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Film Review: Don’t Look Up – An Allegory for the Climate Crisis

Photo by Justin W on Unsplash

19th January 2022

Film Overview

There has been a desperate lack of cli-fi films over the last two decades. This is surprising given that the climate crisis will affect every aspect of our lives, and there are no shortage of storyline opportunities. Fortunately, one of my favourite directors, Adam McKay, decided to make the film Don’t Look Up, which is an allegory for the climate crisis.

While a casual viewer may not make the link to climate change, it is indeed a cli-fi film as McKay has explained in numerous interviews. The film is also interlaced with countless trials and tribulations that climate scientists and the climate movement have faced for decades. In this review, I’ll give an overview of the movie, before exploring the climate allegory behind the film. Please note that this review will feature spoilers.

Who’s in Don’t Look Up?

Some members of the all-star cast include:

  • Leonardo DiCaprio – Dr. Randall Mindy
  • Jennifer Lawrence – Kate Dibiasky
  • Meryl Streep – President Orlean
  • Jonah Hill – Jason Orlean
  • Mark Rylance – Peter Isherwell
  • Cate Blanchett – Brie Evantee
  • Rob Morgan – Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe
  • Tyler Perry – Jack Bremmer
  • Timothée Chalamet – Yule
  • Ron Perlman – Benedict Drask
  • Ariana Grande – Riley Bina
  • Kid Cudi – DJ Chello

Who wrote and directed Don’t Look Up?

Adam McKay wrote the screenplay and directed Don’t Look Up. David Sirota was also a story writer.

What is Don’t Look Up about?

The film begins with PhD astronomy candidate, Kate Dibiasky, discovering an unknown comet. As such the comet is named after her. She shares her finding with Dr. Randall Mindy, and he calculates the speed and trajectory of the comet. They discover that the comet is headed towards earth and will make a direct hit in six months. The comet is large enough to cause an extinction-level event, wiping out life on earth. The scientists share their findings with NASA, and eventually present them to the President of the United States.

The President says she wants some Ivy League universities to confirm the findings, and in the meantime they’ll “sit tight and assess” the situation. The findings are eventually corroborated. So a plan is put in place to destroy the comet before impact. However, Peter Isherwell, a tech company billionaire (and villain) has discovered that the comet contains rare earth minerals worth a fortune. As a result, the attempt to blow up the comet is aborted. So begins his plan to instead extract the mineral wealth and bring the comet down in pieces, so as to bring wealth and prosperity to earth – or so he claims. Meanwhile Dibiasky and Mindy have started doing media interviews to warn the world of the peril they’re in. However, the media are more interested in sensationalism and celebrity stories and attempt to give the comet a humorous angle. This results in Dibiasky storming off a TV interview in anger in one of their first attempts to inform the world about the impending disaster.

Mindy and Dibiasky are reprimanded, questioned by the FBI, locked in a room by the President’s team and more. There is a Trumpian throwback where the President gets the crowd chanting “Don’t Look Up!” reminiscent of the Trump crowds shouting “Lock her up!” and “Stop the count!”. The scientists are never able to communicate the crisis in a way that inspires the people to take action and demand their politicians act. As such, the apocalyptic ending sees humanity wiped out (or almost wiped out, watch until after the credits roll) because of greed, misplaced trust in dubious politicians and refusal to hold the media accountable for their lack of credible journalism.

What is Don’t Look Up really about?

Unlike Armageddon (1998), Don’t Look Up contains a hidden meaning about global warming. In an interview with the Guardian, Director and Screenwriter Adam McKay explained that the film is an allegory for the climate crisis. Asked if there was an event that inspired the film idea in his Guardian interview, he said, “The IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] panel and a bunch of other studies came out that just were so stark and so terrifying that I realised: “I have to do something addressing this.”

McKay went on to write around five premises for movies, searching for the one that fit best. One day he had a conversation with David Sirota, “And he offhandedly said something to the effect of: “It’s like the comet’s coming and no one cares.” And I thought: “Oh. I think that’s it.””

Is Don’t Look Up a comedy?

Yes. It’s a satirical look at our farcical response to the climate crisis. But more importantly it also holds a mirror up to society, our values and where our focus lies (including our fixation on technology, and the Silicon Valley elite who think more about dollar signs than social wellbeing).

Is Don’t Look Up based on a true story?

There is no comet currently heading towards earth, so in that sense, we’re not about to get wiped out by an impact. However, the story is an allegory for the climate crisis. If you substitute the comet for climate science, you begin to get an idea of the size of the boulder climate scientists have been pushing up a seemingly endless slippery slope. In a thread posted on Twitter, one historian believes that if you compare the premise of the film with climate change, we’re at the point near the end of the movie where the comet becomes visible to the naked eye.

Is there a link between Don’t Look Up and the COVID-19 pandemic?

The film features people who refuse to believe that a comet is heading towards earth, despite the science. During the COVID-19 pandemic, some people denied that COVID-19 was real, and others downplayed its severity, despite the rising death toll. So in that sense, there is a link between Don’t Look Up and the pandemic, as this article in Forbes explains.

What has the reaction been to the movie?

It’s fair to say there has been a mixed reaction to Don’t Look Up. Many critics have slammed the movie, including people from the media (who are rightly held accountable in the movie). At the time of writing this post, the ratings for Don’t Look Up are:

  • IMDB – 7.3/10
  • Rotten Tomatoes – 55%
  • Metacritic – 49%

One reason why Don’t Look Up has these reviews could be that the satire didn’t hit the mark with some viewers. It could also be that some people have watched the movie and thought of it simply as a well-cast satirical apocalypse movie, without seeing the climate symbolism.

However, when you look at people who’ve been involved in the climate movement, the feelings they have for the movie are overwhelmingly positive. There are countless climate scientists who’ve spoken well about the film on social media. Dr James Hansen has given his thoughts on the movie and the climate crisis, in one of his December 2021 communications. Climate scientist, Peter Kalmus, has spoken about the power of the movie in his Guardian opinion piece. Four climate experts also gave their thumbs-up verdict in a separate Guardian piece. Meanwhile George Monbiot has spoken very openly and honestly about how Don’t Look Up made him see decades of his campaigning portrayed through the movie. 

I’ve also been involved in the climate movement for over a decade now. Ten years ago, I graduated from one of the first universities in Europe (if not the world) to offer an undergraduate degree in Climate Change. I’ve since worked in the energy efficiency industry, the offshore wind industry, and am now writing books about the climate crisis and environmental issues. I believe Don’t Look Up captures the absurdity of the world in this moment. It’s a snapshot of neoliberalism, celebrity adoration, the declining standards within the media, the ability to ‘buy’ politicians and influence policy, and humanity’s deep unwillingness to engage with a threat they don’t understand (because of the aforementioned reasons). Watching Don’t Look Up is like looking in the climate mirror and seeing our fears reflected back at us. In fact, it’s like seeing the whole gamut of our emotions reflected back at us. If only more people understood, maybe just maybe, we wouldn’t be in the dire predicament we’re in.

Is Don’t Look Up available to stream on Netflix?

Yes, the film landed on Netflix on the 24th December 2021. It can be watched here.

What have the viewing figures been like?

Don’t Look Up has become a record-breaking film. In early January 2022, it was announced that Don’t Look Up smashed the Netflix record for most weekly views, with over 152 million streaming hours.

What was the budget for the film?

There appear to be varying reports on the budget. Several sources quote $75m. Meanwhile Forbes puts the value higher at $110m.

Don’t Look Up and the Climate Crisis

As mentioned, Adam McKay intended Don’t Look Up to be an allegory for the climate crisis. There is much we can compare and dissect in this sense. But first it’s important to provide some context about the climate crisis in film, and why stories can help bridge the communication chasm.

Cli-fi in film

Cli-fi is a term that describes climate fiction. Cli-fi is a literary subgenre that derives from sci-fi, with a focus on the climate crisis. One of the best-known cli-fi films is The Day After Tomorrow (2004). This disaster epic has had to carry the climate mantle for almost two decades, given the lack of other big blockbusters. While it was entertaining, The Day After Tomorrow was scientifically inaccurate as it featured the northern hemisphere experiencing an ice age, as a result of ocean circulation disruption. Given how much heating we have in the pipeline, the world won’t experience anything like an ice age for thousands or tens of thousands of years at least. Nonetheless the film got climate change onto the big screen.

Some people have suggested that the fantastic film, The Age of Stupid (2009), by director Franny Armstrong is an example of documentary cli-fi, given that the film is set in 2055 and features both fictional and non-fictional narratives. Pete Postlethwaite is an archivist who looks back and asks why we didn’t act when we had both the knowledge and the opportunity to do so.

Snowpiercer (2013) is set in a world experiencing a deep freeze, whereby humanity is crammed on a single train. Carriages hold different classes of people, and each has different entitlements. Again the setting for this film is very inaccurate, given that the world is headed towards the opposite heat extreme.

In Cli-Fi: A Companion, Axel Goodbody and Adeline Johns-Putra have included the Disney movie Frozen (2013), as an example of fantasy cli-fi. The sub-chapter written by David Whitley, acknowledges that Frozen may not be the first thing that comes to mind when people consider films about climate change. “But it is an engaging fable,” says Whitley, “that is clearly focused on the consequences of anthropogenic – indeed drastic – change to the climate.” Nonetheless as the name implies, the film steers us towards a colder climate, whereas in reality we’re heading for a far warmer and more dangerous world.

A more likely cli-fi film contender is Geostorm (2017) starring Gerard Butler. In a previous blog post, I described the plot as being, “Based around climate change becoming so bad, that the resulting extreme weather events need to be managed by us to prevent further runaway climate change. Humanity therefore builds a satellite system called ‘Dutch Boy’, to manage and prevent extreme weather events. The satellite project is led by the Americans, and is just about to transfer into the hands of the international community, when a senior government official interferes with the functioning of the system.” The film is therefore a fable about the dangers of geo-engineering which are seen to be a last-resort option, but which are being considered seriously given our lack of climate action.

CNN also makes a case for post-apocalyptic film Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) and Disney’s WALL-E (2008) to be included as cli-fi films.

Looking back through these films, it’s fair to say there hasn’t exactly been an abundance of cli-fi films. And out of those listed, none really encompass the situation we’re in, apart from Don’t Look Up, which ironically doesn’t talk about climate change, but is instead an allegorical warning.

Stories that can change the world

In The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, Jonathan Gottschall writes that, “In recent decades, roughly corresponding with the rise of TV, psychology has begun a serious study of story’s effects on the human mind. Research results have been consistent and robust: fiction does mold our minds. Story – whether delivered through films, books, or video games – teaches us facts about the world; influences our moral logic; and marks us with fears, hopes, and anxieties that alter our behaviour, perhaps even our personalities.”

This would therefore suggest that stories in all their formats have the potential to educate and engage a wider audience about the climate emergency. In theory, this could then lead to global concerted climate action. The role of cli-fi therefore can’t be overstated. If you’d like to explore this topic further, I’ve written a comprehensive overview of the power of storytelling for Mongabay, entitled, ‘Can a new wave of climate fiction inspire climate action?

The climate mirror – what Don’t Look Up gets right about the climate crisis

Many commentators and climate experts have written extensively about what the film got right (see the Guardian articles above). I’d also like to offer a few of my own thoughts on the subject.

  • The failure of the media – In a video for Double Down News, George Monbiot has said that the media are just as culpable for the climate crisis, as the fossil fuel companies. Rolling Stone put Rupert Murdoch at the top of their list of people blocking action on climate change. By denying, downplaying or simply ignoring the climate emergency, the media have failed to communicate the seriousness of our situation, and the steadily diminishing timeframe we have for meaningful action. In Don’t Look Up, the media also failed to communicate the urgency of the comet strike, instead focusing on more sensationalist stories.
  • Media distraction – sometimes it feels like our media gives a platform to those who shout the loudest or those who have controversial views. This no doubt helped spur the rise of people like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson to name a few. Celebrity stories also often take precedence over actual news. Tabloids are particularly at fault here, but other media outlets are also in the wrong. In Don’t Look Up, there was a focus on two celebrities in a tumultuous relationship. This story superseded the interviews with the scientists about the impending comet strike.
  • Climate science communication issues – On the 23rd June 1988, Dr James Hansen gave his testimony to the US Senate that global warming was happening now and that humans were to blame. Since then we’ve had countless scientific papers and 26 COP climate summits, and have failed to take the actions required to prevent dangerous climate change. We’ve therefore seen an issue between what scientists understand, and the information that has reached the public. There are a plethora of issues for this, including scientific reticence, media failures, and the influence of lobbyists and denialists. However, a major issue has also been the complexity of the science and how to adequately explain it. As such, climate scientists who aren’t necessarily media trained or who may not always wish to be media personalities may have been strong-armed into these roles. In Don’t Look Up, both Mindy and Dibiasky try getting the information out to the public, but it never really gets through or connects in the way the crisis demands it too. At one point Mindy is told to keep it light and avoid talking about maths, to which he replies that it’s all about maths. Such is the challenge of communicating threats in a manner that the public can absorb, yet which remains scientifically accurate.
  • Politicians refusing to heed scientific warnings – The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has come under scrutiny, because it relies on every country to approve the wording put forward by climate scientists. If for example you happen to be a state that is very reliant on oil and gas, you may want to water down wording to make the crisis seem less bad. That’s exactly what has happened for many years. However, 2021 marked a shift with a very sternly worded IPCC report confirming that humans are to blame and that warming has been unprecedented in thousands of years. Despite that report, COP26 didn’t generate the actions required to address the emergency. In Don’t Look Up, despite a NASA colleague accompanying the scientists (and later confirmation from Ivy League universities), the President says they should “sit tight and assess” the situation. This largely stems from the fact that it wasn’t a good time politically to start addressing the problem for President Orlean (even though they only had a 6 month time period for action). However, President Orlean is keen to assure the scientists she hears them and understands – such is the gulf between empty words and actions.
  • “Sit tight and assess” – This phrase is very noteworthy from the film. We’ve been aware of the climate crisis for over three decades and successive governments have passed the buck down the road. But we’re now urgently running out of road. We can’t be talking about targets for 2050, when the time for action has to be now. The same applied in the film, which had an even shorter timeframe of six months to avoid disaster.
  • Corporate influence on politics – It’s been well-documented how fossil fuel companies and lobbyists have influenced politics. Election campaigns are often funded by these corporate giants, in return for favourable policies. In Don’t Look Up, tech billionaire Peter Isherwell, provides a dramatized version of this reality.
  • Conspiracy theories and denial – For many years, many people denied the science. These people were often in positions of power. This was compounded further by lobbyists and think tanks, who muddied the waters further for their corporate donors. Alongside this, conspiracy theories abounded. So climate scientists who already faced the gauntlet of conveying complex science, now needed to debunk the lies put out by denialists and conspiracy theorists. In Don’t Look Up, people begin muddying the water by questioning whether there really is a comet, and some suggested that it will simply be yet another ‘near-miss’ despite the science showing it will collide with the earth.
  • Censoring science – Mark Bowen’s book Censoring Science is about how the Bush administration tried to censor Dr James Hansen’s climate research, by watering down the language he used and his findings, before they were available to the public. In the film, the scientists are told not to go public, and at one point Dibiasky is made to sign an agreement by officials, as her outbursts are leading to riots.
  • Climate anxiety – Given that we’ve failed to take meaningful action on the climate crisis for over 34 years, many people are beginning to question whether we’ll avert tipping points that results in a hostile climate that brings about the end of civilisation as we know it (something Sir David Attenborough has touched on). When we understand this, people begin fearing for their future. For their family’s future. For their friends’ future. Many people are now making the decision not to have children, given the future we’re heading towards. These kinds of questions are not those that anyone should ever have to consider. But they are some of the most important questions our generation faces. In Don’t Look Up, the scientists are understandably distressed by the danger earth faces and the complete lack of interest either the media or the politicians seem to show in trying to prevent disaster.
  • Polarised politics – It feels like people are moving further to one side of the political spectrum or another, with fewer seeking compromises in the middle. In the US, the rise of Donald Trump and the politics he represented has many people rightly concerned. The movie featured something similar with President Orlean and her son Jason Orlean. At one point, President Orlean is even leading the crowd chant of “Don’t Look Up!” As if pretending that by not looking up, that the comet actually doesn’t exist – while knowing full well that it does.
  • Family and friend divisions – As a result of the polarising politics, some family members have found themselves at opposite ends of the spectrum. One may wish to acknowledge the climate crisis, and the other may peddle out the lies that have led us down this dark road. These entrenched positions show no sign of easing, creating lingering tensions and arguments by people who should be caring about and helping each other. In Don’t Look Up, Dibiasky goes home to her parents who refuse to open the door at first as they don’t want politics in their home, as they’re for the jobs that the comet will provide…
  • Business as usual – While more people may be more aware of climate change than ever before, the vast majority of the population are still carrying on like there is no crisis. Ultimately it’s our actions not our words which will determine if we address the climate crisis. Similarly in the film, apart from the scientists trying to raise the alarm, the majority of the population continue as if there is no imminent threat of disaster.
  • Concerts for change – We had Live Earth in 2007, and have had other climate concerts since. While these are great for creating public awareness, one begins to wonder how effective they really at bringing about action. In the film, a concert is held to raise awareness about the comet, at which both Dibiasky and Mindy speak. But it fails to generate any social or political action to prevent disaster from occurring.
  • Billionaires and their departure from earth (both morally and physically) – Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and Elon Musk are examples of billionaires who have their sights set on space. The latter of which even wants to visit Mars. Meanwhile earth continues to burn. Perhaps instead of trying to escape to another planet, billionaires would do well to pay their fair share of taxes, so that we can fix problems on earth? After all it was recently revealed in a report by Oxfam that:
    • The 10 wealthiest men have as much wealth as the poorest 3.1 billion people.
    • 20 of the wealthiest billionaires emit 8,000 times more carbon, than the poorest 1 billion people
    • “A 99% windfall tax on the COVID-19 wealth gains of the 10 richest men could pay to make enough vaccines for the entire world and fill financing gaps in climate measures, universal health and social protection, and efforts to address gender-based violence in over 80 countries, while still leaving these men $8bn better off than they were before the pandemic.”

In the film, the billionaire tech mogul Peter Isherwell, leads the escape from Earth just before the comet hits. They head to a new planet to establish a new colony, after first trying to profit from the comet, then failing in that mission which results in the entire world being destroyed.

A call for more cli-fi films and stories

We know that stories can reach people in ways that facts can’t. Yet the cli-fi cannon is fairly empty, with total works measureable in their hundreds. We therefore urgently need more cli-fi films, more cli-fi novels, more cli-fi theatre productions, more cli-fi games and more cli-fi poetry. The more mediums we disseminate this information through, the better. While Don’t Look Up was apocalyptic in nature, it was written as a satire which helped lighten the dark subject matter. We also need positive storylines grounded in the present, which feature solutions. I have covered these topics in previous articles (which have links to research papers) and I’ll include those articles here for further reading:

  1. My article on Mongabay includes research behind the power of stories and shows what cli-fi could do – Can a new wave of climate fiction inspire climate action?
  2. My article on The Bookseller calls more positive cli-fi to complement the existing dystopian cannon – We need more positive cli-fi
  3. My article on The Writing Cooperative provides tips for writing cli-fi, and in particular, how to write for the growing new wave of non-dystopian cli-fi – Changing the World Through Stories: 7 Tips for Writing Cli-Fi

As Peter Kalmus says in his Guardian piece, “More and better facts will not catalyze this sociocultural tipping point, but more and better stories might.” It’s time that storytellers embrace cli-fi. It’s time that we use our skills to engage, educate and inspire change. It’s time that we write to save our future. Because at the end of the day, what else really matters?

My new cli-fi children’s picture book is Nanook and the Melting Arctic. Nanook is a caring polar bear who lives in the Arctic. But when his igloo starts melting, Nanook must find a way to save his friends and his home. He knows that the people who can help are also those who’ve caused the problem and he must find a way to convince leaders to act on the climate crisis. You can purchase Nanook from Amazon’s global stores including Amazon UK and Amazon US.

Published inCli-FiFilm ReviewsThe Climate Crisis