Perhaps Alfred Lord Tennyson was thinking about the hubristic optimism that often precedes human tragedy when he wrote,
“Our little systems have their day;
They have their day and cease to be:
They are but broken lights of thee,
And thou, O Lord, art more than they.”
This stanza from In Memoriam A.H.H. came to mind after Netflix suggested that I watch Don’t Look Up, and because I am an obedient servant to my benevolent media streaming overlords, I pushed play. In this instance, I’m glad I did. Should you want to avoid spoilers you should stop reading now and go stream the movie.
Adam McKay’s dark comedy stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Dr. Randall Mindy and Jennifer Lawrence as PhD candidate Kate Dibiasky. When they discover that humanity’s existence is threatened by a planet killing comet, they immediately set out to warn the world, and in so doing discover that those in charge of the world, aren’t that concerned. Meryl Streep’s portrayal of a Trump-like President, President Orlean, is spot on and reflects the absurdity of an all too real partisan government that elevates self-preservation over human flourishing. As aided by her chief of staff son, Jason Orlean portrayed by Jonah Hill, Streep reminds all of us just how dangerously close we are to the precipice of destruction with unqualified leadership. Although the movie isn’t without some asteroid-sized plot holes, overall, the performances are solid, and the satire hits its mark.
Don’t Look Up reflects what happens in society when media, politics, and even religion, conspire against the darker realities that threaten our existence, while revealing our propensity to develop fundamentalisms of both the secular and sacred variety, that often embrace a toxic positivity. On the surface, the story in Don’t Look Up is a reminder that the Trump Presidency and his continued support among some, is a misplaced faith -a faith that believes political power to be the path to a better society. Conservatives, many of them evangelical, bargained that the tradeoff between a less than ideal representative, and the judges he would appoint and policies he would embrace, were worth it. It was a Devil’s bargain, as both conservatives and evangelicals are now finding it impossible to rid themselves of the Trumpian albatross hanging around their collective necks. But the critique offered by the film, is much deeper than mere political satire.
Don’t Look Up serves to challenge the stubborn human optimism that believes we can solve all the problems we create. This spunky optimism is embraced by all in the film, even the pessimistic Kate Dibiasky who reluctantly agrees to support the initial plan to disrupt the comet’s trajectory even though President Orlean insists that the mission be led by white toxic masculinity’s poster child Benedict Drask, brilliantly played by Ron Pearlman. But no other character embraces an optimistic outlook more than the eccentric Peter Isherwell, portrayed by Mark Rylance, who serves to remind us of all the giddy billionaires using the millions generated by their technological innovations to fund their dreams of space tourism. As you might have guessed, in the end this optimism fails – as a former President may have observed, it fails “Bigly”
Don’t Look Up should perhaps credit the work of Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan whose work serves as the foundation for media theory and popularized the axiom, “The medium is the message.” This is the idea that with every advancement in technology there is an erosion of communication, and that with every problem that technology seeks to solve, it eventually exacerbates the very issues it set about to reduce. For instance, most of us pick up a smart phone because we want to expand our ability to communicate, but the moment someone does attempt to call us, we are flabbergasted at the intrusion. Further our ability to engage in face-to-face communication is truncated because of our reliance on the conveniences of texting, memes, emojis and gifs. Don’t Look Up demonstrates that the very mediums that society would rely on to spread the word about the end of the world end up complicating the ability to share that message effectively. As DiCaprio’s Dr. Mindy articulates to shocked television hosts on The Daily Rip, “Not everything needs to sound so clever, or charming, or likeable all the time. Sometimes we need to just be able to say things to one another. We need to hear things.” But as the movie illustrates, in a world absent this kind of clarity, the result is tribalism, division, misinformation, and eventually chaos and anarchy. New fundamentalisms emerge as the global society decides which truths they will believe, and as Rachel Held Evans observes in Wholehearted Faith, this kind of “Fundamentalism…fails to acknowledge the dynamism of science, the fallibility of a human being, and the severe nuance deficit of social media.” Sound familiar?
Amidst the chaotic world of Don’t Look Up is one more example of where the film does an outstanding job of articulating the current zeitgeist, and that is in Timothee Chalamet’s portrayal of the closeted evangelical, Yule. In an intimate moment, Yule reveals to Kate that even though he is a twenty-something, alcohol-drinking skater, who likes to make out, he came back to God in “his own way.” And when Yule sees the planet-killing comet with his own eyes, his first thought is to pray. In the end, Yule prays at a last supper where the nonbelievers are at a loss for words as their impending demise looms. Yule prays sincerely and beautifully, asking “Father God” to “shower us with His grace, mercy and love, even though we don’t deserve it.” Yule’s private faith stands in powerful contrast to the public hypocrisy of President Orlean who prays while announcing the government’s efforts to thwart the comet, “May Jesus Christ bless every single one of you—especially the members of my own party,” or her son Jason’s prayer for “stuff” where he expresses his thankfulness for material goods that he would hate to lose should the world cease to exist. Yule’s private devotion is also contrasted against Isherwell who as a tech magnate was known as the “the guy who bought the Gutenberg Bible and lost it.” I am appreciative of the achievement of Don’t Look Up to positively portray the Christian faith while exposing those who attempt to exploit it for their own selfish ends.
Don’t Look Up is a dark satire that should clue us in that the (sad) joke is on us. As I write these words, it is nearly 80 degrees late in December, following a record number of tornado outbreaks as climate change accelerates. In addition to the challenges of climate change, the United States has surpassed 800,000 deaths as the result of a global pandemic -crises that are still widely regarded among segments of our population as overblown and were both declared (at different times) by former President Trump to be a hoax. Deaths persist from the Covid pandemic even though vaccines are available and free and ways to mitigate the spread of the virus are simple and easily applied. The unlearned lessons of Don’t Look Upare on display all around us. It is evident that despite our best efforts to destroy and save the world; our collective demise may well result from the widening and unbridgeable gap between the two.
Or in the words of R.E.M. “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”