It deserves respect as a provocative movie about our inability to confront the threat of climate change.
The targets are all the forces standing in the way of action: duplicitous political leaders more worried about the next election than an extinction event; their cynical and self-serving staff and functionaries; those media organisations that are more interested in facile entertainment than truth; and social media tycoons who only feign interest in the greater good.
Don’t Look Up is fuelled by fury about long-term lack of decisive action and contempt for science. Change the accents and there are equivalent characters – with the possible exception of the self-serving tech billionaire – much closer to home.
“Speaking as a climate scientist doing everything I can to wake people up and avoid planetary destruction, it’s … the most accurate film about society’s terrifying non-response to climate breakdown I’ve seen,” wrote Peter Kalmus in The Guardian. ”The scientists [in the movie] are essentially alone with this knowledge, ignored and gaslighted by society. The panic and desperation they feel mirror the panic and desperation that many climate scientists feel.”
Kalmus details the grim political response in the US: “We live in a society in which, despite extraordinarily clear, present and worsening climate danger, more than half of Republican members of Congress still say climate change is a hoax and many more wish to block action, and in which the official Democratic party platform still enshrines massive subsidies to the fossil fuel industry.”
Faced with all that, maybe what matters is getting the rage down on the page, cast stars and shoot a broad comedy – urgent and anguished – that rattles the cage. Get people talking.
And in the middle of a pandemic that has seen politicians regularly dismissing the views of scientists and health authorities, it is satire that feels almost too close to reality.
“McKay’s work with DiCaprio is particularly memorable, partly because Dr Mindy’s trajectory – from honest, concerned scientist to glib, showboating celebrity – strengthens the movie’s heartbreaking, unspeakable truth: human narcissism and all that it has wrought, including the destruction of nature, will finally be our downfall,” writes Manohla Dargis in The New York Times. “In the end, McKay isn’t doing much more in this movie than yelling at us but then, we do deserve it.”
Can any movie change the world?
In 1983, The Day After confronted a record television audience with the horrific consequences of nuclear war. US President Ronald Reagan wrote in his diary that it changed his mind about nuclear policy. Four years later, he signed a treaty with Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev to scale down their nuclear arsenals.
After the frustrations of the climate change conference in Glasgow last year, it is too much to ask that Don’t Look Up will have a similar impact on this generation of leaders. But you have to admire a Hollywood filmmaker who thinks it’s worth a shot.