Firebird Journal

Survival and Renewal in the Anthropocene

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Don’t Look Up: Hollywood’s wicked take on climate apathy

The thing is, we really did have everything — I mean, when you think about it.” — Leonardo DiCaprio playing Dr. Randall Mindy, astronomer

So, you’re watching the first quarter of a critical playoff game that will send its winner to the Super Bowl, when someone runs into the room and blurts out that your father just had a heart attack and is being rushed to the hospital.

Naturally, you respond by saying, “Oh. OK, I’ll head over there after the game.” 

This scenario mimics the premise of the, wickedly funny, depressingly tragic feature film Don’t Look Up, released by Netflix in December, 2021. Except the subject of this sci-fi satire is both less and more personal than a family emergency — it’s the end of the world.

The story opens when astronomy Ph.D. candidate Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), during the course of her nightly observations of deep space, discovers a huge comet headed straight toward earth. She alerts her professor, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), who calculates that the comet will strike in six months and is massive enough to cause an “extinction event,” ending life on the planet.

This is not a spoiler. It’s the opening scene of the movie, and the real plot unfolds from there as Dibiasky and Mindy try to warn a largely skeptical, indifferent and preoccupied world about its impending doom.

And shortly after those events begin to transpire, I, and probably most of the audience, realize that Don’t Look Up is a parody of the inane and insane memes that permeate the ranks of climate change dissers and deniers and ordinary citizens. (This is not mere speculation. The film’s creator, Adam McKay, said he conceived of the comet metaphor while discussing, with a climatologist, the frustrations of communicating climate realities.) That’s when watching the film’s zany, alt-reality plot and characters becomes a grisly sort of fun, making you laugh, curse and shake your head at the same time.

There are the machinations of President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) and her White House staff, including her not-too-sharp son and campaign-donor appointees filling critical government posts. Concerned strictly with its image, which translates into its grip on power, this crew of clowns careens through a series of botched responses to the crisis — but still gets one final chance to save the planet.

Then there’s the media, represented by morning talk show co-hosts Jack Bremmer and Brie Evantee (Tyler Perry and Cate Blanchett). Their job is to avoid upsetting their viewer/consumer audience by keeping everything pleasant, so their interactions with the increasingly desperate Dibiasky and Mindy become, shall we say, “personal.”

And, of course there’s social media where the existence of the fast-approaching comet is determined not by scientific analysis but by the number of likes and dislikes the astronomers glean from their various public appearances, which include a traveling concert featuring celebrity vocalist Riley Bina (Ariana Grande). Predictably, a subset of social media acolytes subscribes to the conspiracy theory that the comet doesn’t exist — it’s just a ploy to establish government control.

Last, but far from least, is Big Business, represented by billionaire Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance), founder and CEO of BASH Enterprises and developer of a cell phone that tracks and “fixes” its owner’s emotions, ensuring they never feel sad or distressed. Another top donor to the president, Isherwell gets the final word on the fate of the planet, a plan executed by the Orlean administration. 

Some professional movie critics disparaged Don’t Look Up as too star studded, or too blunt.

OK. But as a regular guy who enjoys a good show, I say get thee to Netflix because you won’t want to miss this highly relevant “comedy.”

After all, what is climate change if not a reality show, nay, THE reality show, at our ecological house?


Editor’s Note: A version of this article appeared previously in other publications as part of an ongoing series called “Your Ecological House,” written by Philip S. Wenz, the publisher of Firebird Journal.

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Books by Philip S. Wenz

Your Ecological House is a homeowner and designer’s guide to creating a “home ecosystem,” an integrated habitat that conserves and produces energy, reduces waste and produces food and other goods.

This upcoming book discussed three possible futures — ” bad,” “good,” and “likely” — for the planet and humanity in the Anthropocene.

Read the Synopsis.