shutdowns, or any number of other structural changes that would help protect workers. These are not subtle times.

Increasingly, I worry that we have fallen into a petty bourgeois model of artistic criticism, according to which loudly talking about problems is somehow less profound than talking about them quietly. German playwright Bertolt Brecht, in his writings, made very, very loose metaphors for the political questions of his time as ways to make them more accessible — for example, rather than discussing Hitler’s invasion of Germany explicitly, Brecht wrote Mother Courage and Her Children, which grapples with the capitalist nature of war but is set in the 17th century. But, in all of his writing, he is just as blunt and unsubtle as McKay — in Mother Courage, he has a character say, “I won’t let you spoil my war for me. Destroys the weak, does it? Well, what does peace do for ’em, huh? War feeds its people better.” Certainly not a subtle line.

The problems facing us aren’t subtle. Capitalist exploitation and environmental crises aren’t subtle. So why should our art be?

Perhaps selfishly, perhaps as a reaction to the times we’re living in, I yearn for the death of subtlety in art. I yearn for art — but specifically political art — that will just show up and start talking about the problems. And, like it or not, Don’t Look Up does that: it shows up and starts talking about the problems.

Many — including several members of Left Voice — find Don’t Look Up depressing and lacking a plan for liberation. And, to a certain extent, I agree. I agree that Don’t Look Up doesn’t talk enough about revolution or the working class or organizing. Would I have liked the movie better if the final act was Lawrence and Chalamet organizing a working-class uprising? Probably. But, to me, that isn’t what this film is about. What Don’t Look Up is about, to me, is that feeling — the feeling I described at the beginning of this piece — of knowing that we’re barreling toward disaster and that no one with power will do anything to stop it.

At work and in life, I feel like I am constantly looking up — that I and my coworkers see the comet barreling toward us — but all the bosses and politicians and scientific bureaucracy are on the news telling us that everything is fine. “Don’t look up, we’re fine, just keep on working, isn’t this so much better?” And, with each passing day, the comet grows closer.

To me, Don’t Look Up is a film about looking up, seeing the disaster, and then realizing that the system can’t address the disaster — so it tries to convince you that everything is fine. And, more than anything, Don’t Look Up is about the Utah Phillips quote I opened this review with. It’s about how we need to realize that this isn’t a natural disaster; it’s the disaster created by a handful of people with immense wealth and power. And we know who they are — or, at least, we have the ability to know who they are — and we know that they are happy to continue business as usual until we all die — another enraging moment in McKay’s film is when, as disaster finally becomes inevitable, the ruling class uses a secret rocket to escape while everyone else burns. The people killing the earth have names and addresses. And there are many, many, many more of us than there are of them, which means we have immense power — after all, as we at Left Voice often repeat, the working class makes literally everything run and can shut it all down if we choose to. And I’m tired of risking my life for their profits. I’ve looked up. I’ve seen the comet. I’ve looked up.

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Sybil Davis

Sybil is a trans activist, artist, and education worker in New York City.

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