This week I posted on Facebook that people outside of the US are not obligated to watch a movie that is American even if that movie is on a topic of great importance. And that they should not be pressured or shamed for that decision. I, myself, was urged by a few people to watch the “must watch” film “Don’t Look Up” on Netflix. I kind of knew my objection might generate misunderstanding, primarily from my American friends, but I still stand by what I wrote.
That said, <deep breath> I had some time and decided to watch the aforementioned movie since it has become the “#1 watched movie on Netflix” and there seems to be so many people discussing what is indeed one of the most important issues of our time. So, this is my take on it. No one is obliged to read it or agree with any of it.
Spoiler Alert: please be advised that I do talk about details of the movie. But please, if you do read this, take the critique lightly while taking the subject of catastrophic climate change deadly serious.
I will start with what I did like. Jennifer Lawrence was the best by far. Her character, Kate Dibiasky, was funny and relatable. And it confirmed to me that, yes, I would totally love to hang out with her. Meryl Streep was Meryl Streep. Good acting as always, if just bit overdone in the stereotypical “Republican” leader schtick as President Orlean. DiCaprio was decent as Dr. Randall Mindy. Looking handsome at 47. Sometimes funny. A bit annoying, but I always find him a bit annoying. Cate Blanchette’s character, Brie Evantee, played a perfect cold, elitist and heartless corporate news anchor. Mark Rylance portrayal of an amoral and bizarrely robot-like tech billionaire, Peter Isherwell, was eerily precise. One had no problem at all picturing Musk, Zuckerberg or Bezos’ emotionless face and soulless eyes when watching his performance. Jonah Hill was good at playing the President’s sycophantic son, Jason Orlean, a direct parody of Trump, Jr.. And I loved the cameos of Arianna Grande playing pop star Riley Bina, but that is just because I love Arianna Grande.
The parts about vapid American corporate media culture had their merit in being fairly accurate, especially in regard to the thoroughly mind-numbing cable talk shows replete with saccharine-drenched, meaningless banter. And there were genuinely humorous moments, like Jennifer Lawrences’ character sparring with Jonah Hill’s in the Oval Office, or the clip of the “General/mercenary,” chosen to head up the mission to destroy the comet, screaming expletives at children doing calisthenics on the White House lawn. And the memes generated after Lawrence’s meltdown on one of those inane cable “news” shows were funny, as well as being tragically spot on as an indictment of contemporary social media culture.
There were some clever moments, like Rylance’s creepy Ted Talk presentation on a new high tech, feel good, and totally invasive ap for his phone. Or the shot of Meryl Streep lighting up a cigarette in front of a sign that said “Flammable” in big red letters while declaring “We’re the grown ups here.” Or how corporate/high tech greed was portrayed in the cancelation of this “earth saving” mission at the last moment at the behest of tech billionaire (Mark Rylance) in order to attempt mining the comet for rare earth minerals. And one line from Lawrence’s character toward a group of young people comparing conspiracy theories about political leaders, the media and corporations stood out in particular: “Guys, the truth is way more depressing, they’re not even smart enough to be as evil as you’re giving them credit for.” Indeed.
Okay, now the stuff I found problematic. The film is almost entirely American centric. Yes, I know it IS an American film, but this would not be such a big deal if the US media didn’t have such a stranglehold on so much of the world in terms of broadcasting. But it does. Its hegemonic influence is hard to escape. And the movie places the United States not only at the forefront of a response to a global catastrophe, but totally eclipses the rest of the world. And this is not by accident. All Hollywood or corporate generated American movies do this.
And, whether we like to acknowledge this or not, this is a cast of multi-millionaires. A-list celebrities acting with multi-million-dollar production sets, expensive props and high tech special effects. This fact does not exist independent of the content of the movie, or any movie for that matter. It is important to note this because I think it contributes to its general lack of class consciousness. For example, some of the political speech scenes that parody Trump’s rallies appear to also lampoon working people. The term “the working class” is used in such a manner that disparages them, but not in the way the film intends. It comes across as elitist and misanthropic. The reality is that Trump’s biggest supporters were not the working class, but rather upper middle class to wealthy, predominantly white, men.
And this brings me to the partisanship of the film. While parodying the prior administration for its obvious populist fascism and anti-science stance, it ignores the other side of the political aisle in the country. It was elites within the Democratic Party like Dianne Feinstein and Nancy Pelosi who mocked the idea of a “Green New Deal.” It is Joe Biden’s administration that held the largest-ever auction of off-shore oil and gas drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico. What this film, and so many like it, fail at is holding the ruling class itself responsible for ecocide and climate change. Both ruling parties are capitalist to the core. It is profit before planet every time. And, as in unbridled support for the military and militarism, this is a bipartisan affair.
Speaking of militarism, there is also the obligatory nod to the US military sector that only comes from productions like this. The American military is the biggest polluter and contributor to greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. And yet the primary “solution” to this comet problem is to use the military to address an existential crisis. And the scientists have no objection to any of this. This is how normalized American militarism is. And that should be shocking but, sadly, it isn’t.
In addition to this, I found the use of an arbitrary celestial event like a comet as a metaphor for climate change catastrophe to be deeply problematic. Climate change is human caused. There is nothing “arbitrary” or sudden about it. And the people responsible for its acceleration have names and addresses. They also have enormous political power to go along with their enormous bank accounts. And most of them live comfortably in the Global North, while the poor of the Global South suffer the consequences of their avarice and apathy. I understand this is only a simple allegory. And I understand the desire to reach out to people who are disaffected or unaware, but this makes the plotline somewhat flawed from the start.
There are more refugees today than during World War II thanks to the impacts of catastrophic climate change. Hundreds of millions of people have been forced to flee their homes thanks to climate related catastrophes like drought, famine and war. Countless species succumb to habitat loss and ocean acidification. In the Global North, millions of people are experiencing real depression and anxiety related to our collective ecological predicament. But in the Global South, hundreds of millions of people are facing disaster and extinction now. The hypothetical comet isn’t coming, it has already arrived. Billions of them, in fact, and in ways we have yet to comprehend. And there are powerful people who profit nicely from maintaining this planet killing scheme.
I could talk about some of the things I thought were banal or contrived, but instead I will mention the best parts of “Don’t Look Up.” And to me those are the mic-drop moments. In Lawrence’s and DiCaprio’s meltdowns on air about the impending extinction level event about to occur. How many climate scientists, ecologists, activists, poets, writers and truthtellers can relate to the rage, the frustration, and the despair of living in a time of collective madness at quite possibly the end of human history, or at least organized human life on this planet? If “Don’t Look Up” has any lasting impact (pardon the pun) I hope it will serve as a conversation starter. But the tragedy is that the time for talking about climate catastrophe passed us by several years ago. Sadly, so has much of the time for effective action to stem its worst affects.
We need a mass movement that upends the structures of power and jettisons corporate capitalism, extractive and ecologically destructive industries, consumerist culture, the military sector and the police/surveillance state decisively, immediately and completely for there to be any chance of a livable planet for humanity and countless other species. And we need art, and writing, and reporting, and songs, and films that are bold enough to talk about this in a radical and revolutionary way. Unfortunately, it is in this way that movies like “Don’t Look Up” fall short.
Kenn Orphan 2021
*Photo source: Netflix.
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