Don't Look Up
If you’re a Netflix subscriber, you’ll be able to watch a movie that’s been the topic of some discussion in science circles. That is Don’t Look Up - a satirical look at science communication. The movie’s been out for a little while now, so I feel justified in discussing the plot - so SPOILER ALERT!
In Don’t Look Up, a pair of US astronomers, played by Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio, discover that a comet, at least 5km wide, is on a collision path with Earth, and there’s just 6 months until impact. Such an impact would cause a planet-wide extinction event.
They present their findings to the president of the US, played by Meryl Streep - seemingly a female version of Donald Trump (even going so far as to show her son as Chief of Staff in a nepotistic hire). The president is a former reality TV star and anti-intellectual.
The president is apathetic about it and more concerned about image and approval ratings. The astronomers then leak the news to a talk show, complete with plastic, vapid hosts who don’t take the threat seriously. Lawrence’s character loses composure and rants about the danger, prompting mockery of her online (which I felt completely reflected reality).
Rocked by a sex scandal and afraid of the political fallout, the president then backs a project to attempt to alter the comet’s course by striking it with nukes. It’s then proposed that the comet potentially contains valuable rare-earth elements, so a billionaire CEO of a tech company comes up with a project to splinter the comet into fragments and recover the bounty. Unsurprisingly, the mission by the tech company to fragment the comet fails, with most of its landers failing.
The political landscape divides into those who “believe the science” and those who want to deny it, with some casting doubts on whether the comet actually exists. Lawrence’s character goes to visit her parents, where she’s not welcome. My favourite line from the movie is where one of her parents says “We’re for the jobs that the comet will provide”.
Eventually the comet is so close that people can see its reality by just looking up into the night sky (though I'm sceptical that most US cities have low enough light pollution to make this possible). But those opposing the science are wearing MAGA-esque hats with the slogan “Don’t Look Up” across them. This has obviously echoes of the COVID pandemic, and of climate change.
Unsurprisingly, with the failure of the mission by the tech company, the comet then inevitably collides with Earth, with catastrophic consequences. But the elites (including the president) have managed to escape Earth on a spaceship, cryogenically frozen, then revived 22,000 years into the future on a habitable Earth-like planet. The ending is amusing, so I’ll leave that for you to see (it's after the credits).
The movie is really about climate change, and our lack of action on it, and how the rich and privileged will be able to be shielded from its worst consequences. Indeed, with allusion to Elon Musk, there’s the obvious expectation that we can just find a replacement planet to inhabit.
Professor Brian Cox did an interview video that discusses the movie. Interestingly, he seems to have missed the point a bit, and focused on how accurate the science is around comets (or asteroids) and their potential to crash into our planet and cause a catastrophe, completely ignoring climate change. To be fair to Cox, perhaps he was asked to comment on the accuracy of the science behind the movie, so perhaps the climate change aspects of it were out of scope.
Ultimately the movie is a piece of fairly heavy-handed satire that fans of science will probably appreciate for its depressing reflections of the reality of our world, but probably won’t play well with the end of the demographic that denies the reality of our collective predicament.