Why People Can’t Stop Talking About Don’t Look Up

Why People Can’t Stop Talking About Don’t Look Up
Photo: Netflix

If you’ve spent even a minute on the internet this week, you have surely seen something about Don’t Look Up. The Adam McKay-directed flick is Netflix’s top movie. It’s also perhaps the top reason for people shitting their pants online recently.

The film has a critics’ score of 55% on Rotten Tomatoes, reflecting the deep divisions in how people have perceived the movie. The negative reviews have been nothing short of scathing. Defector called it a “movie made by people who spend too much time online.” Gawker said Don’t Look Up “transforms the underlying conflict [of how to address the climate crisis] from one of action into another of simple belief: do you listen to scientists, or don’t you?” McKay along with co-creator and journalist David Sirota have, for their part, tweeted defences of the movie that have led to more meta criticisms to the point where we may all collectively be losing the thread.

I’d rather not debate whether Don’t Look Up is good as a piece of art, satire, or stand-in for real life. I’ll only note I thought the movie was thought-provoking and well-acted, though it has its blind spots such as its sole focus on the U.S. What’s interesting isn’t just how polarising the film is, it’s the sheer volume of discourse it’s generated — and what it says about our collective desires in this precarious moment.

Don’t Look Up, for the five of you that have managed to avoid any contact with the movie, is a star-studded affair about a planet-killing comet headed to Earth and humanity’s reaction to the impending doom. The comet is a metaphor for climate change, and the characters all play their part from the scientists screaming into the void to the tech billionaire who wants to mine it for minerals using unproven technology.

There have been other climate movies, from The Day After Tomorrow to First Reformed. They’ve featured major stars, and yet they barely moved the public discussion on climate change. Don’t Look Up is admittedly made in an era of widespread social media and seems designed to spark conversation. But still, that it’s accomplishing that mission to such a degree speaks to the fact of how starved we are for art and media that grapples with the climate crisis.

The U.S., in particular, lives in a cone of climate silence. According to a 2016 Yale and George Mason University analysis, more than half of Americans “who are interested in global warming or think the issue is important ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ talk about it with family and friends.” That may be driven partly by what the researchers called a “spiral of climate silence,” where the biggest media doesn’t cover it so it doesn’t seem important nor worth talking about.

Don’t Look Up has been a deafening bellow, featuring some of the biggest movie stars on the planet, a media blitz to promote the film, and prominent placement on Netflix’s homepage and on theatre marquees. The praise, vitriol, and everything in between not only reflect people’s real reactions to the film, but illuminate the fact that we just don’t talk about the climate crisis enough.

The explosive discourse also reveals just how difficult it has long been for many of us to talk about the issue without something tangible — like a movie — to serve as the nucleus of the conversation. Perhaps that’s because this existential threat is too big and depressing to truly grasp. Or maybe we simply lack the vocabulary to put the crisis in honest terms. Probably both. Either way, Don’t Look Up opened the door a crack, and suddenly everyone wants to barge into the debate room.

This all speaks to the need for more media like Don’t Look Up and more discussions about it. Believe me, I know we’re well past the “let’s talk about it” phase of the climate crisis. This is all-hands-on-deck time where the world needs to be rapidly winding down fossil fuel use, figuring out a just transition, investing in public transit, and a hundred thousand other things, all while coping with the growing onslaught of climate disasters.

But part of why it’s so hard to get those various balls rolling is, in part, because of the relative silence around climate change. Other Yale and George Mason research shows there are countless reasons most people avoid the topic, from not knowing enough about it to agreeing we need to do something, to the dreaded “too political.” All this lets polluters and politicians invested in the status quo outline the bounds of what’s possible so that the boat rocks for them as little as possible.

We’ve been too afraid to dream of, let alone talk of, what the world needs to look like if we’re to avoid being struck by the metaphorical comet. Having those conversations is hard, but the longer we put them off, the more the planet falls into disrepair. That so many have come tumbling out in the wake of a single movie shows that the cupboard of our cultural imagination may not be empty yet. More than that, it shows that’s there’s a yearning for more.

Whether you think Don’t Look Up is the best or worst climate movie on a painfully short list is, in many ways, besides the point. As Defector pointed out, people seem excited to yell at McKay and Sirota on Twitter because it elicits a response. But there’s no reason a few guys who made a single climate movie need to be the centre of the conversation. (No offence to those guys!) In fact, it’s probably better if they aren’t, which is why we need more than a single climate movie. Clearly, the public wants it. That may seem like a pretty weak-arse climate solution in the face of so much destruction. But we can’t change the politics that brought us to this place, we can only change the future in front of us.