Don’t Look Up: Satire or a spine-tingling reflection of the truth?

Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence’s new film uses science fiction to explore a world of viral media and climate denial that feels all too real, finds Emily Muddeman.

If you’ve not seen it, it’s likely you’ll have heard someone mention the new Netflix film, Don’t Look Up, or as I imagine many are referring to it, “Leo’s new film”. It’s become Netflix’s second biggest film of all time, with 58.2 million hours viewed globally across between 2-9 January

The satirical science fiction film follows two astronomers, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, and their attempt to warn the world about a comet headed directly for the earth, so big that it will devastate human civilisation.

Upon discovering the comet, they head to the White House, where we are introduced to the US president, played by Meryl Streep, and her chief of staff, played by Jonah Hill. It’s this scene in the Oval Office when you really notice the satirical nature of this film. Streep as President is self-obsessed and ignorant; the female version of Trump, just not quite as orange. Hill’s chief of staff character is just as bad; sexist and boorish.

As the news of the comet unfolds, director Adam McKay’s representation of the media is particularly poignant. Newsreaders are picked for their looks and sex appeal. Coverage about the world’s favourite pop star, played by Ariana Grande, and her recent break up is the top story. And devastating news of imminent extinction is presented as trivial and boring.

When Lawrence’s character has a breakdown on a current affairs chat show and shouts, “we’re all going to die” on live television, people finally listen, but for the wrong reasons. The clip goes viral. Social media goes mad for it, with thousands of memes mocking her circulating within minutes.

By this point, watching it starts to feel almost a bit too familiar. McKay’s depiction of media and technology feels uncomfortable, as an unavoidable reflection of today’s world. In the film and in real life, social media, clickbait and headline-grabbing news allow misinformation and conspiracy theories to spread rapidly. In one clip we see people filming a video directed at the astronomers, exclaiming “and we’re just supposed to trust what you’re saying?”.

Familiar to anyone who has seen climate deniers and many other groups who prefer to believe what they read on the internet over the experts, and reinforce their beliefs through online communities.

Without giving too much away, there are various attempts to divert or break down the comet. Enter Peter Isherwell, a character clearly based on Elon Musk/Jeff Bezos and the other billionaire tech moguls currently buying their way into space.

Played by Mark Rylance, Isherwell believes he can save the world through technology and make “social injustice, loss of biodiversity and the multitude of life’s problems a relic of the past” – something I don’t think we’d be too shocked to hear from either Musk or Bezos.

Each viewer will draw their own conclusions from the film. But whether you like it or not, it’s hard to argue that there aren’t huge, uncomfortable parallels with the world we live in, and that it’s ultimately a metaphor for the very real threat of climate change. And we have to ask ourselves, would a science documentary about climate change have become Netflix’s second biggest film? I seriously doubt it.


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