Opinion: ‘Don’t Look Up’ isn’t far from non-fiction

By Emma Carroll-Monteil, The SRA 

The recently released satirical film ‘Don’t Look Up’ has been a sensation, and many – climate change researchers, in particular – are finding the issue it explores very relatable. There was even an article in The Guardian from a climate scientist who said the film “captures the madness that I see every single day”. 

In brief, for anyone who hasn’t heard about the film taking the internet by storm, Don’t Look Up tells the story of two scientists (Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) who discover a comet – an extinction-level “planet killer” – that will hit the Earth in just over six months. The certainty of impact is 99.7% – a statistic that in science essentially is absolute certainty. Yet, when the scientists bring this information to the US president (Meryl Streep!), billionaire tech companies, the media, and more, the researchers are effectively ignored. Or worse – the issue at hand is manipulated so that it benefits short-term political expediency, corporate greed, or media trends. 

Throughout the film we see the desperation of the scientists as they try to spur a response from the public, and we see the frustration and fear they experience, as the population remains inactive. Political groups even use denial as the framework for campaigns, such as that of the president, who use the slogan ‘Don’t look up’ – to encourage people not to look up and even see the comet about to hit them.    

Sound familiar? It is, and it’s meant to be. Director Adam McKay has made it quite clear that Don’t Look Up is about the climate crisis, the frustration of climate researchers, and the bleak future that is ahead of us if we fail to prevent further climate change. A comet hitting earth in 6 months is a particularly good allegory for climate crisis, as it parallels some of the biggest issues we find when communicating about climate change: denial, time, and the urgency of action. As someone who has researched these issues, and how we can navigate them, I was particularly impressed with the film’s ability to encapsulate these problems. My postgraduate studies primarily investigated climate change communication, including why people do not respond to the climate crisis (denial, personal values, political ideologies, etc), and it was fascinating to see these elements being explored in a popular comical film.

Denial is incredibly prevalent when it comes to disasters – partially due to ignorance, but also partially because we subconsciously are pulled to ignore things we feel we cannot control. If we feel we have no control over an issue, it’s often easier to deny that there is an issue to begin with. This worsened by when an issue feels distant, and like it is not here immediately impacting us now. Of course, with the climate crisis, we know it is here now (continuous biodiversity loss, glaciers melting, extreme weather events…), but when you compare this to other more ‘in your face’ issues, such as the pandemic, it is hard to see past the problems that require the most immediate response.

As such, there becomes a lack of urgency in addressing the situation. Issues become matters that we will “sit tight” on and “deal with later”, and spoiler for both the film and reality – we will run out of time. In Don’t Look Up, the president, for example, instead of responding immediately to the comet, she waits, and only acts on it when it helps fuel her political campaign. 

There is a lot to unpack from Don’t Look Up, as well as the responses it has gotten from critics, scientists, and the public. I would highly recommend that 1) you watch the film! And 2) look at some of the responses from climate experts themselves (such as this piece here, where they’ve highlighted what they believe are the accuracies of the film, as well as some of the weaknesses). I hope that this film might help awake more empathy from the public about what it is like for individuals involved in fighting the climate crisis, and encourage us all to reflect on how we respond to both issues and the media presents them. 

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