WHEN I first thought about writing about Don’t Look Up, Netflix’s big Christmas Eve release – an allegory about climate-change which swaps global warming for the threat of a “planet-killer” comet heading towards Earth – I was thinking of it as a relatively light subject for my environmental column in Christmas-week.

But, of course, this A-list disaster-comedy is about as dark as it gets and has since polarised opinion in such a way that many of its critics have felt the need to protest that they are not deniers, and are advocates for climate action. Hence this is a quick re-edit of my former column.

“Maybe the destruction of the entire planet isn’t supposed to be fun. Maybe it’s supposed to be terrifying and unsettling and you should stay up all night, every night, crying” yells a despairing Jennifer Lawrence at one point. Some critics have complained that the film is a bit of a mess, or that many jokes fall flat, but I found it gloomily entertaining. Even jokes like Jonah Hill’s prayer on behalf of all the “dope” stuff that was going to be lost, along with all life after the comet’s impact, triggered a painful laugh.

Director Adam McKay has made it quite clear that Don’t Look Up is about the climate crisis. He has said he was inspired to write it after reading David Wallace-Wells’ doom-laden portrait of a world after warming, The Uninhabitable Earth. “It all boiled down to this idea,” McKay has said, “I just couldn’t shake: we all know how to react when there is a killer with an axe, or when your house is on fire, but what the author David Wallace-Wells was writing about was a million times worse. How do we get people to realise this is a clear and present danger?”


Of course, Don’t Look Up is an allegory, and not actually about climate, nor does it even mention it. And actually watching it, I was as much reminded of our responses to the pandemic as climate. The movie’s “impact deniers”, with their slogan “don’t look up”, made me think as much of anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers as climate-change deniers.

Don’t Look Up follows scientists as they try to warn the world of the comet threat, but are thwarted by politicians, media and a tech billionaire, keen to play it to their own interests. It presents us with a world preoccupied by the sex lives, scandals and relationships of others, as well as financial profit. There’s a ghastly president (Meryl Streep) who wants to keep the comet quiet till after the mid-term elections. The break-up and make-up of popstar Riley Bina (Arianna Grande) and her boyfriend (Kid Cudi) virtually breaks the internet, while the television appearance of whistleblower scientists (Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) only triggers some disastrous, misogynist memes.

A constant refrain is that what the scientists need is “media training”, which ultimately seems to mean that they should learn not to sound panicked, or too female. As Cate Blanchett’s news anchor puts it, “The handsome astronomer, he can come back anytime. But the yelling lady, not so much.”

I recognise that world.

This is the one we live in. It’s the world in which the news that the Thwaites glacier is melting so fast it could break off within five years doesn’t make it onto the front page of papers – and I understand why. It’s lost in the rising sea of Covid news. One threat, please, at a time.

It’s also lost because it’s not an extreme weather event in which people are dying already. And it’s lost because we’re getting worked up by the exploding scandal of last year’s rule-breaking Conservative Christmas parties. Don’t Look Up also occupies the same world as the one in which Squid Game got ten times more mentions online than COP26 in the run-up to the conference.

Of course, a comet colliding with earth is not the same thing as the climate crisis and this limits how far the film can take its exploration. For a start, there’s only one solution to the comet (no spoilers) whilst there are many ways in which we can, and must, tackle the climate and emissions issue. Many of us are also, especially those who are relatively wealthy, creators of the problem, rather than its accidental victims. Don't go to this film if you're looking for a handbook to the climate crisis or how to solve it.

The messiness many have criticised, for me, was part of its appeal. It felt like a chaotic vomiting up of the difficult feelings around climate change. A scene where Jennifer Lawrence vomits while waiting for the President, lingered with me. It expressed some of the discomfort I feel when thinking or writing about anything to do with climate. 

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The film also made me ponder how, though climate denialism has dwindled, we still struggle to tell the story of climate change in a way that makes people act, without sending them down the path of apathy and terror, or even anger (which seems to have been triggered by this movie). Can people really be this irritated simply because they feel it's a badly made film?  Many say, and I'm paraphrasing them, "Yes, it really is that rubbish."

I don't agree. But maybe that says as much about my taste in movies as views on the climate. Don’t Look Up is one attempt to tell the climate story in a way that galvanises us. But its message is perhaps too doomy, and it feels destined to preach to the converted, or perceived, in spite of its wicked satire, as too worthy. Watch it for excruciating laughs and cathartic relief if you are already angsting about the climate crisis; not new answers on how to save the world, or slick analysis.


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