What's Tony Thinking

Don’t Look Up


My favorite review of the hit Netflix film, “Don’t Look Up,” didn’t come from a film critic. It came from a paleoclimatologist. The guild of film critics mostly frowned upon Adam McKay’s movie — though viewers loved it.

The UW paleoclimatologist, Lisa Graumlich, who is also the President-elect of the American Geophysical Union and Dean Emeritus of UW’s College of the Environment said, “What resonated most for me was the scientific certainty and the global impact . . . So it was very realistic and compelling.”

The film features a star heavy cast, headed by Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence and Meryl Streep. That in itself made me skeptical. But on a family member’s recommendation, we gave it a try the other evening and found that though the film is a satire which verges, at points, on farce, it also expresses something important about both climate change and contemporary American culture.

To put it in a nutshell, we are an unserious people facing a very serious challenge.

Referencing the point in the movie where the DiCaprio character, Dr. Mindy, actually sees the comet that will soon cause an “extinction event” on earth, Graumlich says, “Decades ago, I would talk about these impacts, like we were going to have really bad wildfires in the West. We’ve seen them now . . . Or the flooding in the Midwest and in Germany and the southeast part of the United States. Or the terrible storm damage in the Caribbean. We’ve all seen it. We’re at the point where we’re looking up, and we can see it. And the more we delay, the harder the solutions will be.”

In “Don’t Look Up” a huge comet hurtling toward earth is a metaphor for climate change. But it functions almost as well as a metaphor for COVID, which didn’t come along until after the film had been made. The movie is full of “comet-deniers,” even as our own time is full of both COVID and Climate Change deniers.

But the film is over the top at many points. All politicians are self-absorbed buffoons. The people in television and media are completely committed to vacuous “happy talk.” Perhaps the most haunting character was the tech billionaire, who appears to be living in some completely alternate reality while wielding enormous power and influence in this one. All of this was, yes, over the top. But you wonder, just how far over the top it is? It reminded me some of Michael Moore’s films in the Bush-Cheney era. A sort of guilty pleasure.

For me the most poignant moment in a movie comes at a last supper. The forlorn scientists gather at the Mindy family table as the end approaches. Someone feels an impulse to do something religious. “Like maybe we can just say ‘amen,'” suggests one character. Another is not sure she knows how to do even that. A long-haired skateboarder, who happens to be a closet Christian, says sheepishly, “I got this.” He offers a prayer that is honest and, in a very bleak moment, transcendent. Moreover, the movie doesn’t trivialize or sentimentalize this moment.

At long last, we turn to God — though no one, save this one young man embarrassed by his church background — any longer has words even remotely appropriate to the moment.

“Don’t Look Up” has been accused of being cynical. I’m on record as being anti-cynicism, but pro-skepticism. But there are reasons to be cynical and the movie gives us space to vent the cynicism and maddening frustration that nips at all our heels these days.


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