Don’t Look Up review: the funniest climate change movie so far

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The Netflix disaster-satire film Don’t Look Up is a thinly-veiled metaphor for humanity’s haphazard efforts to tackle climate change, told through the story of a giant comet that’s on a collision course with Earth. New Scientist podcast editor Rowan Hooper reviewed Don’t Look Up with the help of Emily Atkin, who writes the climate newsletter Heated. Listen to their conversation on this episode of the New Scientist Weekly podcast or a read a transcript of the conversation below, which has been edited for clarity.

Rowan Hooper: Emily, thanks for joining us. So let’s set up the movie. It’s the story of two astronomers, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, who discover a comet hurtling towards Earth. And it’s a really big one, bigger even than the one that killed the dinosaurs. And it’s what they call a planet killer. So what did you make of it?

Emily Atkin: I thought it was beautiful. Which I know is a really weird word to describe a satirical film about a planet killer comet, but I thought it was beautiful. I thought it was weird. And I thought it was cathartic and intelligent. And I thought it was important. I’m a climate change journalist. And everybody else sitting in the movie theatre with me wasn’t an actual movie critic, and they were also laughing as much as I was. And I’m not sure if they cried the number of times that I did, but I definitely did cry two times. I laughed a lot in it.

RH: Yeah, it’s a great satire. And unexpectedly moving actually, absolutely hilarious, especially Jonah Hill, who plays the Chief of Staff, the White House Chief of Staff.

EA: He and Meryl Streep do such a good job playing fascists. You know, they’re just so good.

RH: Meryl Streep plays the president. We’ve also got Cate Blanchett in the cast, Ariana Grande, Mark Rylance, Timothee Chalamet, an incredible cast. The premise is that the comet is flying towards Earth and astronomers have to get out there and warn the world of this imminent global threat. Meryl Streep’s this fascist US president, they have to try and convince her to take it seriously. And warn a media that’s only concerned with total showbiz gossip. So did that sound familiar in any way to you, Emily?

EA: [Laughs] Yeah, I’ve been describing this movie to everybody that I tell about it as extremely cathartic. Because it was like it took every frustration that I had about the media, in particular, for the last, you know, eight years of covering climate change, and put it in a satire movie.

RH: Also, isn’t it amazing that it’s obviously about the climate crisis. But they don’t actually mention the words climate change or climate crisis in the whole movie, do they? Or did I miss that? But I don’t think they do.

EA: They do not. And I was looking out for it the whole time. And the only the only moment that I could see a mention of something that was exactly the same as climate change was, and this won’t spoil it for anybody, but it’s when there’s protestors holding signs saying don’t look up, don’t look at the comet. There are signs protesters are holding and one of the signs says “fossil fools”.

RH: Yeah, I saw that.

EA: And so that’s a climate thing. But in the movie, the very rich politicians and tech CEOs want to mine the comet for its rare earth minerals.

RH: Yes. And so “don’t look up” refers to the slogan that these comet deniers put around, to try to literally make people not look up and ignore the threat that’s coming down, looming down on them.

EA: Impact deniers, that’s what they call them. I remember watching it and being like, that would be a good thing to actually call climate change deniers. They’re always “well, of course the climate is changing. The climate has always changed.” “Yeah, we don’t deny the climate.” What they are is impact deniers.

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RH: Yeah, yeah.

EA: They deny the impact of climate change, they deny that human-caused climate change is going to be terrible and catastrophic.

RH: I don’t know if you read this, but the movie is co-written by the director Adam McKay, with the journalist David Sirota and it kind of came about because Adam had been trying to think about a way to write about the climate crisis in a really engaging and funny way for ages. And Sirota said to him, “It’s like there’s an asteroid gonna hit Earth and no one cares!” And that’s how the idea started, they literally took that one line. It’s such an effective way to talk about the climate crisis because they don’t mention it. And it’s unexpectedly hilarious. And whenever I see scientists in movies so often do the Hollywood lazy trope of them being, you know, a balding white man in a white lab coat. This time we have Leonardo DiCaprio, who he starts off a bit nervous, doesn’t he, his character, but he finds passion and anger in the end, which is great. But then we’ve got Jennifer Lawrence’s character, she’s like Greta Thunberg might be if Greta turns out to be a scientist, you know, she’s angry. And she really sticks it to the politicians. And that’s great to see.

EA: Yeah, I mean, I’m not gonna sit there and act like I didn’t feel extremely seen by that character. There was definitely moments when I was watching it and I thought to myself, did David Sirota read my newsletter?

RH: I’m sure he does.

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EA: I think there are a lot of angry climate scientists and journalists, and a lot of angry women in the climate movement. I thought of myself. But I also thought of Greta, I thought of Amy Westervelt. And I thought of Mary Hegler and I thought of other angry climate writers who have been called alarmists, who haven’t been given the time of day and haven’t been credited for their work. You know, at one point in the movie, they even say that Leonardo DiCaprio’s character was the discoverer of the comet when it was Jennifer Lawrence’s character who discovered it. It’s literally named after her.

RH: Yeah.

EA: And so I was laughing so hard, because I was just like: this is so correct. I loved how, even though two white men wrote the movie, they definitely acknowledged that white men tend to get more credit and get listened to more taken more seriously than their female counterparts. And people of colour, you know, the character that that played the other scientist that never got any airtime, he’s a Black man, it was very true to life in that sense.

RH: Who knows if this is going to make a difference in terms of leading to emissions cuts on the scale that we need, but it does get the message out there. And that’s what we always need to do.

EA: Yeah, and I would say that what I thought the most impressive and important thing the movie did, for me was, it ended on this note that didn’t make me feel bad about myself. It didn’t make me feel like I needed to go back to work and work on the climate crisis. It didn’t make me feel like I needed to, you know, throw my whole life away to combat climate change. Really what I think the ending message of that movie was: value what’s important on the planet and in your own life, while you are alive, and that is not just the comet hurtling towards the Earth. That’s the people you love and the places you love and be motivated by the people and things that you love.

Don’t Look Up is in cinemas now and will be available globally on Netflix on 24 December.

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