Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up
The allegory that wasn’t one. Don't Look Up as logical truth and the struggle of satire.
As a Singaporean living away from home during a pandemic, I follow global news obsessively. In May of last year, I pitched an editor at a US magazine a piece about a new variant that was circulating in Asia and bound for the States. It would soon be named Delta, and it was wreaking havoc in Singapore, which had kept things largely under control until then. But I was told there had been “enough” COVID coverage: We were “post-COVID,” on the cusp of #hotvaxsummer, the CDC had just told everyone they could remove their masks. Like a doomsday Cassandra, I begged those around me to keep them on: one of the first Delta outbreaks in Singapore involved a fully vaccinated nurse who unwittingly transmitted the virus to patients in the hospital, even though both parties were wearing masks. A relative of mine had been warded in that hospital for cancer and caught the virus; he didn’t make it. There was a bizarre quality to how the American media covered the Delta surge in India and elsewhere, as if it were not an imminent problem. After all, the virus penetrates national borders as easily as it does bodies. In July, the New York Times tracker showed cases rising from 4,000 per day to 120,000 per day over the course of only three weeks. I was based in Brooklyn then and looked around me with mounting terror as mask-less New Yorkers huddled in crowded bars and strolled down streets. I tried my pitch again. Still no luck: The Delta news cycle was almost over, someone else had already recently written a “Delta piece.” By August 30th, we were in a full-blown Delta-Fall; over 280,000 new cases were recorded that day.
Watching Don’t Look Up (2021) as the Omicron wave was mounting in December felt chillingly like déjà vu.
Adam McKay’s new apocalyptic film, Don’t Look Up, about two scientists (played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) who unsuccessfully try to warn the American government and the world that catastrophe is headed towards Earth, has caused tidal waves since its Netflix premiere. The film was roundly panned when it was first released. Many critics read the film as “heavy-handed,” “angry,” and “unfunny.” Much of the criticism seems unaware of how it ironically plays out exactly the tropes about a blasé media which caters only to the appetites of consumers that the film—heavy-handedly!—seeks to critique. This would be funny, if it weren’t so depressing. In other words, the film’s negative reviews affirm its on-the-nose critique of our dysfunctional world. But “unfunniness” isn’t a problem with the film, but a problem with the world. The film isn’t funny because its value doesn’t lie in its ability to serve as an allegory, but in its accurate reflection of reality. Satire ceases to work in a world where actual delusion, greed, and incompetence outpaces farcical comedy. Indeed, McKay has spoken about the real challenge and ridiculousness of trying to outpace the absurdity of reality. Having written the script before the pandemic, he struggled to keep up with new levels of egregiousness and absurdity that unfolded during the crisis—from anti-vaxxers and mask protests to Trump’s touting of bleach and ingestion of horse dewormers as COVID-19 cures.
The film’s recent nomination in the Best Picture category for the Oscars has put it back in the spotlight. Outlets that expressed surprise at the nomination remark on whether it is too funny for the Oscars, referencing the award show’s penchant for drama and its relatively lower view of comedy. But these reactions expose a slippery contradiction in judgment: Is Don’t Look Up funny or not? These conflicting views reveal how the film not only resists categorization but also explodes it (some of the most absurd moments of the film have uncanny precedents in reality), and also how in the absurdity of our current world, satire struggles to function.
Almost all critics and reviewers read the film as an allegory on climate change. Indeed, it acts as a fitting metaphor for the global existential crisis that is climate change. McKay and his story partner, David Sirota, have said in interviews that they had set out to make a movie about the climate crisis. After the first wave of bad reviews died down, Twitter users mounted a second wave of responses—retweeted threads of pleading climate scientists, who identified keenly with the film’s characters, pointed to the realism rather than the absurdism of the film. But watching the film as the Omicron surge ravaged the US, I saw the film to be as much about the COVID-19 pandemic as about climate change.
That most reviewers continue to view the film as a parable about an impending catastrophe when it serves most accurately as a metaphor for our current COVID-19 global pandemic precisely enacts our delusional approach to catastrophe that the film seeks to critique. Indeed, the climate catastrophe, too, is already here. Reviewers who continue to read the catastrophic event in the film as something to come further demonstrate the incisiveness of the film’s critique of the media. Their interpretations of the film chillingly reveal the inability or refusal to recognize the gravity of our current situation. When the film was released, the fact that roughly 800,000 Americans had died from COVID was evidently insufficient for the pandemic to be read as a challenge to humanity that required radical and immediate action. As far back as April 2021, oblivious to all that awaited us, the media was using the term “post-COVID” even as the Delta variant began to decimate India.
Other films over the years—and the world over—have similarly tackled self-wrought extinction events by parodying bureaucracy and the media. Hideaki Anno’s Shin Godzilla (2016) tackled the inanity of the gridlocked behemoth that is Japanese bureaucracy—the true monster in the film. Bong Joon-ho’s The Host (2006) exposed the workings of asinine state-controlled media and government misinformation. And of course, there are Cold War-era classics like Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). How does Don’t Look Up fit into this genealogy of absurdist satire? Are these movies very funny or very serious? Do they function, as philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin describes of the carnivalesque, to expose and destabilize structures of power, or do they function, as Terry Eagleton counters, as pressure-relief valves, allowing awareness to pass for action, providing the illusion of change while maintaining the status quo? Until we do something, or until the world ends, the jury is still out.
From where we stand, the world ending in Don’t Look Up isn’t a representation of McKay’s singular pessimistic or cynical fantasy, but simply the logical truth: We have put ourselves on a collision course with annihilation and all things point to the fact that we’re going to take this death-ride to the end. Yet, we are inured to catastrophe today, even as the world, quite literally, burns and crumbles around us. This ambivalence or passivity cannot merely be chalked up to desensitization or an indifference to crisis. Adam Smith is best known for his writing on economic theory, but his writing in The Theory of Moral Sentiments is instructive and enlightening here. In it, Smith offers a parable of a “man of humanity in Europe” who learns with polite sadness about the destruction of the empire of China, offers some melancholy reflections, then goes on with his day “as if no such accident had happened.” He would lose sleep at the thought of losing his finger tomorrow, but, “provided he never saw them, [would] snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren.” A person’s—even a conscionable one’s— tendency towards self-interest and limited empathy can be quite startling. Further, it is “the banality of empathy,” as Namwali Serpell describes, that informs us that empathy should not be the only tool that motivates people, institutions, and governments to do the right thing. We don’t have to imagine or even care about suffering people to enact policies that alleviate their suffering. Today, this posture of the self-interested “man of humanity” has crystallized, and unbeknownst to itself, turned inward: Distracted and solipsistic, practiced in not thinking about others, and presuming danger to always be far away, we sleep even as catastrophe hurtles towards us—even as we’re already living in it.
The United States, as the media production factory of the world, churns out hot takes with the authority of a god, even when it is sometimes belated to the news. The CDC’s decision to announce that mask-wearing was no longer necessary back in May coincided with the rampant spread of the Delta variant in other parts of the world, when crucial information like the fact that vaccinated individuals can be infected and spread the virus was already known. When one believes oneself to be the center of the world, events unfolding at the periphery are not of note, even when it’s the latest information about a virus barreling its way towards America. This ignorance—or callousness—is cruel and ultimately self-destructive. The hoarding of vaccines and reluctance to release vaccine patents by the developed world, as well as a myopic and entitled desire to travel for leisure by the privileged likely propagated and extended the pandemic, giving rise to new variants in other parts of the world that we now reckon with. The real way McKay is “on the nose” is not necessarily about just climate change, or COVID, but about the failure of our existing systems and governments, and even a failure of how we relate to one another as fellow inhabitants of a planet we all have an imperative to protect.
Stranded away from home due to COVID regulations, I watched Don’t Look Up on Christmas Eve to shut out the noise of festive posts shared on my social media. Such posts had been inducing intractable anxiety and irrational moodiness in me for weeks. Watching Don’t Look Up and seeing the world end on screen as the clock struck midnight was a strangely vindicating and relaxing experience—like the euphoric release of watching the comet make impact in Lars von Trier's Melancholia (2011). Unlike people partying and traveling amid a global pandemic, as parts of the world reckon with the aftermath of war and others stand at the brink of it, the end of the world actually seemed logical.