The Satirical Truth of Don’t Look Up


“We need not to be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real?”
Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

“We have precisely six months, ten days, two hours, eleven minutes, and forty-one seconds, until a comet twice the size of Chicxulub tears through our atmosphere, and extincts all life on Earth”.
Don’t Look Up, directed by Adam McKay, is a political satire which seeks to make light of some of the problems that plague our world. In the movie, two low-ranking astronomers–PhD candidate Dibiasky (played by Jennifer Lawrence) and Michigan State Professor Dr. Mindy (played by Leonardo Dicaprio)– discover, and then attempt to warn humanity of a comet that is to destroy the planet in six months. McKay specifically designed the comet to depict climate change. Through the metaphor of the comet, the movie portrays the result of the deadly duo of climate change and ignorance, and boy oh boy, it is not pretty.
Upon discovering the comet, the two astronomers first share their findings to the White House, yet their efforts to convince the administration of the issue’s severity are in vain. The nonsensical President Orlean is only interested in how the comet will serve her reelection. President Orlean (played by Meryl Streep) represents any narcissistic politician who is concerned with how the people can serve them and not how they can serve the people. Once President Orlean decides that she will not gain anything politically from the comet, she dismisses the issue. Orlean’s response to the comet mirrors that of President Trump’s reaction to climate change. During his presidency, Trump claimed climate change a “hoax”, and he refused to acknowledge it or make strides to solve it. Watchers see the consequences of electing and following a politician who is only looking out for themselves.
Continuing their journey, the scientists resort to social media platforms to share their discovery, and they are once again met by those who are unconcerned that all life will soon be wiped out. When they go on a talk show, the hosts respond to this comet in a comical, light sense. The nation turns a blind eye to the hard truth. Their reactions also try to get the audience to think about the ridiculousness of ignoring something that is putting them in imminent danger. If you look at this moment through the lens of climate change, the parallels it has to our current situation become frighteningly clear.
The world carries on in ignorance for an alarming amount of time before the president finally acknowledges the comet, and the importance of destroying it while it’s still in space. Of course, she only does this once she suddenly decides that she actually needs to use the comet to win her reelection. She continues to look at the issue through a political lens, so she decides to choose a civilian to send into space and act as the mission’s hero. Incidentally, the man she chooses is a foolhardy and macho ex-military man.
However, the mission is aborted mid-flight when Peter Isherwell, head of a major tech company BASH, claims that if they just break the comet into smaller pieces, they can extract rare minerals that are worth great riches. Isherwell’s global tech giant company BASH Cellular symbolizes any large Silicon Valley corporation. We see with Isherwell that, although he uses altruistic and philanthropic language, he is merely interested in riches, rather than the survival of humankind. Isherwell, a large donor of the President and offering trillions, quickly has her support, despite the fact that his plan did not undergo the standard scientific peer-review process. The motivations of big multi-million-dollar businesses are often corrupt and the power they hold is too immense, yet as seen they still are very influential.
After the cancellation of the space mission, the President and Isherwell clash with Dibiasky on how to deal with the comet. As a result, the President starts a campaign “Don’t Look Up”. This is her message to the general public, telling them to all look away from the comet–that at this point in the film is mere months away and can be clearly seen in the night sky. This ridiculous motto is challenged by Dibiasky’s campaign of “Just Look Up”. With the world’s unwavering ludicrousness continuing, the astronomers start the movement as a sort of call to action. They want the people to acknowledge the comet for what it really is, and attempt to fully destroy it instead of letting it destroy our world over wealth that won’t matter when humankind is wiped out.
Skip to the end of the movie, and as expected: Isherwell’s plan didn’t work. The highly anticipated comet makes contact with Earth’s surface and sends behemoth-sized tsunami waves all around the planet obliterating all life. During this scene, the astronomers who discovered the comet gather around the table for one last meal with their loved ones. They reflect on life and pray as their house is engulfed in flames. But of course, Isherwell, the President, and 2,000 of society’s elites have a ship and escape earth unscathed. This highlights the power and unfair advantages of the ultra-wealthy. Isherwell introduced the failed plan which resulted in humanity being wiped out, yet he escapes on a spaceship to relative safety while the rest of the planet dies. This captain is not going down with his ship, as many elitists wouldn’t.
This movie considers every aspect of the layers of our nation and plays them together to show how a crisis would play out. First, we see how social media influences our politics and mindsets. When the White House staff take to the social media side of things, we see how when they play the comet off as no big deal, humanity easily follows this mindset. This in itself reveals the human nature to conform and blindly follow any leader who presents themselves as one. Despite President Orlean’s idiocy, the people still agree with whatever she believes.
In addition, it took the majority of the movie until people started understanding and believing that this comet was a real threat, which is something that we see everyday with climate change.Humankind seems to have a superiority complex, thinking that nothing can really bring them down. So, why spend time and energy trying to make change? But, when an issue gets so big it becomes unavoidable, people are forced to acknowledge it. Unfortunately for humankind, a similar last minute response to climate change may also not be enough to save us. If we want our humanity and habitat to stay intact, we must take action now.
Interestingly, there are also many parallels between how the comet was dealt with in the movie and how COVID-19 is dealt with. This amplifies the truth this movie reveals because even though it was based on climate change, the societal norms of reacting to crisis in an unfit way applies to COVID as well. And who knows what else it will apply to in the future.
This movie is a pill that is hard to swallow, but considering our current realities, we should all grab a cup of water because we need to gulp this pill down. It is not a feel good movie with a happy ending, but the brutal ending serves as a wake up call for many things. For one, it attempts to wake up those who live their lives as if our climate is not changing and destroying our habitats. Threats to humanity are real and the more we ignore them, the worse they get. Moreover, this is a wake up call to those who elect unfit leaders. Having someone incapable of leading as our president will lead to our collapse. We all need to participate in movement forward if we want to thrive, and blindly conforming will do just the opposite of this.