Screen Time

The exuberant absurdity of Don’t Look Up and Moonfall

Watching the destruction of the world we were warned was coming is a staple of American entertainment.

I’m a sucker for movies that center scientists as heroes, so I was primed to like Don’t Look Up (directed by Adam McKay, streaming on Netflix) even before it garnered four Oscar nomi­nations and a lot of buzz as a climate change parable-parody. Prickly astronomy graduate student Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) and her likable mentor Randall Mindy (Leo­nardo DiCaprio) discover a comet on a direct collision course with Earth. Scientific consensus quickly emerges: extinction is guaranteed. Faced with this incontrovertible truth, the powers that be—represented by US president Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep channeling a populist-authoritarian energy), the mainstream media, and overconfident tech billionaire Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance)—oscillate between downplaying the threat, denying it, and trying to figure out how to profit from it.

Ordinary people, who we hear a lot about but never really hear from, are left with no lodestars to guide them. At best, those who want to understand the truth are told to sit tight and trust the experts to execute a harebrained scheme that no one in the mainstream scientific community endorses. At worst, they are whipped into a frenzy of comet-denying populism chanting the movie’s title as a slogan. It is not until the comet actually appears in the sky, visible to the human eye, that everyone does in fact look up.

The parallel with our own reality is stark: we know the time to act to avert the worst outcomes of climate disaster is running dangerously short, but we lack the collective will to face this truth. We are being misled by powerful people for their own short-term profits, and we are too distracted by our social media entertainment bubbles to demand change. The movie is at its best—and its funniest—when it parodies just how quickly media, tech, and political maneuvering converge to distort the truth for profit and power. Even Dr. Mindy is sucked into the media-profit machine, shilling for an idea he knows is utterly bogus. In the end, though, the voices of scientific truth gather for the only real human ritual in the movie—a shared meal at the end of the world that becomes a kind of requiem for truth spoken and ignored.