Don’t Look Up Review

A Movie That Will Rock Your World

What would you do if you were told that a 5-kilometre-wide comet is on its way to demolish you, your family, your friends, and the rest of the world, and you have six months to live? In his satirical dark comedy film Don’t Look Up, Adam McKay says that it is not that simple just to do the right thing and advocate to destroy the comet before it destroys you. There is one large barrier to that demand: the apathy of American culture.


(Quick trigger warning: The next two paragraphs contain spoilers and the film itself contains nudity and profanity). The movie begins with two astronomers from Michigan State University, Randall Mindy, a professor, and Kate Diabisky, a Ph.D. student, who discover a comet in the solar system through their telescope. They shortly realize that it is directed toward the earth and is large enough to extinguish every living being on the planet in six months. Because of this, Mindy and Diabisky meet with the president of the United States, Janie Orlean, to address this existential threat, but she generally shows a lack of concern for the issue. The two then appear on a morning show to talk about their discovery, but like the president, the interviewers are ignorant of the crisis of the situation. The issue does not receive any serious attention from the public until Orlean finally decides to tackle the problem as a diversion from a personal scandal.


However, this plan is aborted, as CEO of tech company BASH, Peter Isherwell, discovers that the comet contains rare-earth elements and can be used for profit. As the skeptics and the activists become more polarized, Mindy furiously rants about the administration’s greed and ignorance on live television. Afterwards, to spread more awareness of the situation, Mindy and Diabisky start a social media campaign, “Just Look Up,” to which Orlean responds with a political campaign, “Don’t Look Up.” BASH fails in their effort to disassemble the comet, leaving the world bound for destruction, except for Orlean, Isherwell, and their associates, who escape earth on a “sleeper spaceship.” Before the comet impacts the earth and destroys every living being on it, Mindy and Diabasky enjoy one final dinner with family and friends. 22,740 years later, those who left earth on the spaceship find another habitable planet and wake up from their cryogenic state. The end.


Why is watching Don’t Look Up even worth our time? Why has this movie received 152 million hours of streaming in one week? It may have to do with the timing, a mix of both Christmas and COVID-19 lockdown. It also may be attributed to the loaded cast, which includes Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Jonah Hill, Timothée Chalamet, Cate Blanchett, Tyler Perry, and more—an assembly that collectively holds eight Oscar wins and forty-three Oscar nominations. Additionally, the viewing experience itself is enjoyable. It is undeniably humorous and creative, and although the twisted cultural elements were exaggerated, the mass polarization feels very familiar to us. However, a big aspect of the film’s popularity is connected to its daunting message.


What is this movie trying to communicate about American culture? In an interview, Leonardo DiCaprio said, “If I were to describe Don’t Look Up in a nutshell, it would be an analogy of modern-day culture and our inability to hear and listen to scientific truth.” The “scientific truth” being that climate change is a real, devastating challenge to our existence. 


Although this film was written before the COVID-19 pandemic, it fits appropriately with the identity politics behind the vaxxed and the vax-nots, as well as ignorance towards the threat of the virus. McKay indeed satirizes other American societal problems: polarization and diversion in the absence of justice; populism, nepotism, and cronyism in politics; and the egotism and greed of Big Tech. 


But the movie has generally received negative reception from its audiences, with a 56% on Rotten Tomatoes, 7.3 on IMDb, and 49% on Metacritic. Forbes journalist David Better claims that the criticism is attributed to its uncomfortable and blunt message and its belittling of American politicians, musicians, and entrepreneurs. On the flip side, those are the reasons why its positive receptors adore this movie. 


Much of the film analyses consist of critiquing the accuracy or lack thereof in depicting America’s response to climate change. But most of the responses fail to include the theological angle of the movie, which not only highlights what the film gets drastically wrong but also how it (unintentionally) parallels with the biblical understanding of human nature and eschatology. Surprisingly, there is more Christian theological significance in the film than meets the eye. 


But, to start, one ought to establish what this movie gets wrong. First and most importantly, McKay delivers a secular narrative. According to the film, the end of the world will come because of human error, redemption from disaster is only achieved through technological advancements, and redemption is only given to the wealthy, the powerful, and the oppressors. However, according to God’s redemptive narrative, he will usher in true redemption through a process of reviving creation, where the oppressor will be brought low in front of the oppressed. As it says in Isaiah 60:14–a notable eschatological account in the Bible–“The children of your oppressors will come bowing before you; all who despise you will bow down at your feet.” 


Second, despite its clear satirization of American culture, McKay’s biased posture is demonstrated in his depiction of the world’s pressing issues. New York Times opinion columnist  Ross Douthat puts it best in his tweet which states that the film’s “signal failure is that it aspires to be a movie about *systemic* cultural-political failure but ultimately tells a story where if a dumb right-wing president had chosen policy A instead of policy B everything would’ve been fine.” This critique is valid for two reasons. Speaking theologically, God would not assign one politician the power to stop the end of the world, and it is not the fault of conservatives that the world is falling apart. 


What does the movie get right? First, McKay is right to say that climate change is not regarded as a priority by the public. Rising sea levels, the acidification of oceans, an increase in natural disasters worldwide, and a general increase in global temperatures are all objective scientific facts and require attention and effective policies which address them. Many of these threats to the climate are attributed to human error. If the Bible calls us to have dominion over the earth and to fill and subdue it (Genesis 1:26-28), then it is part of our calling to advance necessary measures and care for creation.


Second, as expressed by Reinhold Niebuhr and other reformed theologians, it is certainly true that human nature possesses a disposition toward self-interest, which often makes its way into politics and business. This explains the egotistical nature of President Orlean and Isherwell. Furthermore, politicians are motivated by ideology, a form of idolatry that promises redemption through an alternative narrative other than the Bible. For the movie, this is demonstrated in President Orlean’s right-wing populism.


Third, near the end of the film, Mindy, his friends, and his family decide to have one final dinner before the comet strikes the earth. Yule (Diabisky’s partner) accepts Mindy’s request to pray, as he is the only religious one at the table. The prayer is a very fitting lamentation for the end of all things or, at least, the worst-case scenario: “Dearest Father and Almighty Creator, we ask for your grace tonight, despite our pride. Your forgiveness, despite our doubt. Most of all, Lord, we ask for your love to soothe us through these dark times. May we face whatever is to come in your divine will with courage and open hearts of acceptance. Amen.” This prayer acknowledges human sin and weakness, as well as God’s sovereignty and all-perfect will. 


As Christian writer Andrew Petiprin suggests in his review of the film in Word on Fire, this last supper was a “snapshot of life in the Kingdom of Heaven” because of their desire to seek God, expressions of gratitude, and exchanges of gifts. Witnessing the end of the world undoubtedly makes one turn their head to the source of all life.


How should we watch Don’t Look Up as Redeemer students? We should acknowledge its secular bias, but also appreciate its alignment with Reformed theology, as mentioned above. For the last 10 years, there have been other speeches and pieces of culture that have motivated the public to take action. This includes Greta Thunberg’s speech at the United Nations, Leonardo DiCaprio’s documentary film Before The Flood, or Bill Gates’ book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. But Don’t Look Up takes a unique approach by acknowledging how climate change is connected with the absurdity of our decadent culture in the Western world. The gloomy ending, alongside its constant inter-shots of God’s glorious creation, may encourage us to remember that we humans have a mandate to follow.