Activism as Satire

Christmas movies have changed drastically over the past decades. From classics with a distinct Dickensian vibe, through the ’80s when Die Hard made bloodbaths and cursing appropriate entertainment to celebrate the birth of our Saviour, the ’90s when Home Alone put family feelings at the forefront, to an ultimately never ending slew of mostly forgettable Rom-Coms in the vein of the unbearable Love Actually.

In our woke age the ‘holiday season’ has replaced ‘Christmas,’ and we are invited to consider how virtuous we are for feeling guilty about the achievements of our forefathers. Meet Don’t Look Up, a sledgehammer ‘satire’ of modern society and a vaguely camouflaged call to climate action, produced by Netflix and starring, among others, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Jonah Hill and Cate Blanchett. Director Adam McKay, who rose to fame with Anchorman and The Big Short has returned to the latter’s proven formula of tackling a political topic and impressing the audience into submission with a cast of Hollywood A-listers.

The story starts as a call-back to ’90s disaster movies. Two astronomers, Kate Dibiasky (Lawrence) and Randall Mindy (DiCaprio) discover a comet heading straight for Earth, entailing a catastrophic event that would eradicate all life on earth. After their discovery, the two astronomers get the obligatory ‘you have to tell the president’ treatment. Once the protagonists arrive in Washington, they are confronted with a bureaucracy that fails to see the urgency of the problem at hand. President Orlean (Streep) and her son (Hill) keep them waiting all day long in the hallway as they deal with petty scandals. While waiting, the scientists are ripped off by a general, who charges them money for snacks that later turn out to be free. This little nugget then turns into the best running gag of the movie.

But when the two scientists are finally able to tell the president about the imminent danger, Orlean opts to ‘sit tight and assess,’ rather than act to stop the impending doom. Up to this point, the movie appears to comment on political opportunism in general, rather than pointing at a specific party. While there are clear nods towards Trump, there’s also a lot of Hillary in the president. This ambiguity keeps the movie fresh early on, but unfortunately it is abandoned as the story unfolds.

Another major character is Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance). We first meet him at a rather well-made persiflage of an Apple launch event, in which Isherwell hosts a presentation of his latest phone, messianic cult and dystopian surveillance included. He stands as the symbol of Big Tech for the rest of the movie, a blend of Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jeff Bezos. As a major financial donor of the president, Isherwell pulls the strings behind the curtains. His character, however, is reduced to a bit of socially awkward behaviour and thinly veiled threats like “our algorithms know everything about you.” But when considering how the political agendas of Hollywood and Silicon Valley align in reality, this depiction rings remarkably hollow and dishonest.

After being rejected by the president, the protagonists leak the information to the press. When the two scientists appear on a large TV show, however, they end up entangled in meaningless small-talk right away instead of talking about the issues at hand. That is until Jennifer Lawrence’s scientist character Dibiasky melts down and starts screaming on air about the coming end of the world.

What follows is obvious to anybody who understood the premise of the movie: people don’t really care about the comet; instead the screaming Dibiasky is turned into a meme, which shows how little understanding of memes Hollywood authors really have. For them, a meme is simply a badly photoshopped insult, ignoring completely the existence of the far more prevalent type of meme that makes a satirical point by exposing double standards or hypocrisy. The two scientists then return to their private lives, in which DiCaprio’s Mindy becomes an active combatant against ‘conspiracy theories’ on the internet. This is when the movie introduces the concept of ‘comet deniers.’ The ‘satire’ consists mostly of replacing ‘climate change’ with ‘comet.’ A statement such as ‘the science is settled’ with regards to the climate is equivalent to ‘look up’ when it comes to a comet. 

The scientists get arrested and are brought back to the white house, where the president reveals that the administration is now interested in dealing with the comet, which, as it turns out, is only a way to distract from a scandal including the president. Ron Perlman has an appearance as a toxic white male from a bygone era, and it becomes abundantly clear that the movie isn’t a satire on our modern world, but a presentation of what Hollywood activists imagine our world to be. The sequence ends when the launch of the rockets to destroy the comet is aborted upon Isherwells request, who instead wants to split up the comet into “manageable blocks” which can be mined and turned into profit. Capitalism bad—we get it, Netflix.

From that moment onwards, the movie drops all ambivalence. The president becomes a full-on caricature of Donald Trump, or rather a caricature of the ‘Orange-Man-Bad’ image perpetuated for more than four years by leftist media outlets. Jonah Hill especially has to work with embarrassingly juvenile script lines, addressing the audience at a political rally as “the lower class” and referring to himself as the ‘cool rich.’ The comet can now be seen in the sky and the protagonists launch a “look up” campaign which is then countered by the president’s “don’t look up” campaign (complete with references to MAGA hats).      

A truly smart satire that plays both sides of the aisle could have scored tremendously at this point. But “look up” is just meant to emphasize the ‘obvious’ nature of impending doom, which climate activists claim to be equally ‘obvious’ when it comes to a supposedly inevitable climate catastrophe. Scientifically, though, there is a world of difference between calculating the trajectory of a celestial body and (selectively) feeding a computer with data to calculate a model of how the climate might change. While the “don’t look up” people are portrayed as ‘science deniers,’ the reality of our current discourse involves climate sceptics expressing scientific doubt that not only often remains unanswered but is even excluded from the debate in favour of unscientific fear-mongering activism. If Don’t Look Up really wanted to be a satire of our modern world, it should have portrayed the scientists 50 years from now still pointing at the sky and shouting that the end is only 6 months away (but this time for real!). That would be closer to reality, now that we’re nearing the 50th anniversary of the Club of Rome’s release of “The Limits to Growth” and the mainstreaming of computer-simulated doomsday prophecies in its wake.

As the end of the film draws closer, the only active player in the global crisis is America. The rest of the world acts as a colourful background that just waits and sees how the U.S. is going to save the day. Of course, if we remember that this isn’t really about a comet, but about climate change, it is obvious why we don’t see China or Russia trying to save the world. The only appearance of these two nations, almost as if the scene was added later after somebody pointed out their glaring absence at a test screening, happens when the protagonists suddenly receive a call saying that the combined rockets of Russia, China and India have exploded at Baikonur spaceport. Given NASA’s own struggles with manned spaceflight for the past decades, this is just further proof of how supremacist these woke writers actually are in their view of the world.

In the end, the movie draws on all the clichés it can find to wrap things up. Tech leader Isherwell’s mission fails, and he and the president flee onto a spaceship, while the good guys get together for one last meal. Everybody seems relatively at ease facing certain death, which is remarkable considering the panicky behaviour the protagonists showcased prior to this scene. 

The last noteworthy scene of the movie sees Dibiasky’s new fiancé, an outcast from an Evangelical community, saying a prayer at the table, which is actually tastefully done. Given that the Evangelical community is usually not the target audience of climate activists, this seems remarkable at first. Due to his status as an outcast, however, this scene comes across as an invitation to all the ‘I believe in God, but not organised religion’ Christians to join the multiculturalist herd of woke activists. Considering how many Protestant denominations (and even the Holy See) have joined the choir of climate hysteria, this might actually be one of the more realistic assessments by the filmmakers.

The catastrophe itself becomes a pastiche: Images of the comet are intercut with stock footage of polar bears, smiling babies (those always hit the spot!), Buddha statues, whales, native American shamans dancing, etc. There’s certainly some craftsmanship there, but it’s more the manipulative kind of craftsmanship found in a Greenpeace advert. None of the characters are specifically worth caring for and I consider stock footage of babies and polar bears to be cheating when it comes to generating an emotional response. Then everybody dies in a blast of fire. 

It would have been interesting to know whether some people actually bothered to find shelter in a bunker and tried to survive the impact there. Instead we fast forward 22,000 years into the future. The spaceship has found a new habitable planet. The surviving VIPs awaken from their cryogenic sleep, land on the planet and end up being eaten by the local fauna, which seems like a rather cheap fulfilment of a fostered revenge fantasy. 

Over the course of the whole movie, there is too little fun to be had. The satire pretends to be smart, but from a certain point in the film it can only be described as crude, on-the-nose, and vengeful. Political satire isn’t just about making fun of your political enemy and promoting your own message, it is at its best when the satire transcends the limitations of partisan thinking and aims straight at the core mechanics at work. That, however, would include also looking critically at some of the protagonists and their own values. Why not have the apocalypse be postponed repeatedly? Why not have a surprise ending where somebody other than the U.S. saves the day? Instead, all the major plot points are played completely straight to drive home a point. The film might have had the ambition to become a satire to be remembered, but it fails due to a lack of imagination. The movie, sadly, is thinly veiled and barely stomachable propaganda.

David Boos is an organist, documentary filmmaker, and writer for The European Conservative and other publications.


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