Netflix original "Don’t Look Up" premiered on the platform in early December, almost immediately becoming the most streamed movie on the platform. With an all-star cast composed of names such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Timothée Chalamet, and more, the movie’s debut success was not a surprise. But, what I believe makes the movie especially notable is the creative commentary on the problematic politicization of science and the discrediting of the scientific community.
"Don't Look Up" follows two astrophysicists who discover a massive comet hurtling towards Earth, on a trajectory to make impact in around six months and result in mass extinction. However, the scientists are faced with disbelief, apathy, and political maneuvering at every turn — billionaires, on the other hand, just see a new venture.
"Don’t Look Up," however, is not just an entertaining film but a necessary satire of the tense relationship between the scientific community, government, and general public. While the impending climate disaster looms, positive advancements in ameliorating the crisis continually stall due to deniers of climate science and willfully ignorant politicians funded by exploitative capitalists. Accordingly, "Don’t Look Up" is consequential because of its digestibility: utilizing Hollywood stars to underscore the current conflict between science and politics.
During their meeting with President Orlean, a caricature of Donald Trump, the scientists are disregarded and the science itself is ignored. The politicians’ indifference and the scientists’ incredulity draw a sharp, if not eerie, comparison to the initial mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic by the Trump administration in which the threat was belittled and even entirely denied for political reasons.
To any viewer, the whole exchange is infuriating and seems quite ridiculous — how does politics matter if everyone is dead? The refusal to acknowledge the role of science in informing prudent and necessary policy does not just apply to COVID-19, but also to the climate crisis. While our polar ice caps melt at faster rates than ever before and sea levels continue to rise, there still exist large swaths of deniers in the form of average citizens, industry tycoons, and politicians alike who downplay the severity of the threat.
But the absurdity in "Don’t Look Up" doesn’t end there. After being met with ridicule and inaction from the White House, the two scientists appear on a talk show in which the hosts generally disregard the actual science. Meanwhile, a satirized version of The New York Times, worried about reputational damage, pulls media support from the scientists. Here we clearly see the fine line that has been toed by media conglomerates, who are still beholden to profits driven by viewership and readership despite their duty to inform the public, in coverage of COVID-19 and climate change.
Moreover, this exchange highlights the disturbing effect that disinformation campaigns and scientific disbelief can have on supposedly objective news outlets. While science should be incontrovertible, the politicization of the field has made it potentially toxic for media outlets. Even while the end of the world as we know it is hastening its approach as a result of climate change, profits still reign supreme.
At one point in the film, the mission to destroy the comet is aborted at the behest of billionaire Peter Isherwell since it contains trillions of dollars of rare earth elements. The ease with which Isherwell is able to disrupt a planet-saving mission because of the possibility of profits is unbelievable — but it is also our political reality. Oil and fossil fuel tycoons, through major campaign contributions and PAC money, push the deregulation of fossil fuels and stall climate change mitigation policy. The complex connection between capitalism, campaign financing, and policy is — not so subtly — discussed in clips of the film’s producer Adam McKay admitting that Isherwell is a caricature of tech giants such as Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk — both of whom have poured millions into space exploration.
The film ends with the Earth being destroyed by the comet with only the ultra-rich being able to escape and survive. While the movie is intentionally dramaticized, the dangers of climate change threaten humanity in many of the same ways. Much of humanity refuses to acknowledge climate change in the same unbelievable ways. "Don’t Look Up" takes an important step in making the absurdity of climate denial — and science denial at large — abundantly clear while provoking reflection and comparison.
Penn students and organizations can glean important lessons from a movie like "Don't Look Up": Even if seemingly paradoxical, the best way to inform communities and galvanize action is to make these issues palatable to an audience that might otherwise avoid these hard conversations. While climate change and various issues of poverty, homelessness, and more are inherently topics that are difficult to discuss, engagement with them is crucial — and such engagement necessitates elements which make understanding easy and, even occasionally, enjoyable. Given the wide popularity of "Don’t Look Up," I don’t think it’s uncalled for to say that we need more creative media that is both appealing and thought-provoking, not just one or the other.
VINAY KHOSLA is a College first year studying philosophy and political science from Baltimore, Md. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.