Hot Takes: February 2022

Hannes Bergthaller on Don’t Look Up

About two thirds through Don’t Look Up, the movie shifts into a lushly produced concert video of pop star Riley Bina at “For Real the Last Concert to Save the World.” Bina is played by Ariana Grande, and the song she performs would be a perfectly generic example of the contemporary R&B ballads for which Grande is known, were it not for the lyrics: “get your head out of your ass / listen to the goddamn qualified scientists / just look up / turn off the shitbox news / cause you’re about to die soon.” The lines are a straightforward summary of what McKay and Sirota have publicly identified as the film’s central message – but their meaning is complicated by the character who delivers them, as well as by the mode of delivery. Earlier in the film, Bina had served as a prime example of the vapid narcissism and emotional manipulation on which the “shitbox news” thrive: when the “qualified scientists” appear at a daily news show to warn the public of the threat from the comet, they are upstaged by Bina’s on-camera reconciliation with her fiancé DJ Chello.

The concert scene thus neatly and quite self-consciously encapsulates the performative contradiction that lies at the heart of Don’t Look Up: it is our addiction to a terminally self-absorbed media environment, the film suggests, which keeps us from focusing on the existential threat of climate change. How to cut through the noise? By harnessing the very forces of distraction: Don’t Look Up capitalizes on the public attention commanded by celebrities such as Meryl Streep, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence or, of course, Ariana Grande, and on the considerable dividends to be had from converting a wicked problem into a simple morality tale with identifiable heroes and villains.

Much has been written about the ways in which the film fails as an allegory of the climate crisis. However, it is successful in showing us how the injunction to “just follow the science” cannot help but function as a rhetorical move in its own right – a move whose persuasive force ultimately does not derive from the authority of empirical facts, but rather from the charisma of those who make it and from the production value of the media which convey their message. Just looking up won’t cut it – funnily, terrifyingly, we need the Bina Rileys of the world to tell us to do so.

Hannes Bergthaller, National Taiwan Normal University

Deflection Studies by Elizabeth Dodd

Don’t Look Up embraced matters of language and tone, with a mode of satire that drew on the unsubtle and the subtle alike, and I liked it a lot. The film opened with the familiar, even though I’m an English professor, not a physicist. There were the academics, first trying to understand the terrifying phenomenon (gah! Check and recheck that math) and then heading, tiny figures in the cavernous shell of that military jet, to sound the alarm. From the start, it was clear—from those wretched echoes as the door clanged shut and the deflated dialogue (Kate’s “I’ve got to get high” while Dr. Randall mutters “this is not real, this is not real”)—that their message, not the comet, would be deflected.

Other ironies played great supporting roles. When the comet out-Chicxulubs Chicxulub itself, the odious Jason Orlean crawls out from the rubble like the little rat-mammals who survived the asteroid, and the naked members of the cult of Isherwood arrive on a planet lush with dinosaurs. But for me, the satire’s core lies in those ironies of deflection.

What amounts to a deflection-cascade, with each agonizing and/or funny moment, is cumulatively successful in defeating both the scientists and everyone who actually pays attention, serves as a great, structural analog to the Rock’em Sock’em-Orc drones that BASH magnate Isherwell unleashes on the comet’s surface. Forget about peer review; the academics can’t make contact, even when they’re shouting; they’re constantly interrupted, contradicted, redirected. When BASH deploys the plan to crumble the planet into ore, a couple of the drones land badly and then spiral off into space. Others do discharge their ordnance but the comet remains intact, on course. Of course. The nattering nabobs of neo-nihilism succeed in their diversion where both late capitalism and crony kleptocracy fail.

Elizabeth Dodd, Kansas State University

Anthony Lioi on Don’t Look Up

I burst into tears when the spacecraft carries Earth’s elites away from the destruction below. I’ve seen Earth destroyed before without crying. It happened because Bon Iver’s song “Second Nature” rises here. The ship escapes and the chorus sings We will see you next time. That’s what did it. Before life is annihilated, there is a succession of images: baby, polar bear, school of fish, crowds on the run, otters, spectators at a beach. Seconds away from death. What next time does the song mean? I think of the millions of years life takes to recover from an extinction event. Then the line recurs just after the mid-credits scene–22,000 years later–when the refugees reach a new Eden, only to be devoured by giant bird-creatures. This moment points to the overthrow of ecocidal elites. There is another fate, a way to not be too late./We will see you next time. The tension between extinction and revolution kept me crying, even as I laughed at the sight of the American president and her cronies going down. I am glad of this film’s thirst for vengeance. The work on environmental affect in the last decade shies away from wrath as a reaction to the climate crisis. I find that curious. Even a philosopher as suspicious of anger as Martha Nussbaum admits it may come to good. In Anger and Forgiveness she calls it “Transition-Anger,” which channels the energy of rage toward the righting of injustice. I do not apologize for taking pleasure when the elites die by Bronteroc, but Don’t Look Up asks us to create a next time by directing our anger against wickedness in high places.

Anthony Lioi, The Juilliard School

A Climate Change Allegory? Or Planetary Cinema? by Kiu-wai Chu

Don’t Look Up has been widely seen as an allegory of climate change, but one that fails to motivate people to act and make changes, and “doesn’t really end up being about much at all, beyond that humanity sucks”[1], as critics argue. And so, should the movie be seen as a climate crisis allegory to begin with? Is it meant to be an environmentalist film or ecocinema that could lead to environmental changes and activism? Or should we see it beyond the political, the ecological, and towards the planetary?

In fact, there are fundamental differences between the planet-hitting comet and climate crises in our real world. The film constantly reminds us of the comet’s visibility, turning the End of the World into a spectacle, a timed event nobody can look away from. (Dr Randall Mindy: “They are finally seeing it! They are finally seeing it!”)Climate change, on the other hand, is a “slow violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space,”(Nixon, 2). Climate crises are still largely unseen and invisible to many. No diet app on phone could possibly help with counting down to a Doom’s Day caused by climate change.

Rather than delivering an “act now or we are doomed” message, Don’t Look Up highlights the collective powerlessness of humans facing a situation that goes completely out of hand. If anything, the film shifts us beyond our time scale, and highlights the ephemerality and insignificance of the millions of years of human existence, and the short thousands of years of civilization on Earth. In the end, (almost) all living beings are destroyed. However, instead of conveying a sense of pessimism or nihilism when humans are faced with the End Time, the film shifts its focus away to things that float and fly through space, the random stuff that out-live us all: Kate Dibiasky’s phone with the message that reads “Congrats! Your diet is over!”; the Wall Street Charging Bull; a severed chunk of humpback whale; President Orlean’s framed photo. All these symbolic objects are finally removed from what they originally signified: human individuals, politics, economy, ecology. All that is solid melts into (the air-less) cosmos.

Kiu-wai Chu, Nanyang Technological University


[1] Alison Willmore, “Don’t Look Up Is a Climate-Change Comedy That Hates Having to Entertain”, Vulture.com, Dec 30, 2021.  https://www.vulture.com/article/movie-review-netflix-and-adam-mckays-dont-look-up.html#_ga=2.14812214.142775444.1640887925-2110516738.1640887925

Don’t Look Up by James Enge

When the culture wars became endemic to our society in the 80s and 90s, it started to become impossible to talk about anything. You could be talking about cheese or poetry or juggling, but sooner or later someone in the conversation would intone nasally, “I know it’s not ‘politically correct,’ but…” and then the discussion devolved into a political argument. Then use of the internet became widespread and we learned that, sooner or later, everyone turns out to be Hitler.

And those were the good old days. Because, although civil conversation became impossible across partisan lines, at least there was a shared tradition of governance. Things could get done—sometimes awful things (bipartisanship is not infallibility), but sometimes necessary and beneficial things. There was a general agreement that natural disasters should be addressed by the government, for instance—that human lives at risk were worth saving.

But now, as you know, Bob, nothing can be done about anything. Whether it’s the looming danger of climate change, or the present danger of a pandemic that’s killing millions of people worldwide, the ironically named United States are incapable of taking any useful concerted action whatsoever.

I decline to “both sides” here. One end of the political spectrum has clearly dedicated itself to hostility toward the community in general, no matter what the human cost, even for their own constituents.

But the anti-communitarians have been aided by a nihilistic corporate-dominated media landscape where information becomes infotainment, facts are matters of opinion, and real-world communities fade in importance compared to online followings.

Some reviewers (e.g. Richard Brody at the New Yorker) have decried Don’t Look Up as an overly-obvious allegory of the dangers of climate change. That seems to me too narrow and too dangerously safe a reading. The movie clearly addresses this general paralysis of our culture in the face of any threat, however existential. Depressingly, it offers no clear solution. Neither can I.

Good is Dumb by Brent Ryan Bellamy

This winter, I’m teaching an Environmental Communications course for the first time, so watching Don’t Look Up, for me, was an exercise in balancing my film and literary studies training with a new set of considerations. For instance, the scientists in the film operate under an information deficit model. Their idea for addressing the revelatory discovery of the comet is to provide the POTUS, the media, and the public with the truth. These characters believe that the important information will incite a response, it will cause a reaction. This works for scientists, for whom the scientific method is premised on taking in new data to test the field’s suppositions. Viewers realize that this approach doesn’t work on President Orlean, but that could be chalked up to politics. When It doesn’t work once Dr. Randall Mindy and Kate Dibiasky are on The Rip, viewers get a moment to realize that the context for understanding the message, a message viewers are largely prepared to take on, is missing from the conversation. Having the information won’t change anything.

I love the opening scenes most, the kitsch of the observatory station, the awkward but familiar “fun” of graduate student life, the scientists in their element, so to speak. The film starts here, and it is what brings readers along with Dr. Mindy and Dibiasky. But the film doesn’t return to this space. Instead, it signals a core interest of its own, satire of the Trump administration and the media culture that propped it up.

My literary training has me asking, ‘What does it mean to read it allegorically?’ Is this film about the climate crisis or the COVID-19 pandemic? Who is missing from this bizarro alternative timeline? Well, there is no Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez analog and no Greta Thunberg double. Moreover, there is no concern about or discussion of climate change. Allegory offers a chance to say something and mean something else. Yet, Don’t Look Up says one thing and means it, this is a satire of Trump and the anti-science attitude of the media and the rich.

What does the film want to say? At its clearest, the film reminds me of a classic line delivered by Lord Dark Helmet in Space Balls: “Evil will always triumph because good is dumb.” How is good being dumb right now? In this film, they remain committed to a mode of communication that has proven ineffectual, prompting the question, have we as well? Don’t Look Up‘s fatalism lands harder than anything else about it. It may leave room for finger-pointing anger, but it doesn’t use the affordances of the medium to imagine or represent any creative solutions. In the end, all we can hope for is to gather with other middle-class remainders and hunker down amidst more wealth than most people in human history could ever dream of.

Brent Ryan Bellamy, Trent University

The Conundrum of Inaction: Nihilism in Don’t Look Up by Chia-ju Chang

Adam McKay’s 2021 dark comedy, Don’t Look Up, imagines an apocalyptic scenario, though not anthropogenic in nature, in which a comet will hit the Earth in six months. This disaster filmlays bare a poignant inconvenient truth, not the catastrophic event itself, but rather the Anthropocenic nihilism at work in contemporary society. Echoing the official warning of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2018 that our planet is only 12 years away from climate catastrophe, the revelation of an impending astronomical event in the film reveals the disappearance of meaning in our contemporary society.

As the astrological event affects every corner of society, it transforms into a social phenomenon. The comet (standing in for impending climate catastrophe) transforms from object to ideology—the physical thing is less important than its role as symbol in an ongoing culture war between the “don’t look up” and “just look up” tribes. Nihilism expresses itself in contemporary society as superficiality, including mass media and online or infotainment culture, while political and mimetic polarization of the public reaches its insane pinnacle. For example, the doomsday event is trivialized as nothing more than a ratings engine for the morning show; the whistleblower is turned into a meme of a hysterical woman in order to better ignore her Cassandra-esque prophecies of the coming apocalypse; politicians’ remain obsessed with polling while cutting a deal with a techno-juggernaut taking advantage of the crisis for commercial gain.

This business-as-usual indifference is telling, as it suggests that the elephant in the room is not climate change, but is apathy itself. The film as thought experiment reveals that the real question is not “what should we do?” but rather “will we do anything at all?”

Chia-ju Chang, Brooklyn College-CUNY