Movies

Don’t Look Up Is Missing What We Really Need From Climate Change Movies

It’s time to stop getting metaphorical and start getting real.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence's characters look down at a smartphone in DiCaprio's hand.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence in Don’t Look Up. Niko Tavernise/Netflix

In the key scene in Don’t Look Up, which Netflix says is now the second-most-viewed movie in its history, Jennifer Lawrence’s astronomer and her fellow scientist Leonardo DiCaprio make an appearance on a morning news show to warn the people of Earth that they have six months before their entire planet is obliterated. During a routine scan of deep space, Lawrence has discovered a massive comet that’s headed straight for us, and every second the hosts spend in idle banter is one tick closer to the end of everything we know. After seething for what feels like an eternity, Lawrence finally snaps, right after Tyler Perry’s host jauntily asks if there’s any chance that the comet might hit his ex-wife’s house. “Maybe the destruction of the entire planet isn’t supposed to be fun,” she screams, her voice echoing around the set as it catches in her throat. “Maybe it’s supposed to be terrifying.”

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Adam McKay’s movie, which he co-wrote with the political strategist David Sirota, hopes to be both fun and terrifying. Its final act, in which the planet is indeed pulverized as the scientists predicted, is genuinely sobering, not least because the movie has by then firmly established itself as a climate change allegory in what McKay calls “a Clark Kent–level disguise.” But McKay, who cut his teeth at Saturday Night Live and entered the movie business with Anchorman, has not lost the compulsive need to keep his audience entertained, even as he’s turned to more serious subjects, including the financial crisis, in The Big Short, and the political career of Dick Cheney, in Vice. Don’t Look Up is a movie that makes a running joke of a three-star general inexplicably charging for the White House’s free snacks, and whose plot is complicated when the president (Meryl Streep) texts a picture of her private parts to the softcore porn actor she’s nominated to the Supreme Court. Its apocalyptic finale may rattle the audience, but the image the movie leaves you with isn’t the faces of its main characters frozen in resignation as the world explodes around them, or the planet’s crust leaking flames; it’s Jonah Hill’s douchey White House chief of staff, emerging from the rubble in a post-credits scene to proclaim himself the last man on Earth and remind his now-vaporized livestream viewers to like and subscribe. It’s as if Stanley Kubrick kept Dr. Strangelove’s deleted war-room pie fight but stuck it after the closing montage of mushroom clouds, just for a giggle.

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David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth, which McKay has cited as one of Don’t Look Up’s inspirations, devotes an entire chapter to “Storytelling,” which might seem an odd inclusion in a book that is largely a reported chronicle of how climate change could render much of the planet inhospitable to human life by the end of this century. But Wallace-Wells understands that unless humans grasp the dire possibilities of climate change—and feel it in their bones, not just in their heads—the political change needed to alter our catastrophic course will simply never happen. The number of fictional works that have measurably shifted public opinion is vanishingly small, and by some standards it’s an absurd thing to even ask. (Is Get Out a failure because it didn’t end racism?) But with climate change, those are the stakes, and McKay has said repeatedly that his objective was to motivate the public. “The goal of the movie was to raise awareness about the terrifying urgency of the climate crisis, and in that, it succeeded spectacularly,” the founder of End Climate Silence told the New York Times this week. “You can’t have movies that inspire people into action without a cultural acceptance of climate change, which is what this movie will help produce.”

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“Awareness,” however, is not the right word for what Don’t Look Up is after. It is, after all, a movie in which climate change is never mentioned, one that requires prior knowledge for its central allegory to even be legible, let alone effective. What it gets across is not the substance of the climate crisis but its imminence, and the failure of both the media and society at large to fully reflect that urgency. “The reason why we’re in this climate crisis is not that we don’t have the technology to help make some changes,” says Amy Brady, who writes a monthly newsletter about climate fiction called Burning Worlds. “It’s not that we don’t know what’s causing climate change. It’s that we don’t have the political will, which this movie exemplifies really well. Our politicians are in the pockets of billionaires, and climate scientists aren’t listened to, unless they can make a sound bite or something spectacular out of what they’re saying.”

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[Read: Don’t Look Up Is About Much More Than Climate Change]

“Spectacular,” of course, is what the movies do best. But for the most part, the industry has approached the climate crisis obliquely, whether fearing they might drive audiences, in Al Gore’s Oscar-winning phrase, “straight from denial to despair,” or simply thinking there’s not much money to be made from killing the buzz. In movies like Mad Max: Fury Road or last year’s Reminiscence, climate change is, in journalist Kendra Pierre-Louis’ memorable phrase, “like a secret menu at a fast-food restaurant”—it’s there if you know where to look for it, but you’ll never miss it if you don’t.

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Those metaphors can feel powerful, especially if you’re, let’s say, a cultural critic used to snuffling out subtext like a truffle pig. But they only resonate with audiences who are already on board, and they’re almost always overwhelmed by the demands of populist moviemaking. It might make your throat tighten when Tenet’s villain, an agent of time travelers from the future intent on cannibalizing the present to prolong their own existence, says they’re doing so because “the oceans rose and the rivers ran dry.” But a few minutes later, Christopher Nolan is blowing up buildings in reverse, and that, and not some half-heard line of dialogue, is what sticks in your mind.

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Don’t Look Up’s metaphor is not so easily escaped—figuratively or literally. But some critics have argued that the all-or-nothing devastation is a poor fit for the climate crisis, which, as Eric Levitz wrote in New York magazine, “provides us with neither a hard deadline nor a clean binary between success and failure.” The movie has certainly grabbed the nation’s attention, and McKay has used his spotlight to push for climate action (although he has largely focused on pain-free solutions like developing renewable energy sources and advancing carbon capture technology).

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But the history of the allegorical approach is not a success story. Researchers found that moviegoers who saw Roland Emmerich’s 2004 blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow—an eco-minded spectacle in which the collapse of the Antarctic ice shelf prompts a climate shift so sudden and severe that people freeze solid the instant they step outside—did indeed emerge more concerned about climate change. But that concern faded as the disaster-movie immediacy waned, because its depiction of a global flash-freeze was about as plausible as the alien invasion in Emmerich’s Independence Day. Things might look bad, but at least they’re not that bad.

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For the Cold War, the pivot point came when filmmakers stopped getting metaphorical and started getting real. The Day After, a TV movie that depicted the aftereffects of nuclear war in the U.S. with terrifying realism, drew a live audience of more than 100 million in 1983. Many of those viewers were shaken, and even Ronald Reagan, a nuclear hawk, wrote in his journal that it “was very effective and left me greatly depressed.” His biographer Edmund Morris even speculated that The Day After might have influenced Reagan’s decision to push for strategic defense instead of adding to the country’s nuclear arsenals. Sometimes, making people afraid works. “There’s this widespread idea that it’s dangerous and counterproductive to elicit fears,” science historian Spencer Weart told Slate’s Rebecca Onion in 2017, just after the publication of the article on which Wallace-Wells’ book was based. “But I don’t think the history of nuclear fears supports that.”

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Nuclear Armageddon and climate catastrophe are not the same, nor are the anxieties that surround them. It’s easier to dramatize the effects of the wrong world leader having their finger on the button than it is what carbon emissions might do to the lives of our great-grandchildren. But it seems strange that Hollywood, as far as I can determine, has never even tried. Why isn’t there a climate change equivalent of The Day After, a realistic, nonhyperbolized version of what the future might actually look like, 25 or 50 years from now? The Uninhabitable Earth envisions a world in which entire nations collapse, untold millions starve, and long-dormant plagues are released from the Arctic ice. Surely there’s enough drama in that.

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When I started thinking about this article, I planned to end there, with a call for Hollywood to simply scare us straight. Some have called works like The Uninhabitable Earth alarmist, but the more pressing concern is that we’re not alarmed enough. As I talked to Brady, though, I became steadily more certain that I was wrong. She cited recent novels like Lydia Millet’s A Children’s Bible and Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island as “hopeful depictions of the climate crisis,” stories that focus on collective action rather than Darwinian doom. As the field of “cli-fi” has diversified, she says, authors have been less willing to dead-end at despair and leave their readers with the responsibility of imagining a different course.

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[Read: Will Fear Help Us Fix Climate Change? Here’s What It Did for Nuclear War.]

Collective stories are difficult for Hollywood to tell, which is why Wallace-Wells, in his storytelling chapter, calls climate change “a major mismatch of a subject for all the tools we have at hand.” But there might be another way to go about it, especially if we’re less focused on depicting the end of the world and more concerned with avoiding it. Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, who studies the effects of climate fiction on audiences, suggests what we need is not the occasional catastrophic spectacle but “a constant stream of climate narratives.” Instead of thinking about climate change as a dramatic singularity, like a comet hurtling through space, it should simply be a part of the world movie characters live in, just as it is, inextricably, part of ours. For decades, Hollywood treated racism as the province of malignant individuals, bigoted bad guys who could be vanquished and make us feel like we’d made the world a little better just by watching them fall. But the industry is learning, slowly and imperfectly, to tell stories in which race is an omnipresent factor, even if it’s not what the movie’s overtly about. We need to think about climate the same way, not as something that’s only relevant when it’s central to the plot but that colors where the characters live, how they dress, what they eat, what keeps them up at night. Science-fiction writers, Brady says, are already having to revise their manuscripts as their projections are overtaken by the rapidly shifting realities of climate change, so it’s no longer a question of predicting the future but dealing with the present. The question shouldn’t be whether climate change should be part of a story. It should be why it’s not.

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