‘Don’t Look Up’ Doesn’t Land
Adam McKay gets the media, politics, and the effect of climate change wrong.
Don’t Look Up, Adam McKay’s dark comedy released on Netflix just before Christmas, has gotten an enormous amount of attention, despite the fact most film critics tend to agree it doesn’t hold together too well artistically, even as some welcome it for its propagandistic value.
As you’d expect from the creator of Step Brothers and Talladega Nights, nothing about the film is subtle. A giant comet is barreling toward Earth, and both the media and Washington are incapable of taking the threat seriously. McKay and the story co-creator, David Sirota, have been very clear about what they’re up to. “Clearly,” McKay tells GQ, the movie is an “analogy or an allegory for the climate crisis.”
After the Netflix release, McKay took to Twitter: “Loving all the heated debate about our movie. But if you don’t have at least a small ember of anxiety about the climate collapsing (or the US teetering) I’m not sure Don’t Look Up makes any sense. It’s like a robot viewing a love story. ‘WHy ArE thEir FacEs so cLoSe ToGether?’ ”
That tweet is probably funnier than any line in the movie. But it’s also ironic, given that the reason the film fails as political satire is that McKay is more like that robot than he realizes. There are three flaws to this allegory. He gets the media, politics and the effect of climate change wrong.
McKay told NPR that he joined with Sirota to write the movie because, “We’re both incredibly frustrated with the lack of coverage of the climate crisis. You know, it’s usually the fourth or fifth story. It’s never the right tone, which should be much more urgent.”
Really? Where do these guys get their news? Many news outlets have full-time reporters dedicated to climate change. Just last year ABC News and CNN created full-time climate change news teams. The Washington Post and the New York Times were already there. In April, Time magazine ran another of many cover stories on climate change showing a burning map of the world under the headline, “Climate Is Everything.” In 1989, Time skipped Person of the Year and made “Endangered Earth” the “Planet of the Year.”
In McKay’s movie, what is supposed to be the New York Times drops its coverage of the planet-killing comet story when it fails to get good web traffic. Do I really need to be the one to defend the New York Times from this idiotic insinuation?
Like a robot watching the news, McKay watches the near-daily coverage of climate change and says, “wHeRE IS tHE cLImATE HySTeria!?!”
Then there’s politics. Meryl Streep’s entertaining take on a female President Trump scores some points, but Trump isn’t president. Joe Biden is, and he calls climate change an “existential threat” all the time. And he’s not alone. Sirota wrote speeches for Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2020, and his old boss routinely said that kind of thing, too — as did virtually all the Democratic presidential nominees. And it’s not just rhetoric; we’re spending vast sums of money and reorganizing the missions of many government agencies to deal with the existential threat of climate change.
But here’s the funny thing: Climate change is not an “existential threat” like a planet-killing comet, which let’s just admit would make for great TV. Not even according to the United Nations’ International Panel on Climate Change, whose worst-case scenarios, as terrible as some are, manifest themselves over a century and would not end all life here.
McKay & Co. are free to disagree about the aptness of their analogy. In the movie, the only way to stop the comet is to push it off course by aiming nuclear weapons at it. Some argue that in real life, the only way to reduce carbon emissions is to use nuclear power. Sanders and many of his Democratic colleagues oppose that — which is odd if you actually believe we have no time to waste to save the planet.
Finally, it’s worth asking: Is McKay helping? Unlike an incoming comet, climate change requires sustained and sustainable intergenerational consensus. Chastising people who agree with him because they fall short of his peak hysteria and demonizing everyone else seem like exactly the kind of self-indulgence that’s made for satire.