Why Netflix’s ‘Don’t Look Up’ Matters – Even if the Film Itself Sucks

Director Adam McKay has made a successful climate change movie without ever mentioning the phrase once, which is a neat trick. But there are better options out there

Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan
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Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence in Netflix's "Don't Look Up."
Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence in Netflix's "Don't Look Up."Credit: Niko Tavernise/AP
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan

I’m pretty sure my twice-weekly recycling runs aren’t doing much to reduce my carbon footprint, even though they induce a look of smugness that I’m confident will eventually lead passersby to mistake me for Sting.

I’m also pretty sure that the only thing which will truly change our attitudes toward climate change is when the flames or waves arrive at our doorstep, when the gas pumps run dry and when food is scarcer than an incel at an orgy. Still, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be flooded with books, articles, podcasts, films and television shows warning us about the subject, in the hope that something might finally click and we push our leaders to address the biggest problem of our century (after Mark Zuckerberg).

It’s the reason why popular entertainment about the climate crisis matters – though there’s a horrible irony about the 2004 disaster movie “The Day After Tomorrow,” which has arguably done more than any other mainstream Hollywood film to raise awareness about global warming. It’s apparent as soon as the opening credits roll and the 20th Century Fox logo appears. Yes, the film warning about the melting icecaps was made by the company owned by Rupert Murdoch – a man whose media empire has done more than any other to promote climate change denial in recent years.

Let’s be honest, “The Day After Tomorrow” is not a good movie – and not only because it asks us to believe that Jake Gyllenhaal is a surly 17-year-old student (he was 23 at the time, six years older than co-star Emmy Rossum). But it is an important movie that made a couple of very smart choices. First, it identified the most cinematic thing about global warming and centered the story on extreme weather – or as our paleoclimatologist protagonist played by Dennis Quaid would put it, “abrupt climate shift.” Second, it set the action in iconic U.S. cities. It is no coincidence that the first thing to be destroyed is the iconic Hollywood sign, that globally revered/reviled symbol of liberal America, or that the Statue of Liberty ultimately stands tall at the end.

“For years we operated under the belief that we could continue consuming our planet’s natural resources without consequence. We were wrong.” These are not the words of Greta Thunberg but the fictional president in the film’s coda, theoretically sending the audience home with a new awareness about the inconvenient truth of our warming planet.

That was a message and approach echoed in “Geostorm,” the 2017 disaster movie whose main message is surely that if we can turn Gerard Butler into a film star, we must also be able to tackle something else as seemingly impossible as climate change.

I was thinking about those movies a lot while watching Adam McKay’s “Don’t Look Up,” which has been breaking viewing records on Netflix in recent weeks as well as creating a storm on the Twitterverse every bit as severe as any conjured up by Hollywood.

The first thing I should declare about “Don’t Look Up” is that I thought it totally sucked. The second is that anyone criticizing it is not a climate change denier, just a discerning viewer. And third, I really hope as many people as possible watch it.

This is not the war room

The opening credits should come with a warning stating, “Danger: Actors improvising after this point.” I’m struggling to think of a single movie that has been improved by an entire cast going rogue and deviating from the script. I think we need to create a list of actors who are allowed to improvise on set, because it would be a very short one (and most of them are already dead). Everyone else would have to apply to an exceptions committee.

McKay’s film, which he co-wrote with journalist David Sirota, has been compared to “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” – but I can only assume those people have never seen Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 classic.

“Strangelove” is uproarious and outrageous – ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I am now holding up an image of Peter Sellers in the title role – but its tone and pitch are perfectly calibrated, building toward one of the most memorable endings of all time.

“Don’t Look Up,” on the other hand, is one hell of a mess. It’s a very broad 90-minute satire about an extinction event padded into a 140-minute indulgence. If we have Ariane Grande, McKay seems to think, why not get her to deliver the key message in song (“Just Look Up”), even though it drains the life out of the movie? Then there are lots of tedious subplots: a love affair between Leonardo DiCaprio’s dippy Dr. Randall Minky and Cate Blanchett’s breakfast TV anchorwoman; a love affair between Jennifer Lawrence’s comet-finding Kate Dibiasky and Timothée Chalamet’s skateboarder slacker, which serve little purpose other than to sever the movie from the reality it sets up.

Indeed, it’s ironic that a film about a planet-killing comet spends so much time chasing its own tail and has no sense of jeopardy for the bulk of its running time. Even more frustrating than the silliness surrounding DiCaprio and Lawrence is the slapstick depiction of a U.S. administration that redefines the word kakistocracy (no mean feat given the last occupant of the White House).

Jonah Hill, Leonardo DiCaprio, Meryl Street and Jennifer Lawrence in Netflix's "Don't Look Up."Credit: Niko Tavernise/AP

Meryl Streep and Jonah Hill may be having fun hamming it up as the mother-son U.S. president and chief of staff, but I found their double act painful. Only slightly better is the tech giant played gamely by British acting legend Mark Rylance, who gets the only line that actually made me laugh – though you have to wait until the end credits to hear it (there’s also another end-end credits scene if you can be bothered to wait around that long).

Yet despite all its many flaws, “Don’t Look Up” delivers a brilliant finale that almost made me forgive the preceding two hours of nonsense. I won’t spoil it here, but DiCaprio’s final line is a thing of beauty.

It was the only time I agreed with the actor’s press comment that by not explicitly making the film about global warming, McKay had “cracked the code” and succeeded in getting “the message out there about the climate crisis.”

"Don't Look Up" director and co-writer Adam McKay. Credit: Michael Sohn / AP

Fire, fire, everywhere

There will be some, of course, who believe in the dictum often credited to film producer Samuel Goldwyn that if you want to send a message, use Western Union. But I’ve long waited for the day when Hollywood studios and TV giants start to produce movies and shows about the climate crisis.

Until now, we’ve mainly had to rely on documentaries to inform us about global warming – most famously Al Gore’s groundbreaking “Inconvenient Truth” films in 2006 and 2017, and the works of British environmentalist David Attenborough. That trend will continue with Bill Gates’ upcoming “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster” TV series and documentary (based on his 2021 book), but the past year has been a watershed for works of fiction tackling climate change.

As well as “Don’t Look Up,” there’s an excellent Australian drama series called “Fires,” which draws upon that country’s devastating bushfires in 2019/20 known as the Black Summer. That disaster left 33 people dead, including nine firefighters, destroyed more than 3,000 homes and killed a staggering 3 billion animals.

With a who’s who of Australian acting talent – Richard Roxburgh, Miranda Otto, Anna Torv, Sam Worthington, and I can only assume there’s an Edgerton brother in there somewhere obscured by the smoke – “Fires” is a clarion call for climate change action. It does so by focusing on personal stories of people affected by the fires: from young volunteer firefighters, in the story’s most soapy element, to those fighting for their lives and livelihoods.

This is a powerful, moving drama that shows how climate change is very much real and already impacting lives. Hopefully it will get picked up overseas, but right now it’s available by means I should not discuss in a credible newspaper.

At the other end of the scale is “The Trick,” a BBC film based on the 2009 “Climategate” scandal that many believe set the cause back a decade. Jason Watkins stars as Prof. Phil Jones, the soft-spoken head of the Climatic Research Unit in England. He and fellow scientists were accused of exaggerating the true extent of global warming following an email hack which revealed he wrote of a need to “hide the decline.”

“The Trick” is a low-key, 90-minute drama that recounts Jones’ struggles at the time, which included suicidal thoughts, and how his name was eventually cleared – despite the best efforts of a media only too happy to believe the idea that climate change wasn’t as bad as previously advertised. Or as someone put it when talking about trying to correct the false narrative, “We’re being drowned out by a sigh of relief.”

There’s something rather admirable about a film in which the completion of a jigsaw puzzle is presented as a dramatic moment. But there’s a bigger, more powerful drama still to emerge from this story: How a U.S. nonprofit, Berkeley Earth, was formed in 2010 by lukewarmers (climate change skeptics), aiming to discredit the Climatic Research Unit data. Spoiler alert: Their Big Oil-funded work only succeeded in confirming what the English researchers had warned all along.

I’m amazed that no one has made a film or series set during the early days of research into global warming in the 1970s. Big shot producers, drop me a line if you want to hear my pitch for a “Terminator”-esque thriller in which Exxon sends someone back in time to plant a bomb at the inaugural World Climate Conference in Geneva, in 1979. Working title: “Exxecute.”

I’m also surprised that no one appears to be making a drama set in 2050 depicting the reality of what happens if we don’t address the climate crisis. Then again, there’s a reason no one appears to be rushing to make a biopic of Greta Thunberg, instead leaving us with a low-budget Swedish documentary that’s been seen by a population the size of an Arctic village.

As McKay showed, we like our climate change stories served up as escapist entertainment, not crushing dramas that have us dreading the day after tomorrow.

Even so, I suspect we will be deluged with such dramas in the coming years. McKay himself has a climate change series in the works at HBO Max, inspired by David Wallace-Wells’ recent book “The Uninhabitable Earth.” Scott Z. Burns, meanwhile, who wrote “Contagion,” is working on an anthology series for Apple TV Plus called “Extrapolations.” That one will star the likes of Meryl Streep (again), Sienna Miller and Kit Harington, and will look at how impending changes to the planet will “affect love, faith, work and family in people’s lives.” A kind of “This is Us” with added rain or drought, then.

If this trend continues, the line of actors waiting to appear in climate change dramas will only be rivaled by that of those queuing outside a Tesla store in California.

“Don’t Look Up” is available on Netflix now.

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