9 min read

Movie Review: Don't Look Up is the Science Communication Film We Deserve

SPOILER NOTE: I'm going to assume that readers have seen Don't Look Up or don't care if they see spoilers.

The film's scientist warning the public the Earth is going to be destroyed on a peppy morning show.

I've worked in science and climate advocacy for many years, including in government and I'm happy to see so many of my peers discussing Don't Look Up. I wanted to share my perspective on the film itself and some of its themes, particularly its politics and the background setting of the fate of civilizations.

Years ago, a climate scientist I worked with was doing an improv exercise. She said trying to warn people about climate change was like watching a pressure cooker overheat in the kitchen, screaming to your family members that it was about to blow up, and having them ignore you or shrug you off.

Another scientist I know once found themselves talking about climate change with a few journalists after-hours at a United Nations climate conference in 2007. One journalist noted how difficult climate stories are to tell visually. It's an invisible gas! The scientist responded: come on, now, we're killing the fucking planet, how is that not the story of a lifetime?

Years later, I'd find myself trying to convince journalists that the first piece of climate legislation to pass the House in more than a decade might be worth covering. No matter, Mitch McConnell wasn't going to bring it up in the Senate, they said, so who cares?

Everyone who works in climate and science communication has stories like this. It's a frustration we share with a lot of people who do policy communication, including communication on humanitarian crises such as hunger, human trafficking, civil rights violations, and the prison-industrial complex. It may be particularly frustrating for science communicators because we tend to be rationalists: we want political and media systems to respond rationally to our interventions. But of course, we don't live in such a world, which brings me to Don't Look Up.

As a piece of satire, it does incredible work and gets away with a lot of farcically revealing moments. But upon reflection, I found the film's political imagination lacking and too grounded in a myopically communications-focused view of politics and power.

The film's politics are explicit, but narrow

Too often, films about politics try to approach the subject obliquely, through the lens of an individual fighting a vast array of bad guys. Think of all the biopics of heroic figures in American history whether it's Lincoln or Selma, which tend to downplay the role of collective action and movements in political change. In fiction, we sometimes get sinister, paranoid films like Network or The Parallax View, in which a protagonist is taking on a shadowy cabal of global elites they never truly see or comprehend.

Instead, Don't Look Up is direct with viewers. The relationships among the president, her nepotistic son / chief of staff, and her unqualified but rich and connected political appointees and advisors drive the plot. At one point, Leonardo DiCaprio's scientist character is dragooned into the administration as a science advisor, only to immediately find himself compromising his values to keep his seat at the table.

The politics, in fact, slam the viewer over the head, but it can get away with that because it's satire. Jonah Hill tells an audience of hooting chuds that they are the working class and that he and his allies are the "cool rich" who help fight the cultural elite "them." Chants of "Don't look up!" precisely match the cadence of "Lock her up!" The main plot makes billionaires' greed explicit: the mission that might deflect the asteroid is scrapped mid-flight in the hopes of harvesting the asteroid for precious metals to make more cell phones. Even the president only considers acknowledging the reality of the asteroid when she thinks it's good for her party's chances in the midterms.

But as someone who has worked in political communication and media for a long time, I found the film's focus on communication and awareness to be a strange way to limit the characters' agency.

At the film's outset, when the scientists realize they're being ignored, their first instinct is to go do a big television interview. I'm obviously being a bit literal-minded here, but when scientists are being ignored or censored they usually have more than one media interview they can rely on to get the point across, not to mention lots of FOIA-able documents for investigative reporters and Congressional investigators.

When the scientists decide to blow the whistle and tell the truth, their words take on great power. Jennifer Lawrence's character, telling the truth to a bar full of patrons about the real reason the mission to deflect the asteroid was diverted, sets off a riot. She later joins up with her lefty boyfriend Yule and launches a social media campaign urging people to just look up. Again, it's the power of words and communication that the characters turn to, not the power of, say, advocacy organizations, unions, mass movements, work stoppages, strikes, sit-ins, monkey-wrenching or any other non-electoral forms of intervening in political and capital systems. I get it: it's a comedy. But it's still a comedy operating in the mainstream, liberal Hollywood view of politics, which relies on awareness raising and polite advocacy rather than direct action to get the goods.

Of course, the movie illustrates some self-awareness here: the protagonists hold a benefit concert to "actually" save the world this time, which doesn't help change any politicians' minds, and an actor promoting a film about the end of the world is depicted wearing a button that urges people to look up AND down, neatly avoiding the political controversy over what to do with the asteroid. In one endearing moment, DiCaprio's scientist character is arguing with his trolls online, taking satisfaction in some sick dunks that will obviously have zero impact on policy choices related to the asteroid while his wife rolls her eyes.

Adam McCay, the film's director, acknowledged this a bit on Twitter, too, but for a movie that's so explicitly political, and even tied to a former Bernie Sanders staffer, it's hard not to feel like there are some obvious missing links here — namely our own agency as free people in a democracy — as well as a more robust analysis of exactly who is blocking climate action right now: namely every national-level Republican, Joe Manchin, and the handful of fossil fuel holdouts in the Biden administration who are continuing to kick the can down the road on oil and gas projects.

These are all fine sentiments, as far as they go, but the film does such an excellent job lancing the mainstream liberal advocacy and awareness-raising approach that has repeatedly fallen short on climate action that I found it odd to see this kind of general response to natural questions about what we should do. I hope the creators find more activist organizations, mutual aid groups and unions to support through this work. There's certainly no shortage of people or groups that'd be happy to help and who will never, in their entire lives or careers, get a megaphone as big as the #1 movie on Netflix. As far as I can see, the film creators are promoting a site that emphasizes a combination of personal and political action, but if you click through the options for holding politicians accountable, you get one non-sign-up link to Citizens Climate Lobby, which does non-partisan advocacy work but doesn't really focus on accountability as we usually use the term.

The film earns its ending, as only a satire can

That said, I was happy with the film's ending precisely because it showed the limits of begging politicians to change their class and electoral interests through corporate-friendly media coverage. The world ends. The characters approach it existentially, holding one another at a family dinner, making small talk as the earth itself shakes apart. It's oddly sweet, and more affirming of our core humanity than the rolling mushroom clouds of Dr. Strangelove. Anything but a comedy or a dark satire would have to avoid that ending: it's too hard for audiences. But here, it works.

And, of course, that's just the first ending. The second involves the elites who escaped the Earth getting eaten by large birds on another Earth-like planet. How satisfying!

This underscored the film's narrative backbone — with its big, loud nods to Carl Sagan — as the Drake Equation and the Fermi Paradox. If you're not familiar with them, the Drake Equation is a method for estimating the number of intelligent civilizations that can communicate in the known universe. We know that answer is at least 1 (us!) but estimates can vary wildly, especially with the equation's last variable: the lifetime of such a civilization.

When scientists play with these numbers, starting especially with the sheer number of stars and planets that must exist, they sometimes arrive at very large estimates, reaching into the thousands or millions of intelligent civilizations. Physicist Enrico Fermi, who played a key role in developing the atomic bomb, famously asked some version of this question in response to related speculation about the abundance of intelligent life in the universe: "But where is everybody?"

The Drake Equation's final variable is one possible answer. Civilizations might simply eliminate themselves or burn out. Other scientists have posited that advanced civilizations encase their suns in "Dyson spheres" to harvest energy, making them very difficult to detect from outside their solar systems. Relatedly, the Dark Forest hypothesis imagines that civilizations proactively shield themselves from discovery lest a much older, more technologically advanced civilization find them first and eliminate them.

These are more than just thought experiments for the scientists who helped invent nuclear weapons, only to see the United States and U.S.S.R. nearly start nuclear wars by intention or accident many times. Sagan warned policymakers of a nuclear winter in which an exchange of weapons would blacken out the sun. He spoke out against nuclear war, participating in rallies, offering testimony to Congress, and defending democracy and free speech as core values for scientific inquiry. He also issued early warnings about climate change. If we expect scientists to speak out about the problems they study, we owe a lot of that to Sagan, who helped his peers overcome the Cold War hangover of silence and deference to the political class.

Interestingly, all these fields of science — nuclear weapons, climate change and the fate of civilizations — are deeply related though the study of planetary atmospheres. One of the honors of my career was helping Dr. William Borucki announce a gift to my old employer, the Union of Concerned Scientists. Borucki is a giant in his field. His early work on the Apollo program dealt with the re-entry vehicle's interaction with the atmosphere, ensuring spacecraft wouldn't burn up when returning to Earth. He later advocated, successfully, for the Kepler mission, which led to the discovery of more than 2,600 planets around other stars, helping advance our estimates, one variable at a time, for the Drake Equation.

Kate Sheppard, a sharp environmental beat reporter and editor, understood what Borucki was trying to say:

"The Earth is a very special place," Borucki said in an interview with The Huffington Post last week. "Unless we have the wisdom and technology to protect our biosphere, it could become like many other dead worlds."

He noted that the Kepler mission, in particular, made it harder to accept the theory that our solar system, with its terrestrial planets hovering around a habitable zone, was particularly unique.

"There must be an enormous number of small planets roughly Earth size, in the habitable zone of the stars -- billions or tens of billions of such planets," said Borucki. If there were life there, one would assume it would evolve into organisms of higher intelligence capable of communication. Yet we haven't heard from them, and there's no evidence of other life forms visiting Earth. Borucki said that forces us to ask why not.
"It's not a silly question anymore," he said. "You used to be able to dismiss it -- say there aren't any planets, or they aren't in the habitable zone. That's not true anymore. We know there are habitable planets. The question that is really important is what happened to them?"

I dare not give you hope, I have only action

The last refuge of climate denial is hopelessness. That after the reality of the risks we face is evident, after the levees break and the rich man's private fire brigade saves his mansion, that there's nothing you could have done to prevent it anyway.

But everything we do as a society is a choice, intentional or not. As cogs in the machine or as people who feel like they're watching from the outside, we all have some agency. Jennifer Lawrence's character tries to embody that in the film, but doesn't fully avail herself of her own agency, only lamenting that they could have done things differently.

In our world, the first thing we can do, to follow Greta Thunberg's example, is tell the truth. Don't shade. Don't believe corporate PR. Don't buy political spin or another string of broken promises.

The second is solidarity. This can take many forms: joining local advocacy groups, forming unions and building and participating in mutual aid networks to build resiliency against the crises we face.

The final is self-care. No one told you there would be days like these before you were born. You're here now. We are part of the great cosmic experiment, a piece of the universe observing itself. In Carl Sagan's estimate, you are made of star stuff.

The vastness of the universe can inspire feelings of emptiness and dread. But in an image of Earth, taken from very far away, Sagan encouraged us to resist, to be candles flickering against the darkness.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

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