‘Don’t Look Up’ movie speaks to threat of climate chaos

February 2, 2022

From the January-February 2022 issue of News & Letters

What would humanity do if faced with an Extinction Level Event? This is the focus of the dark comedy Don’t Look Up directed by Adam McCay. Satire has been used throughout history to get people to look at themselves; in this case, McCay was extremely effective. His choice of Leonardo DiCaprio as a main character, an astronomer who helped to discover the comet, isn’t a coincidence as DiCaprio has had a real-life role as a climate activist.

As someone alarmed about climate change, I felt the lunacy in the film of not only the White House “sit tight and assess” non-reaction to an impending catastrophic comet strike (referred to as a “planet killer”), but the public’s reaction: varying low degrees of interest, doubt, ridicule and running to their political camps ahead of facing the reality of a nine-kilometers-wide meteor guaranteed to destroy life on Earth in six months.

The amount of derision placed at the feet of so much of our society was palpable throughout the film. Just about everyone was parodied: the mass media, the selfish politicians, billionaires, the gullible public, etc.


Don’t Look Up is filled with stars and is replete with witty dialogue. However, the sucker punch it delivers remains with you. Both myself and a friend cried after watching it.

In the face of impending doom, what does it take to wake up political leaders? For example, isn’t the current threat of climate change—as seen in the wildfires in Australia and the U.S., the heat waves across much of the world, the floods and droughts—enough? Instead, we have the Glasgow fiasco or COP26 in 2021 (see article page 1). It became a political platform for politicians. After so much work on the part of climate change activists, scientists, and others who care, this was a profound disappointment. Don’t Look Up summed up the alarm so many of us feel.


The character of Peter Isherwell, the billionaire owner of BASH Cellular, represents the arrogance and raw power that billionaire capitalists have. Isherwell, played so well by Mark Rylance, seems a combination of powerful billionaires. He has the weird mannerisms of Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg, the lunatic ideas of Microsoft’s Bill Gates and the desire to found a multi-planet civilization like Tesla’s Elon Musk.

The film also addresses some of the public’s reaction to scientific discoveries with doubt and skepticism. As billionaires such as Gates, Musk and Zuckerberg gain outsized influence due to their immense wealth, working people have less and less control over our lives.

Though no one votes for Bill Gates, he is even taken seriously about subjects way beyond his expertise, such as geoengineering. Gates wants to deal with climate change by temporarily blocking the sun with special particles. This is more than alarming. The parallel to Gates’s influence in the film is Isherwell’s claim that there is a wealth of valuable minerals in the comet—it’s a gift! It’s a gift that his half-assed techno-solution can’t handle. He intends to break up the comet into 20 “manageable” pieces. Any scientist who criticizes Isherwell gets fired.

Critics’ views vary, but overall climate scientists have positive reviews such as Peter Kalmus. According to Kalmus, writing in The Guardian, “speaking as a climate scientist doing everything I can to wake people up and avoid planetary destruction, it’s also the most accurate film about society’s terrifying non-response to climate breakdown I’ve seen.” I couldn’t agree more. Hopefully this film will serve as a wake-up call to our greed-filled political leaders.

—Diana Sabina

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