Don’t Look Up: The planet is already burning

Ian Parker looks up and around the film.

 

Don’t Look Up was released on Netflix on 24 December, and has already met with strongly divided reactions, either because it is a feel-good holiday movie or because it is not. These are reactions that kind of miss the point because it is a satire.

First, some random things to look out for in Don’t Look Up: it is cool to be a young scientist with a nose-ring and dyed red hair (and, ok, better if you look like Jennifer Lawrence, also signalling here Hunger Games narratives); the scientist played by a tubbier than usual Leonardo DiCaprio does not take off his glasses (normally the case in films in which the scientist has to lose their specs when he goes into action mode); the female US president is not a mere token but an active force (a bad Hillary Clinton figure played well by Meryl Streep), and one of the villains is a Brit (Mark Rylance stirring in some pertinent critique of big tech). Plot spoiler – the earth dies in this one.

What to avoid

Satire has to avoid a number of traps, which this film does at points – at points, what can you expect from a multimillion-dollar production on Netflix. It should avoid collapsing from a ‘modern’ quite rationalist critical approach to what it depicts into a ‘postmodern’ pastiche. Postmodern pastiche mixes up high and low culture and, crucially in the political realm, muddles the difference between fiction and reality so we are presented with a flat entertaining surface which tells us nothing about the world, playfully unhinges us from any grounding in reality.

In many ways and at many points, this is ‘about’ something, not simply a media spectacle. This is not merely the kind of ‘spectacle’ which lures the viewer in so they are passive viewers, the kind of alienating spectacle that Anti-Capitalist Resistance has been diagnosing through the last year. This film is, among other things, ‘about’ climate change, and corrosive ideological government and alt-right fuelled scepticism. There are many poignant images in the film intercut with the narrative, of nature, of life, and of love. This is the planet under threat, from within, and not only from some comet about to strike in six months.

I’m not saying that you should love this film, just that you should see it.

Satire also has to avoid soothing its audience, turning real political issues into mere entertainment and letting us relax. The name for this process in the spectacle is ‘recuperation’; the absorbing and neutralising of radical ideas so they just become part of the mix, and we are made passive, mumbling to ourselves – in line with 12-Step Programme treatment – ‘it is what it is’. This is what it is, but it is more. There is a great moment where the White House chief of staff tells a Trumpite crowd that they are the workers, and they need the rich elite, and together, rich and poor need to unite against ‘them’ (and he gestures to the left, a move that works until one of the crowd does look up, and sees the comet heading for them).

Satire

Satire cuts into what it shows us, makes us think. It is not balanced or nuanced, and, as we had to learn when we were subjected to ‘satire’ on the BBC that was mainly directed against Jeremy Corbyn before the pandemic, it cuts all ways. Yes, this is sickening, but a divisive reaction – let us say, dialectically, that one divides into two – and is no bad thing. This film opens up a debate, and if we look at which way the debate about the film goes we also learn something.

The Lib Dem / Labour Right broadsheet The Guardian hated the film and bizarrely devoted three articles to attacking it, accusing it of not really dealing with the climate crisis that is hinted at. The ‘Below The Line’ (BTL) comments on one of the most spiteful reviews (by the usually liberal serial plot-spoiler Peter Bradshaw) were headed by one picked out by the Guardian editorial team, one that was also negative. Rolling Stone accused it of being ‘a righteous two-hour lecture masquerading as a satire’, while the Wall Street Journal said it ‘might have been great fun if it had been executed with some respect for our intelligence, and for the power of sharpshooting satire, rather than glib nihilism’, the Globe and Mail called it ‘a messy, smarmy assault’ and the Hollywood Reporter claimed that it was ‘a cynical, insufferably smug satire’. Most of the BTL comments on the Guardian website were positive though, bewildered by the negative response of their newspaper.

Why would the liberals hate this film if it is merely a liberal soothing postmodern pastiche designed to put us to sleep? Perhaps they hate it because woven into the attempt by scientists – even, mockingly from ‘Michigan State’ as a lower-tier college – to alert us to what is happening above us (and around us) there is critique of corporate and governmental greed.

Jennifer Lawrence, Leonardo DiCaprio and Timothée Chalamet (Source: Netflix)

Some friends responded online by pointing out that the bad president dies and that the Trumpites in the film are stupid. This is in line with ideology, not cutting against it, and, yes, that is true, as is the point that this is concerned only with the reactions of the US. A Mexican comrade argued that this is reproducing pernicious representations of the world in which other nations – China and Russia are barely mentioned in the film – are sidelined. This is, we might say ‘white first-world satire’. Not only that, the science was ‘wrong’; the algorithms used by the BASH corporation could not work, and the very idea that sending missiles up to stop the comet is absurd.

But satire of this kind does not directly represent the reality it is focused on. We cannot measure what it says about the world against what we really know. That is beside the point. Yes, actually, we know well that sending up missiles will not blow up a comet heading to earth, but that is exactly what the US government plans to do in cases like this, and this is precisely why it cannot deal with global ecological destruction that comes from ‘within’ – within the capitalist system – rather than from the stars.

I’m not saying that you should love this film, just that you should see it. You may hate it as much as climate change, and that may spur you into more action. Fine. You might object that it sanitises what is happening, but whether you like it or despise it, this film reminds you that the planet is burning, that you need not only look up. You need to look around at this world, at what is happening now, and use the spaces of satire to think, energise yourself and do something about it.


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Ian Parker is a Manchester-based psychoanalyist and a member of Anti*Capitalist Resistance.


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