Why People Can’t Stop Talking About ‘Don’t Look Up’

Photo: Netflix

If you’ve spent even a minute on the internet this week, you’ve definitely seen something about don’t look up. The Adam McKay Directed Movie is Netflix’s top film. It may also be the main reason why people are shitting their pants online lately.

The movie has a 55% reviewer rating on Rotten Tomatoes, reflecting the deep divisions in how people have experienced the film. The negative reviews were nothing short of damning. defector called it a “movie made by people who spend too much time online.” gawker said Don’t Look Up “transforms the underlying conflict [of how to address the climate crisis] from one action to another of simple faith: are you listening to scientists, or not?” McKay, along with co-creator and journalist David Sirota, for their part, have tweeted defenses of the film that have fueled more meta-criticism to the point where we’re all collectively getting lost.

I’d rather not argue whether Don’t Look Up is good as a work of art, satire, or as a substitute for real life. I just want to say that I thought the movie was thought provoking and well acted, although it has its blind spots, like the single US focus. What’s interesting isn’t just how polarizing the movie is, it’s the sheer amount of discourse it is generated – and what it says about our collective desires at this precarious moment.

Don’t Look Up, for you five who have avoided all contact with the film, is a star-studded affair about a planet-destroying comet headed for Earth and humanity’s response to impending doom. The comet is a metaphor for climate change, and the characters all play their part, from the scientists who scream into the void to the tech billionaire who wants to mine it for minerals using unproven technology.

There have been other climate films, from The Day After Tomorrow to First Reformed. They’ve shown big stars, and yet they’ve barely moved the public discussion about climate change. While Don’t Look Up was created in an age of widespread social media, it seems designed to spark a conversation. Still, that it accomplishes that mission to such an extent is testament to the fact that we’re starving for art and media grappling with the climate crisis.

The US, in particular, lives in a cone of climate silence. According to a 2016 Yale and George Mason University analysisMore than half of Americans “who are interested in global warming or think the issue is important, ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ talk about it with family and friends.” That may be driven in part by what the researchers termed a “climate silence spiral,” where the largest media outlets doesn’t cover it so it doesn’t seem important nor worth talking about.

Don’t Look Up was a deafening roar, with some of the biggest movie stars in the world, a media blitz to promote the film, and prominent placement on Netflix’s homepage and theater tents. The praise, vitriol and everything in between not only reflect people’s real reactions to the film, but also clarify the fact that we just don’t talk enough about the climate crisis.

The explosive discourse also reveals how difficult it has long been for many of us to talk about the issue without something tangible — like a movie — to serve as the crux of the conversation. Perhaps that’s because this existential threat is too great and depressing to really understand. Or maybe we just lack the vocabulary to honestly articulate the crisis. Probably both. Anyway, Don’t Look Up opened the door a crack, and suddenly everyone wants to burst into the debate room.

All of this points to the need for more media like Don’t Look Up and more discussions about it. Trust me, I know we’re well past the “let’s talk about it” phase of the climate crisis. This is all hands on deck time where the world has to be fast phasing out the use of fossil fuels, pick out a just switch, investing in public transport, and a hundred thousand other things, all while coping with the growing onslaught of climate disasters.

But it’s so hard to get those different balls rolling, in part because of the relative silence surrounding climate change. Other Yale and George Mason Research shows that there are countless reasons why most people shun the subject, from not knowing enough to agreeing we should do something to the dreaded “too political”. All this leaves polluters and politicians who invest in the status quo to set the limits of what is possible so that the boat for them rocks as little as possible.

We’ve been too scared to dream, let alone talk about what the world must be like if we don’t want to get hit by the metaphorical comet. Having those conversations is difficult, but the longer we delay them, the more the planet will fall into disrepair. That so many tumble out in the wake of a single film shows that the closet of our cultural imagination may not be empty yet. More than that, it shows that there is a desire for more.

Whether you don’t look up the best or worst climate film on a painfully short list is, in many ways, beside the point. As Defector noted, people seem excited to be yelling at McKay and Sirota on Twitter because it provokes a response. But there’s no reason why a few guys who made a single climate film should be the center of the conversation. (Not offensive to those guys!) In fact, it’s probably better if they aren’t, which is why we need more than a single climate film. Obviously the public wants it. That may seem like a pretty weak climate solution in light of so much destruction. But we cannot change the politics that have brought us to this place, we can only change the future that lies ahead.

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