The terrific thing about online mediums is the diversity of their storytelling potential.
We can say or construct whatever we want and be sure of finding an audience. It’s pure narrative freedom.
The downside is that no one’s really listening.
That’s the tragic beauty of a comedic discourse like Don’t Look Up, with its star-studded cast of awarded actors and personalities. Set in an only marginally outlandish version of our present, the Netflix original film imagines an impending comet headed straight for Earth.
But, unlike the usual filmic treatment we get from sloppy science fiction action films, such as Armageddon (1998) or Moonfall (2022), this film focuses on the inability of anyone in authority to react or even agree to a set course of action. There’s even a segment of Don’t Look Up that parodies these action flicks, as a big-budget director gets set to turn the disaster into a ‘popcorn flick’.
Instead, we get roughly two hours of Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence screaming at people to take notice. At the same time, Merryl Streep and Jonah Hill shrug the issue aside until it fits within their agenda.
The film doesn’t go out to highlight the dramatic change of character or feature a last-minute reprieve. Characters remain consistently flawed in their inability to recognise their limitations or consider anything outside of their limited agendas.
As such, it’s the perfect reflection of the ongoing climate change and COVID debates, in which everyone chooses to post their own version of the truth — only faster and more spectacular. The end has finally arrived, and we can’t put it off for another generation, yet we still try to forget. The truth is coloured to reflect what makes us happy or what we want to believe, as seen in DiCaprio’s interview on The Daily Rip, the fictional news show where he is asked to give his ‘planet discovery’ story a positive spin. No matter how loud he gets, though, his serious message of doom must reflect the show’s light entertainment value, its easily digestible content and witty reprieve. The value of his story is constantly weighed against Ariana Grande’s more emotional and easily understood relationship, against which it is deemed ‘meh’. It doesn’t matter that the comet will kill us all — the story itself isn’t gripping or relatable.
The comet’s imminent descent to Earth is only really looked into properly when ‘the President’, who glibly announces her intentions on behalf of the entire world (a comment on American idealism), is at risk of losing the mid-terms. A rocket is finally launched with a pilot chosen to create a meta-narrative of heroism which is entirely unjustified, given that the mission could be flown unmanned.
Even here, the comet’s existence is still considered unimportant — until it is discovered to be an object of considerable mineral wealth. At this point, a new meta-narrative is constructed against those that wish to act ‘prematurely’ in blowing the comet off course, instead of relying on completely untested and far risker methods to break the comet up into mineable materials.
Mark Rylance’s portrayal of the utterly self-absorbed tech genius, somewhere between Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Jeffrey Bezos, also shines a light on the current state of scientific discourse. The billionaire tech genius can completely circumnavigate the peer-reviewed, independently accessed scientific process, continually reinforcing his own bias until he can’t be wrong because he’s bought his scientific staff. Everyone wants to be on the side of the rich guy with the fancy pyrotechnics who can tell a compelling story — whether it’s true or not is beside the point. He believes in his enormous self-importance and ‘godlike’ mission, and everyone else thinks enough to follow his path to fund the trail of riches beyond belief.
Mark Rylance’s plan ultimately fails, however, and, as the intermittently cut scenes of nature and human life suggest, all that ever was is and will be on Earth is lost. All that is left is a rather disappointing heap of ‘junk’ that circles the planet, having been thrown into the stratosphere to orbit Earth forever. Ironically, our waste lives on beyond us, the phones and material possessions that distracted us from reacting to the comet in the first place.
Few of the redeemable characters are immune to the suction power of wealth and fame. DiCaprio is seduced into the constructed meta-narrative that the media created around him as the sexy, officially sanctioned scientist who provides comfort while the press, and the American government, continue to spin the comet narrative into their agendas.
Don’t Look Up is one of the most depressing films I’ve seen recently because it refuses any silver lining, save that we can at least enjoy the company of friends, family and shared interests (like freshly ground coffee beans). The forces of humanity are almost as unmovable as physics. To get seven billion people to act on anyone course of events is impossible. You can only die trying, screaming at people unable to listen.
The problem is primarily one I’ve touched on previously in Unscientific Foundations — wherever we can construct reality and choose whatever we to believe, reality itself suffers. Imagination is a powerful tool, and I wouldn’t suggest we abandon it, but to live in a world where we consider economic ‘truth’ more critical than certain doom is more than worrying. It shows that, like the characters of Don’t Look Up, we are entirely unable to react appropriately.
I wouldn’t argue that this is particularly endemic of our own time — meta-narrative, the construction of different ‘truths’ to serve some end or other, has always been a part of our history. Whether the reality of church, state or companies, we have always been under the yoke of some truth coloured by personal agenda.
The trouble is we’re just so much better at it now. A largely content middle-class of blue-collar workers who enjoy the comfort of unparalleled human wealth and access to information technologies can be led to lend their voices to any issue the media chalks up as important.
So Don’t Look Up is nothing new, nothing that Aldous Huxley, Fredrick Jameson, C. M. Kornbluth, Harlan Ellison, James Tiptree Jr., Phillip K. Dick or indeed any science fiction writer of the 1960s or 1970s couldn’t have written. The devices look a little different, the madcap inventor/billionaire more a stereotype of a recent trend in tech innovators, but it’s all there. Go pick up any book, and you’ll find it.
Despite following the rule that television and film usually are 50 years behind the literature, Don’t Look Up is good. In some ways, it feels like an extended episode of Black Mirror, and I don’t doubt that this show has helped propel political discourse in science fiction films recently. As a Netflix release, it doesn’t need to pander to audiences to get a watch or end with the usual message of hope. It avoids the standard narrative by being doom and gloom from start to finish.
So, where does that leave us? Battling as always against a tidal wave, we can’t defeat because the tidal wave doesn’t recognise anything but itself.
Still, we might as well try — it’s all we can do, right?
On second thoughts, I might need that Xanax.