Don’t Look Up: How can fiction spread awareness effectively?

A few months ago, Adam Mckay released a new film called Don’t Look Up. The new Netflix addition takes place in modern-day America and is based around the discovery of a comet that is going to hit the earth, destroying humanity in its wake 6 months from now. For two hours and a half, we follow Kate Dibiasky, responsible for discovering the comet and Dr Mindy, her professor, who try to warn the earth of their finding to save humanity. We embark on their journey to fight misinformation, political polarisation and prioritisation of corporations over safety. The comet is an analogy for the climate crisis, and the movie a satire of our society’s response to it. 

If there is one thing for sure, it is that the film has been a major hit on the streaming platform Netflix. However, in this article I do not want to talk about my thoughts on the movie. Instead, I want to share why I believe this film to be a great piece of activism. Because in my opinion, the fact that millions of people watched this film is more important than whether these viewers liked or hated it (there are also enough reviews out there). 

That was the original plan anyway, until the piece took an unexpected turn. The more I wrote, the more I realised the irony in what I was saying. In the end, I was praising the movie for raising awareness on topics such as the harmfulness of the celebrity culture, when all along the movie was doing some things it was warning us against. With this realisation, I was left to decide: is it or is it not a great piece of activism? Here is my take on it. Sure, we could do better. But movies aren’t going to stop being directed, so I’d rather they be about life-altering topics than celebrity gossip.

So why did I originally think this film was praiseworthy? Countries are becoming increasingly polarised, with seemingly no issue being off-limit for the realm of politics. Religion may have had a long-standing history of being mixed with political matters, but it is relatively new for private information and sciences to be challenged by politicians. We have reached a point where whether you believe in facts – such as the existence of climate change – does not depend on whether there is a scientific consensus, but on whether your ideological leader believes in them. Scientific facts – justified objects – have been lowered to the same level as political beliefs – objects that can be irrational and unjustified. 

This brings out the following question: how do we create scientific activism that will not be prejudiced for its political affiliation? Because if that is what happens, only part of the population will receive your message. This is why this movie is genius: the film industry mostly remains out of politics. Your Netflix choices do not define your political affiliation. The result: this fiction denouncing societal issues and overlooked scientific facts has become the second most watched Netflix film. Now, had the film been more openly about the climate, this would have been a different story. But it isn’t, it is about a comet that is going to hit the earth and destroy humanity.  

This kind of event – an event that has the potential to wipe out humanity – is called an existential risk or x-risk. This is the first notion that viewers get exposed to in the opening scenes of the movie when PhD candidate Kate Dibiasky discovers the deadly comet. Climate change counts among the potential x-risks. While it is unlikely that it will destroy humanity itself, the resulting consequences could increase the chances of nuclear wars or pandemics which would wipe out human life. 

The second notion that viewers encounter is the politicization of scientific issues, just as we discussed earlier. When the hard facts are brought to the president, there is no hesitation: her midterm elections come first. She cannot help because it would look bad for her. This topic continues throughout the movie and is striking when two sides form; one advocating ‘look up’ – the scientists’ side – while the other’s message is ‘don’t look up’. And this, despite the comet being literally within eyesight.

These events illustrate another side of politics: its short-termism, whereby politicians favour actions with immediate returns whether or not it is the best course of action for society in the long run. It is in the best interest of humanity to destroy the comet as early as possible, but not in the politician’s – nor the big tech companies’ – one, so nothing gets done. In the end, everyone dies (even the tech giants and office holders who try to run off) because of their short-sightedness and their never-ending thirst for more power.

This kind of behaviour may appear striking and unrealistic to naive viewers who trust that their institutions are ‘the grown-ups’. Yet, the viewer gets a glimpse of the type of society we live in. A place where facts get to be disregarded for the sake of power-hungry politicians. If the audience believes that our society is much different than the fictionary one, the audience is wrong. The comet has a very high chance of hitting the earth and destroying it, while according to the IPPC’s latest report, climate change will have severe consequences on earth. And yet, nothing much has changed since the numbers came out. Corporations continue with business as usual and the political world is still not yet fully convinced of the existence of climate change. 

Moreover, it is shown that misinformation is not only at the heart of politics but also more generally in the media. We are not talking about fake news here. No, the news are not fake in the fictional media, but they are ranked in an interesting priority order. Pop singer Riley Bina is given more screen time and attention for her breakup than scientists coming to tell the world that everybody is going to die. 

Additionally, everything is turned into light chatter and entertainment by the TV hosts. Dr Mindy becomes the ‘hot scientist’ while the presenter’s response to the scientist’s news is whether we can deviate the trajectory of the comet so that it destroys his ex-wife’s house. 

This seems to be our standard response nowadays to just about any topic. From breakups to school shootings, songs are written and concerts organised. Unfortunately, the meaning gets lost in translation. It is not the content that matters anymore but the shape that it takes. In the movie, Riley Bina’s song is about the comet hitting the earth, yet do you see anyone actually responding to the lyrics? No, what matters is that Riley Bina is singing live on stage.  

Do you see the irony now? Grave news turned into entertainment and celebrity gossip – isn’t it partly what this film is? An entertaining fiction about the climate crisis with a celebrity cast? It’s not by chance that I have left the actors’ names out of this piece so far. When I was researching for this article, yes I did find some interesting articles about the analogy of modern-day society, but I also watched a few interviews with Jennifer Lawrence about the movie… Well more so about her time off-screen and her getting to act with Leonardo DiCaprio.

But isn’t this movie suppose to denounce this type of behaviour? turning serious scientific results into entertainment and the prioritisation of meaningless chatter over life-threatening facts? It seems to me that Don’t Look Up is an example of the situation it is condemning. The celebrity cast has partly taken over the information the film is trying to spread. We are left with gossip, and the IPCC report only holds a secondary role. And I haven’t even touched on the amount of carbon emissions a movie like this must emit to produce…. 

Overall, this film is trying to raise awareness on societal and scientific issues, but is doing what it is trying to warn us against. Lack of action when the facts do not lie. Turning grave news into mere entertainment. Prioritising celebrity gossip over life-threatening news. But what can I say? It sparked a conversation and exposed viewers to important topics. These may have gotten overshadowed by the actors’ life, but they were still presented. Could we do better? Surely. But for now, I still think that is a great piece of activism. Movies will continue being shot and watched in the foreseeable future, so I’d rather they at least try to spark interesting conversations.