What remains to be seen is whether the film fulfils a primary aim of its director, Adam McKay, who wants it to be, in his words, “a kick in the pants” that prompts urgent action on climate change.
“I’m under no illusions that one film will be the cure to the climate crisis,” McKay, whose previous films include “The Big Short” and “Vice,” wrote in an email to the Times. “But if it inspires conversation, critical thinking, and makes people less tolerant of inaction from their leaders, then I’d say we accomplished our goal.”
In “Don’t Look Up,” a planet-killing comet hurtling toward Earth stands in as a metaphor for the climate crisis, with Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence playing distraught scientists scrambling to get politicians to act, and the public to believe them.
After the film premiered in December, climate scientists took to social media and penned op-eds, saying they felt seen at last. Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted that it seemed like a documentary. Several admirers likened the film to “A Modest Proposal,” the 18th-century satirical essay by Jonathan Swift.
Naysayers, meanwhile, said the comet allegory was lost on those who took it literally and questioned why McKay hadn’t been more straightforward about global warming. Writing in The New Yorker, Richard Brody said if scientists didn’t like what film critics had to say about science, “the scientists should stop meddling with art.”
Either way, at a time when leaders are failing to take the necessary measures to tackle the planet emergency, and the volume and ferocity of so-called “natural” disasters reach ever graver peaks, there is little question that the movie has struck a pretty big nerve. According to Netflix, which self-reports its own figures and was the studio behind the film and its distributor, the film is one of its most popular films ever, amassing an unprecedented 152 million hours viewed in one week.
“The goal of the movie was to raise awareness about the terrifying urgency of the climate crisis, and in that, it succeeded spectacularly,” said Genevieve Guenther, the founder and director of End Climate Silence, an organisation that promotes media coverage of climate change.
“You can’t have movies that inspire people into action without a cultural acceptance of climate change,” she added, “which is what this movie will help produce.”
Hollywood has an uneven history depicting climate change in feature films, if it addresses it at all. Some films made their villains eco-terrorists — see Thanos in “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Godzilla: King of Monsters.” Or they present ecological collapse as inevitable — as in “Interstellar,” “Snowpiercer” and the Mad Max films. Rare is the film that imagines a world where humans successfully work together to allay the worst of the crisis, save biodiversity and wean themselves off fossil fuels.
While “Don’t Look Up” doesn’t provide a happy ending either, McKay has repeatedly stressed that he wants people to work toward that end. Netflix and climate scientists have partnered with an online platform that lists ways people can take action. One of the film’s stars, Jonah Hill, appeared on The Tonight Show and encouraged viewers to ask their congressional representatives to pass HR 794, the Climate Emergency Act. And DiCaprio urged his 19.4 million Twitter followers to get involved.
“We have the science,” McKay said on “The Daily Poster,” a website run by David Sirota, a journalist who is also a writer on the film. “We can do this. We have renewable energy. We could invest in carbon removal. There are a lot of things we can do if we have the action, will and awareness.”
Hollywood has played a role in defining big issues before. Stanley Kubrick’s satirical “Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”— itself reviled at the time by some critics — and “The China Syndrome” shaped attitudes about nuclear power and war. After watching the 1983 television film “The Day After,” which imagined the aftermath of a Cold War atomic battle, President Ronald Reagan wrote in his journal that the film left him “greatly depressed” and hardened his resolve “to see there is never a nuclear war.” In 2012, while discussing his support of marriage equality, then-Vice President Joe Biden credited the television series “Will & Grace” for educating the public.
Yet Michael Svoboda, a writing professor at George Washington University and contributor to the web magazine Yale Climate Connections, said while McKay is clearly impassioned about climate change, he was doubtful whether the film delivered a useful message that would produce results.
“Is he asking people to become more politically involved? Is he trying to reach across the aisle? That doesn’t seem to be the case at all,” Svoboda said. “Does it create a kind of fatalism, even nihilism, by virtue of its people accepting the inevitability after a good but not particularly well-coordinated fight?”
While “Don’t Look Up” took shots at both liberal elites and members of the right, Svoboda noted that by the film’s end it was clearly lampooning Trumpian populism. “It’s unlikely that’s going to reach anyone who’s sceptical of climate change,” he said.
All that said, the impassioned responses to the film suggests a hunger for more climate content, said Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a marine biologist and co-founder of the think tank Urban Oceans Lab. That could put less pressure on one piece of work to be all things to all people.
“I would argue not whether one film is perfect, but that clearly we need a lot more of this stuff,” Johnson said.
“Some people are inspired by the dire science projections,” she continued. “Some are inspired by solutions. And some are inspired by focusing on a film that points to the absurdity of the fact that we’re ruining the one planet that it makes any sense for humans to live on.”
Johnson added that she hoped that the popularity of “Don’t Look Up” would prompt Hollywood to make more climate focused films. “If you don’t like it, make a better one,” she said. “I’ll watch.”
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