Don’t Look Up and the Limits of Satire

Image courtesy of Netflix and Hyperobject Industries

In the new Netflix film, Don’t Look Up, a comet is headed towards earth. Scientists in the film say it is much like the Chicxulub asteroid, which is a bizarre way to communicate to audiences that this poses a threat akin to the the object that killed the dinosaurs. They then clarify that the asteroid is, indeed, a “planet-killer”, which makes one wonder why they even mentioned Chicxulub to begin with other than to load in some vaguely “sciencey” dialogue.

Regardless, the comet is headed towards earth with an almost one-hundred percent degree of certainty. Asteroid nomenclature matters little at that point. It is an existential threat to humanity. Our two astronomers (Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) take it to the White House, where, after many delays, they meet President Orlean (Meryl Streep), who promptly seizes on the margin of error as proof that there is no need to worry about the earth’s impending doom.

This is when the movie lost me.

But, before I talk about why it lost me, let’s talk a little about satire and how it should work.

Satire as a Medium

The film’s screenwriters, director Adam McKay (Stepbrothers, The Big Short, Vice) & David Sirota (a journalist and speechwriter for Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign) have spent the last week and a half celebrating their film’s immense success by complaining about critics who found fault with the film, suggesting that they are akin to climate deniers.

This is very annoying, and suggests that the filmmakers were perhaps more interested in making a didactic point about climate change than in telling a story. Satire is a difficult needle to thread. Don’t Look Up fails to balance itself. While I won’t pretend there is some rubric to producing 100% pure-grain distilled satire, I do think it’s incumbent upon the author to tell a narrative that occludes their point, at least to a degree. Otherwise you’re just writing an essay, or, in the case of Don’t Look Up, writing a film that’s about as subtle as Scary Movie.

Consider one of the most well-known satirical works ever, A Modest Proposal, by Jonathan Swift. In this piece, Swift proposes that impoverished Irish families sell their infants for meat, claiming it will address hunger, poverty, and the “number of Papists, with whom we are yearly overrun”. Swift writes here in the mode of Juvenalian satire, which is typically darkly ironic, scornful, or nihilistic. While other types of satire exist, the modern conception of satire seems largely to draw from this paradigm. 

The key thing about this piece is that it never tips its hand once. It never winks to the audience, trying to bring them in on the joke. It is entirely straight-faced and trusts that knowing readers will understand that Swift is not serious. Don’t Look Up has no such faith in its audience, and instead presents to its audience the kind of problems that climate activists face, changes them to relate to a comet, then presents them wholesale, with a vaguely smug tone to accompany it. 

At no point are we meant to take President Orlean or her cadre of sycophants seriously. When her Chief of Staff/son (Jonah Hill, carrying the film on his back) argues with our intrepid scientists, it is done from such an obviously wrong-headed view that no audience could possibly believe it as being from a real person. I’m sure the filmmakers would say that that’s just how insane it is in real life. This is fundamentally untrue, as I will discuss later.

Similarly, Mark Rylance’s tech billionaire, who appears to be some strange combination of Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, and Mark Zuckerberg, is positioned as the true actor behind the government’s inaction. This depiction is also problematic, if less so than that of the politicians. The problem with this character again stems from a lack of believability. If the audience can do nothing but laugh at the object of satire, that’s not satire at all – that’s just telling a joke.

And jokes are fine! Obviously humour is subjective, and others may have got more mileage from the film’s humour, but I think it’s telling that the best joke (an aside from Jonah Hill about dropping molly) had no satirical intent at all. If the film had been marketed more as an outright comedy than a incisive satire, maybe I would have been less annoyed with it. But it chose the latter path, and so I feel compelled to point out the specific ways in which it fails to accurately satirize climate inaction.

SATIRICAL FAILINGS

When criticizing the satirical intent of Don’t Look Up, it’s important to remember that both McKay and Sirota have specifically said that the film is about climate change. While I feel this is obvious, I suspect some might read it in the modern moment to be about the response to the COVID-19 pandemic and so might further miss the point. With that in mind, here’s some of the ways in which the satire fails:

The film portrays the government as hapless and ignorant to the comet’s threat

“They’re not even smart enough to be as evil as you’re giving them credit for.”

Wrong. They’re exactly smart enough.

A lot of political oxygen is wasted on debates over the existence of climate change as an existential threat to our species. People speak about climate change in terms of “belief”, as if the Earth’s observable climate is somehow akin to faith. Activists will suggest that politicians or members of the broader are either too ignorant or too uneducated to grasp that yes, there is observable warming taking place on our planet, and that this warming is beginning to impact weather patterns (hurricanes, tornado outbreaks, heat waves, etc) across the globe.

This is the first and biggest myth about climate change, and it’s a sign of how well the denialists have reframed the debate. Outside of the true idealogues, most politicians are smart enough to read a scientific report and understand it. People like Ted Cruz and Mitch McConnell are not so blindly stupid that they can’t understand what they are told. They simply choose to read that information, then pretend that it’s not real.

This has been going on since climate change (then global warming) was first identified as a problem. In the 1980s, petrol companies Shell and Exxon both identified the existential threat of climate change, then ignored it. This is not a mystery to anybody with any ability to read the data. Denialism should not be mistaken with a kind of “climate atheism”. As Naomi Klein writes in her 2014 book This Changes Everything:

To those gathered here at the Heartland [Institute] Conference, climate change is a threat of a different sort. It isn’t about the political preferences of Republicans versus Democrats; it’s about the physical boundaries of the atmosphere and ocean. If the dire projections coming out of the IPCC are left unchallenged, and business as usual is indeed driving us straight toward civilization-threatening tipping points, then the implications are obvious: the ideological crusade incubated in think tanks like Heartland, Cato, and Heritage will have come to a screeching halt. Nor have the various attempts to soft-pedal climate actions as compatible with market logic (carbon trading, carbon offsets, monetizing nature’s “services”) fooled these true believers one bit. They know very well that ours is a global economy created by, and fully reliant upon, the burning of fossil fuels and that a dependency that foundational cannot be changed with a few gentle market mechanisms . . . their deep fear that if the free market system really has set in motion physical and chemical processes that, if allowed to continue unchecked, threaten large parts of humanity at an existential level, then their entire crusade to morally redeem capitalism has been for naught. With stakes like these, clearly greed is not so very good after all. And that is what is behind the abrupt rise in climate change denial among hardcore conservatives: they have come to understand that as soon as they admit that climate change is real, they will lose the central ideological battle of our time–whether we need to plan and manage our societies to reflect our goals and values, or whether their task can be left to the magic of the market.

(Klein, 39-40)

As Klein says, acknowledgement of climate change’s impact is existential for the capitalist project. It is not a matter of whether they are too stupid to do so. They are simply dedicated to their own survival. Portraying the bad actors in Don’t Look Up as too stupid fundamentally elides this point. After forty years of deliberate climate denialism, pretending it’s still a matter of intelligence only perpetuates this problem.

The film portrays a public unconcerned with the comet

Another case of assigning blame in the wrong place, but in a more annoying and boring way. Yes, we live in a culture obsessed with celebrity and pop culture. Yes, a lot of our media exists in shallow, banal soundbites. But to pretend that the public is somehow wrong or culpable is to shift the blame from the people who are; approximately two-thirds of the American public believe that climate change is a reality, caused by human activity, and another 60 percent, including 36 percent of self-identified Republicans, support broad climate action (the “Green New Deal”) to combat it.

The idea of an ignorant public obsessed with all the wrong things is fundamentally wrongheaded, and it assigns blame where none exists. Instead, it comes across as judgmental and elitist. People deserve the opportunity to chase oblivion, however they see fit. It does not mean they’re unconcerned with the world around them. It simply means that they need to find whatever joy they can. It does not make them worse citizens to enjoy lowbrow entertainment, nor does it mean that they cannot support the causes that matter.

There’s also just a certain level of Sideshow Bob-esque irony in using a star-studded film to draw attention to an issue while simultaneously decrying the public’s obsessions with celebrity.

Rylance’s billionaire character excuses the real culprits

Midway through the film, Rylance’s billionaire character, Peter Isherwell, is able to successfully exert enough political influence to convince President Orlean to redirect an Armageddon-style mission to destroy the comet in favour of a more elaborate mission to break up the comet and return the pieces to Earth for the purpose of harvesting its rare-earth minerals. This is one of the most salient, if unsubtle, moments of the film, serving as an allegory for the political influence exerted by the billionaire class; I’m reminded of Elon Musk’s “we’ll coup whoever we want” tweet in the wake of the 2020 Bolivian coup – no doubt Musk was thinking of all the lithium a market-friendly government would provide him.

Image

Still, I can’t help but feel like this was another softball, designed to synch up better with the film’s lame complaints about the public’s focus on all of the wrong things. Yes, we live in a world where our lives are driven by billionaires, but the tech billionaires are not explicitly the ones driving climate change. Just 100 companies are responsible for the vast majority of emissions since the 1980s. While billionaires like Isherwell are undoubtedly part of the problem, making him the sole focus lets the petrol companies off of the hook.

Closing Thoughts

I am not a climate denialist, despite my critique of the film. I think that climate change represents the single greatest threat to humanity that exists today because the solutions exist directly in opposition to capital. 

David Wallace-Wells’s The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming depicts the future we are hurtling towards with a naked bleak honesty. Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything emphasizes the responsibility of capital for bringing us to this brink. Many other books, articles, and films have been created with the single-minded goal of confronting this crisis. In the wake of all of this, it’s hard to view Don’t Look Up as anything more than a wrong-headed and blunt approach that seems designed only to preach to the choir, with little substance when it comes to the true problems.

Satire is difficult to pull off. I think there’s a separate conversation to be had about the limits of art to affect change at all; can you think of a piece of art that brought about political change? I can’t. Better satirical films like Sorry to Bother You (on labour) or Dr. Strangelove (on nuclear war) are much more affecting, but neither of them can really be credited as having made a difference, politically speaking. Advocates will claim that a work like this “raises awareness,” as if any more awareness needs to be raised about the threat of climate change. 

The last scene of the film features politicians and billionaires fleeing the Earth in a ship bound for another planet. They are cryogenically frozen so that they might be able to start again, even as they leave the devastated Earth behind. Climate change isn’t a comet. The Earth will not be totally destroyed. Parts of the planet will still be temperate and lush, while others will suffer from famine, drought, and violent weather. The rich and powerful won’t need to leave the planet; they’ll just carve out a section for themselves so that they can continue holding court. This is perhaps the most effective scene of the film, but it comes far too late. It doesn’t land as it should because the targets were so scattershot to begin with.

Blaming the public for the actions of the powerful is not satire, nor is it effective. The solutions to climate change will come through solidarity, not smug moralizing. Don’t Look Up only serves to prevent this by assigning blame in all of the wrong places.

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