Critics of Don’t Look Up should look at it through a different lens

For those in the climate science sphere, it’s more than a movie – it’s a redemptive event

Saying Don’t Look Up flagged in the third act, or that Meryl Streep’s portrayal of US president Janie Orlean (pictured) is over the top, is beside the point. Photograph: Niko Tavernise/Netflix

Saying Don’t Look Up flagged in the third act, or that Meryl Streep’s portrayal of US president Janie Orlean (pictured) is over the top, is beside the point. Photograph: Niko Tavernise/Netflix

 

Have you seen the new Netflix movie Don’t Look Up? Given that it has broken all viewing records on the streaming service, racking up over 150 million viewing hours globally, chances are that you have.

But just in case, a quick recap: the movie is a satire about how society reacts to apocalyptic news. Ostensibly, it’s about two scientists who try to warn everyone that a “planet-killing” meteor will strike Earth in six months. But the meteor is a metaphor; the movie is really about climate change, and offers a critique of how governments and the media have responded to this slower-moving but no less deadly process.

The movie is in parts compelling, smart and funny, and has interesting things to say about how the media and politics have become parts of the “entertainment-industrial complex”. It also includes a vicious takedown of the idea of the tech entrepreneur as a kind of sage or saviour.

Yet the really interesting thing about the movie is not what happens on screen. It is the debate and division that has arisen afterwards. Kathy Sheridan suggested in The Irish Times recently that the movie is a new front in the culture wars: if you’re woke, you like it; if you’re not, you don’t.

Climate scientists praised it, saying the dismissive way the scientists are treated by government and the media is true to their experience, and made them feel ‘seen’

The polarised reaction began once the reviews came out. In general, movie critics panned it. Rolling Stone said it was a “blunt instrument instead of a sharp razor”; Newsday said it was full of “very famous people working way too hard to be funny”; Sight & Sound magazine said it was “broad, crass, scattergun comedy”, and Screen International accused it of being “smug and self-satisfied”. A comment by a Fox News reviewer captured the response of many of the film press: “If I want to be preached at, I’ll go to church.”

Pushback

Soon afterwards, the pushback began. Op-ed articles by climate scientists praised the movie, saying the dismissive way the scientists are treated by government and the media is true to their experience, and made them feel “seen”.

Many people working in climate science said a scene in which Jennifer Lawrence’s character freaks out on live TV, telling the audience “we’re all going to die”, resonated with them, and captured how they feel about the impact of their work.

Others began to chastise the movie critics for not taking the movie’s message seriously enough. After all, the movie points an accusing finger at the media for failing to warn people about the looming climate crisis, so people working for those same media companies would feel defensive, wouldn’t they?

It shows what climate scientists are up against in trying to get institutions to act on climate, and dismissing it on mere film criticism terms seems, well, unnecessarily picky

This, I believe, gets to the nub of our arguments over whether Don’t Look Up is a good or bad movie. For the critics, and for many other people, it’s just another movie. They judge it like they would any release. Sure, it has an A-list cast of Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep and Jonah Hill, but is it worth two hours of your time? Most thought, on balance, not.

But for those of us working in the climate change space, Don’t Look Up is more than a movie. It is an almost redemptive event. It is a chance for climate to be talked about by mass audiences. It is a rare moment when what we care about is represented up there on screen in a big-budget, mainstream movie.

Protective

So climate people feel protective of this movie, feel a little ownership of it. For many, it shows what climate scientists are up against in trying to get institutions to act on climate, and dismissing it on mere film criticism terms seems, well, unnecessarily picky.

Others argue that the increasingly precarious place of science in our society is well captured by the film. The delegitimisation and marginalisation of science and facts in current politics is a major theme. To this group, saying that the movie flagged in the third act, or that Meryl Streep’s portrayal of the US president is over the top, is beside the point.

There is also a feeling of frustration. Climate-related big-release movies have tried to engage audiences on the topic before. And different approaches have been employed: giving basic information (An Inconvenient Truth in 2006), scaring the hell out of people (The Day After Tomorrow in 2004), and giving them hope (Demain in 2015). Each provoked polarised responses. Surely this time, humour would work?

As a movie, Don’t Look Up is viewed by many as a failure. But as a climate communications tool, it is undoubtedly a triumph.

Dr David Robbins is director of the Centre for Climate & Society in Dublin City University