More Than Just a Climate Metaphor, ‘Don’t Look Up’ Skewers All Things American in 2021

by Keaton Weiss

Climate change isn’t a comet hurdling towards Earth whose sudden and dramatic impact hasn’t yet been felt. Rather, it’s a slow burn already underway whose effects become more and more intense every year as the planet becomes decreasingly habitable for us humans.

Because of this, Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up doesn’t completely work as a metaphor for environmental catastrophe. It is however, an astute and scathing indictment of American politics and culture as a whole, and a biting satire highlighting the compounding institutional rot at the heart of our decline.

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After discovering a celestial body on a collision course with Earth, an astronomy professor (an unusually but effectively nerdy and neurotic Leonardo DiCaprio) and his star pupil (Jennifer Lawrence) scramble to alert as many authorities as they can about this extinction-level event.

Neither the political nor the media establishments take them seriously in the beginning. But luckily, a series of political setbacks for the president leads her to the calculation that decisive action to stop the comet could be just the Hail Mary pass she needs to reverse her plummeting poll numbers just in time for the midterm elections.

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And so, a plan is hatched to strike the comet before it enters Earth’s atmosphere, either destroying it entirely, or, at the very least, knocking it off its course and preventing it from hitting the planet.

The mission launches and appears promising, much to the relief of everyone in the situation room. Before it can be fully executed, however, eccentric billionaire and top White House donor Peter Isherwell enters and persuades the president to abort, citing the abundance of rare Earth minerals present in the comet. He suggests that rather than destroy it altogether, he and his team be allowed to mine it for its resources and break it up into small pieces that could be recovered once they land in the pacific Ocean.

Insanely reckless and patently idiotic, his idea is nonetheless embraced by the president, who calls off what looks like a successful mission and then entrusts Ishwerwell and his private company with defending the fate of the planet.

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Isherwell, played by the perennially excellent Mark Rylance, is the film’s most interesting character. He’s not a maniacally evil psychopath who knowingly endangers the fate of the world to just to pad his bottom line. In fact at one point, he even takes offense at being called a “businessman,” preferring to see himself as an almost god-like overseer of human progress and “evolution.”

Isherwell seems more interested in personal aggrandizement than monetary enrichment. He’s an emotionally detached oddball savant, barely capable of looking another human being in the eye, whose random skill set just so happens to have made him one of the richest men in the world. He’s the kind of person who, but for his immense wealth, would never be taken seriously by anyone of influence. Because of his elite status and infinitely deep pockets, however, the political class feels the need to placate him – even at humanity’s expense.

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If this sounds all too familiar, that’s because it is. Can similar things not be said for Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg? Remember when Jeff Bezos returned from outer space and suggested that we export heavy industry to the moon? Yes, that happened. In real life. Out of the mouth of a disheveled chess prodigy in Washington Square Park, this would be dismissed as delusional insanity. Out of Bezos’, it’s visionary.

Without spoiling too much, I’ll say that Isherwell’s plan is as successful as one would predict it to be in order for the film to have any real teeth (if everything worked out and we all lived happily ever after, it wouldn’t be much of a satire, would it?).

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In both the world of Don’t Look Up and our own, the grotesqueness of capitalism has been unleashed in ways that seem too absurd to be real, and has completely engulfed our political system to the point where solving any major problem – climate change, covid, or a comet headed straight for us – has become practically impossible.

For this reason, the film is less a straightforward climate allegory and more a broad condemnation of America’s overall dysfunction as 2021 comes to a close. As such, it’s easily worth the watch.

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Photo: Don’t Look Up, Netflix