Recently, the American satirical film, “Don’t Look Up,” has been attracting widespread attention. It is a small wonder why. The film features a stellar cast: Meryl Streep is president of the US, and Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio play two astronomers from Michigan State University, who have found a comet big enough to destroy humanity on a direct course to earth. The two astronomers, Kate Diviasky and Randall Mindy, try to warn the US president and the media in vain. No one pays heed to the admonition, and the press and social media even deride the two scientists as if they were insane and paranoid. Consequently, the people of Earth have to face their doomsday.
“Don’t Look Up” is written, produced, and directed by Adam McKay. He said, “This movie came from my burgeoning terror about the climate crisis and the fact that we live in a society that tends to place it as the fourth or fifth news story, or in some cases even deny that it’s happening, and how horrifying that is, but at the same time preposterously funny.” Thus, the film is an allegory of our indifference to the climate change that may destroy the habitat of the Earth someday. The deadly comet that approaches the earth to make humanity extinct is an allegory of the climate crisis.
While watching the movie, however, I found that there was much more to it. It occurred to me that the film was not only a timely warning about our apathy to climate crisis in particular, but also a powerful criticism of our contemporary world in general. Indeed, “Don’t Look Up” cynically indicts our society through allegory and satire, a society where politicians are hypocritical and deceiving, the press and social media create all sorts of problems, and people are numb to crises.
Indeed, today we are living in a world where great leaders are hard to find, fake news is rampant, and politicians are fabricating truth. We are also living in a world where the press and social media are manipulating the public by spreading ungrounded news or malicious slander. Demagogues and political propagandists, too, are using social media to control the naive public, while ideological extremists use it to threaten and attack their political foes.
In the movie, “Don’t Look Up,” President Janie Orlean does not take the warning seriously and uses the crisis to divert the public’s attention from her sex scandal. Jason Olrean, the president’s son and chief of staff, also ignores the admonition and even makes fun of it openly. It implies that politicians are incredibly irresponsible for their people’s safety and welfare and that they only care how to put on a political show to deceive the naive people.
Disappointed in politicians, the two astronomers turn to the press to warn the people. Unfortunately, the press is problematic, too. At a morning talk show, the hosts treat the warning frivolously as if it were nothing but idle gossip. Even the director of NASA, a top donor to the Orlean’s presidential campaign, who has no background in astronomy, denies the warning of Diviasky and Mindy.
Initially, Mindy persuades President Orlean to divert the comet by striking it with a nuclear weapon. Yet, she aborts it because Peter Isherwell, another top donor and a billionaire CEO of a technology company, claims that he has discovered expensive rare-earth elements in the alien comet and that he can commercially exploit the comet by fragmenting it and recover it from the ocean, using the new technology his company has developed. Unfortunately, his project fails.
As the comet becomes visible, Diviasky and Mindy lead a campaign on social media, “Just look up!” In return, the government launches a counter campaign, “Don’t look up!” The World opinion, too, is divided between those who claim that mining the comet will create jobs and those who even deny the existence of the comet, dismissing it as a conspiracy theory. Meanwhile, they all are numb to the imminent crisis.
This is all too familiar to us. Our political leaders are unreliable, and the government’s important positions are filled with amateurs who have donated or worked in the presidential election camp. Naturally, they do not know what to do in times of crisis. Important national affairs are compromised by the president’s close friend’s bad influence and ill advice. The press and social media create chaos by spreading fake news, conspiracy theories, and malicious attacks on others who have different opinions. Although the destructive comet is visible from the earth, some people still refuse to “look up,” and the government hides the crisis under the excuse of not disturbing the people.
Despite the title, “Don’t Look Up,” the film urges that we should indeed “Look up!” The deadly comet that will destroy us is right above us, altogether visible already. If we do not look up, we all will perish, not knowing even the reason. If we look up, we might be able to take appropriate actions and survive.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.