Don’t Look Up is critical, it addresses the issues, and is funny and enjoyable. But it can imagine the end of the earth, but not the end of the United States’ dominance as a superpower. The movie frames itself as a satirical look from the outside, but it is more an internal reflection fraught with the same political biases that it attempts to critique.

We live in exceptional times, to say the least. A shared anxiety over the political and environmental future of the planet seems pervasive. The responses might vary wildly on what is exactly wrong, where we’re going as a society, and what is to be done, but there’s a collective sense that things just aren’t quite right.

Despite that, few films in recent years have looked to capture our collective angst and channel it into a reflective satire of the times, in the vein of Chaplin’s The Great Dictator or Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. Adam McKay’s doomsday film Don’t Look Up attempts to do just this and represent the palpable anxiety of the post-2016 era. While it may have delivered its criticisms wittily with a star-studded cast, Don’t Look Up lacks the self-awareness that well-executed satire needs to reflect the discourse of the age. Its own assumptions, which the plot conveniently weaves around, reflect the same issues with the American cultural and political landscape that it attempts to satirize. 

**Spoilers Onwards**

Astronomy Ph.D. candidate Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) and Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) discover that a comet larger than the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs is due to hit Earth in six months. They immediately bring their findings to the federal government, where they are whisked away to meet President Orlean (Meryl Streep), a female parody of Donald Trump. The President dismisses the scientists’ concerns over the comet, pointing to the more pressing issue of the midterm elections.

The astronomers then take their findings to the American press, but the legitimacy of their findings is immediately shut down by the nameless “head of NASA” – cast away as an ominous political donor of the President. Rather than taking this vital knowledge to other nations who could muster the resources and will to mobilize against the comet immediately, the astronomers insist on penetrating the American news landscape. They go to The New York Herald and cable news program The Daily Rip, parodies of the Times and MSNBC’s Morning Joe. The Herald is initially interested in the story but drops it after poor traffic. Meanwhile, the obnoxious hosts of The Daily Rip find the astronomers amusing and don’t take their warnings seriously. They spend far more time gossiping about celebrities and complimenting a meek Dr. Mindy on his looks, leading Dibiasky to have a meltdown on live television about the imminent existential threat of the apocalyptic comet hurtling towards Earth and society’s ignorance to it. 

If it wasn’t clear by this point, Don’t Look Up is an allegory for climate change—a slightly on-the-nose one. 

In the fallout of their media appearance, Dibiasky is sidelined in the public discourse and her meltdown spawns a slew of memes, leading her to apathetically resign from alerting the world to the comet she discovered. Dr. Mindy, on the other hand, is dubbed an AILF (Astronomer I’d Like to F***) and finds himself a microcelebrity. No action is taken on the comet. The protagonists are seemingly fine with not clueing other nations in. 

After a sex scandal in the lead-up to the midterm elections, President Orlean suddenly has a change of heart and invites Dr. Mindy back to the White House, embracing the mission to destroy the comet. She announces the comet’s imminent arrival to the world and the United States’ plan to save the Earth by destroying it. It appears for a moment that the problem will be tackled with the full bureaucratic resources of the American state. President Orlean’s ratings skyrocket.  

But just as the mission launches, Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance), the billionaire CEO of communications company BASH and a nightmare amalgam of Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, informs the President that his company has discovered trillions of dollars worth of rare minerals on the comet used in the production of smartphones and other technology. As in real life, minerals and resources have regularly been behind the United States federal government’s bad decision-making. The mission is immediately canceled and the rockets suddenly descend back to Earth, much to the bewilderment of the world watching. 

The mission is brushed off as a failed attempt. Instead, the President announces a joint private-public endeavour alongside Isherwell to develop technology that will not only destroy the comet but break it into manageable pieces to mine and create jobs. 

When the comet becomes visible in the sky, Dr. Mindy and Dibiasky finally launch a social media campaign against President Orlean and BASH, telling people across the globe to “just look up” and calling on other countries (conveniently forgotten until this point) to organize their own strike against the comet. The campaign is depicted as an apolitical, feel-good crusade of awareness to counter the combined resources of the United States government and billionaire monopoly BASH culminating in a Live Aid-esque stadium benefit concert headlined by Ariana Grande. 

I wish this was the satire. The earnestness in which the “just look up” campaign is depicted in contrast to the way Orlean and Isherwell are (again, albeit wittily) caricatured is telling of the film’s inability to deliver the actual meta-commentary it presents itself as providing. 

In response, the Orlean administration organizes its own counter “Don’t Look Up” campaign dismissing the threat, which her red-capped followers enthusiastically support. Perhaps best exemplifying the film’s lack of self-awareness, its final act places the protagonist back within the binary “culture-war” politics of the American landscape that it attempts to satirize, where political discourse is pointing a finger across the aisle while environmental disasters churn on. President Orlean’s son and chief of staff, Jason (Jonah Hill), rallies a crowd of her supporters saying “There are you, the working class. Us, the cool rich. And then them”;  them being Dibiaski, Mindy, and those that just get it but seemingly don’t do anything about it beyond a last-ditch social media campaign. Wasn’t this movie just making fun of the vapidity of American media? The film’s on-the-nose messaging slowly devolves from witty commentary to indistinguishable from Saturday Night Live-style Democratic “satire.” 

When the US and BASH cut them out of shares of the comet’s assets, China, India, and Russia launch their own joint effort to destroy the rocket that explodes minutes after launch (implied to have been sabotaged by the US). While a poignant comment on the US’s long history of invading other countries, the ease with which the US is able to disrupt the joint effort from other nations reflects the film’s consistent dismissal of any agency save that of the US federal government and corporations. It’s railroaded to the apocalypse of “I told you so’s.”

The BASH mission fails and humanity is doomed as the comet strikes the Pacific ocean, unleashing tsunamis across the earth. The film ends with the protagonists and their loved ones gathering together for a final dinner, where Dr. Randall Mindy’s quirky midwestern accent gives way to Leonardo DiCaprio delivering a scolding monologue to the audience right before the tsunami hits. 

The (Un)Heroic Protagonists and the Problem of the Comet Metaphor

Don’t Look Up falls more into the public discourse it satirizes than it would like to admit. 

The protagonists, for instance, don’t do anything substantial throughout the film—but they’re “right” about the meteor. At the end of the film, as the bad president lady boards an intergalactic rescue raft along with her billionaire donor friends, she calls sexy science man and tells him he was “right” and that’s what makes him a hero: his being correct—not the fact that he did anything—is what matters the most. It’s okay that they don’t change anything, it’s okay that they directly benefit from the perpetuation of systemic inequalities that cause climate change because they’re right that the comet is a problem. 

McKay points to media and political distractions as the source of inaction around climate change but refuses to touch on how that spectacle is put on as a narrow two-party debate. Where the movie hilariously and wittily criticizes the absurdity of Trumpism (at this point it’s a little too easy), it conveniently ignores the inaction and equal absurdity from those on the opposite end of the aisle, Jonah Hill’s virtue signaling “them” – whatever is deemed the American “left” today –  whose politics end at calling a spade a spade and patting themselves on the back, even if it is a planet-ending one. 

McKay critiques the news media in broad strokes for being overly obsessed with identity politics, celebrity gossip, and, ultimately, ratings. While this is true to an extent, it can’t be said that the contemporary media (especially in the US) does not love crises and fear-based reporting. If a comet was indeed headed towards the planet, we would see continuous coverage of efforts to knock it off its trajectory, and Democrats (not depicted at all in the film) would leap at the opportunity to delegitimize Donald Streep. McKay frames it as if “they” do not have a media presence when that is far from reality. 

McKay’s depiction of the media avoids the nuances behind why both liberal and conservative US media stop short at seriously criticizing the inaction around climate change. He plays into the stereotype of the media as made up of loud, tabloidy talk show hosts while ignoring the establishment Democrats who regularly fall short on climate policy. The absurdity of the political and media landscape the film is trying to satirize isn’t its vapidity, but its insistence on rigid goal posts along party lines. Instead of delving into the absurdity of this curated back and forth discourse, McKay chalks it up to egoism and ignorance. “They’re not smart enough to be as evil as you’re giving them credit for,” reductively remarks Dibiasky at one point. 

The metaphor of the comet itself also reflects the shortcomings of the movie’s attempt at satirical commentary. While the use of the comet as a metaphor is obvious for its feeling of immediacy in contrast to climate change, it falls short of capturing the reality surrounding (in)action on climate change. The comet striking the earth would be such an overwhelming threat that it eclipses nuance and goes beyond societal cause and effect. Climate change is rooted in much more political and economic issues than a literal hurtling comet. Issues surrounding income inequality, globalization, lobbying, colonialism, racism, and other relations of exploitation are secondary, if non-existent, in the movie. Yet these are fundamental forces behind the climate crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic has also shown us that “we just need to listen to the science” is not a solution to systemic issues – a mantra whose conclusion the film’s self-righteousness conclusion is seemingly content with. As long as we were right and they were wrong, nothing else matters. 

The comet metaphor also fails because it disqualifies people’s individual and collective agency in changing society’s (and the climate crisis’s) trajectory. There is no society in the film, only the satirized elites, their working-class supporters, and fragmented individuals. Aside from the last-ditch attempt at a half-mast apolitical social media campaign by the film’s protagonists, there are no organized groups, no parties, no trade unions, and no social movements responding to the inaction around the comet. When people act collectively in the film, they are depicted as droves of violent mobs or indistinct cheering masses. With no room for collective action in the world Don’t Look Up depicts, the comet frames existential threats to humanity as only possible to be solved by science funded by technocrats, despite the film’s attempt to criticize “Big Tech.” Climate policy is not a one-shot decision (like nuking the asteroid), but a long-term strategy that involves collective planning and action. 

The movie excellently conveys today’s collective sense of frustration with the state and trajectory of the world and its absurdity, but ultimately falls back into its cyclical discourse that fails to contend with a possible future that rejects it. Satire that lacks self-awareness like Don’t Look Up is ultimately canned laughter critique, where the audience doesn’t exercise thought because critique is already part of the script, itself ideologically biased. Good satire presents the objective yet absurd status quo of the day and then accentuates the subjective experience of it for the audience to critique outside the theatre. McKay ultimately fails in the former, but slivers of the latter poke through in its poignant albeit unnuanced commentary. 

Majeed Malhas

Majeed Malhas is a Palestinian-Canadian journalist from Amman, Jordan. He received his MSc in Social Anthropology from the London School of Economics & Political Science in 2020, where he has since...