Now that “Don’t Look Up” is officially a best-picture Oscar nominee, I have a confession to make.
I didn’t much like the movie. I thought it was too scattershot, not quite sharp or funny enough and, worst of all, seemed to get the premise all wrong.
But it’s not as simple as that, of course. “Don’t Look Up” — a star-studded, Netflix-hit satire on America’s unwillingness to face up to the existential threat of climate change — is not just a movie. It’s a movie that has also become a kind of litmus test.
If you agree with the idea that America, as well as most of the rest of the world, has failed miserably in its duty to address climate change, you are supposed to cheer the movie on. And I see the logic. I mean, let’s face it, it’s not often you get a popular comedy that also grabs you by the throat and screams, even as you might be laughing, that it’s time — long past time — to freaking wake up, people.
This isn’t Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth,” which was always going to be dismissed, or worse, by those who didn’t vote for Gore. This is Denver native Adam McKay (“Anchorman,” “The Big Short,” “Vice”) who was ready — with some help from Denver-based journalist, provocateur, and chief Bernie Bro, David Sirota — to go all Dr. Strangelove on us.
The problem is not that the movie failed to reach Strangelovian heights. How many movies ever will? The problem, for me and for a bunch of nitpicking film critics, is with the movie’s central metaphor — that climate change is like a speeding comet that will collide with Earth in six months and destroy all life, and that even with the prospect of an Earth-destroying collision, people would still willfully ignore the danger.
Or that’s what I thought when I watched it. But now I’m not so sure.
I’m sure you know the plot by now. A graduate student (Jennifer Lawrence) discovers the killer comet one night, and, with her professor (Leonardo DiCaprio), rushes off to warn the world. A skeptical world is unmoved. Actually, the movie only addresses the United States, as if the rest of the world weren’t actually relevant. The media, meanwhile, treats it as an alarmist joke, which doesn’t quite work for me, either. Sure, Fox wouldn’t go along, and there’d be plenty of late-night jokes, but if we were given a six-month deadline, I guarantee that CNN would have its death-watch clock ticking on the bottom of your screen from now until the end of time.
Politicians — represented by a Trumpian-like, but even less clued-in, Meryl Streep as president and her son/chief of staff Jonah Hill — see it as a political problem that, politically speaking, is best ignored. But the movie pretends there isn’t an opposing party that might have a different notion. And then there’s the visionary businessperson who doesn’t want NASA to push the comet off course before he can harvest the comet’s trillions of dollars worth of precious metals.
The thing is, as crises go, climate change is a relatively slow-moving, multi-generational problem that will almost certainly be worse for your grandchildren than it is for you. Despite the naysayers, people increasingly believe in climate change. Even oil companies now admit that something’s amiss. Most people just don’t seem to believe there’s a deadline or that we have to give up fossil fuels any time soon.
Here’s my thinking. If you could convincingly connect a disappearing Arctic ice shelf directly to, say, the Marshall fire or, let’s say, a fire coming next week to your own backyard, wouldn’t everyone act? If a warming climate meant no snow in the mountains right now or next year or ever again, wouldn’t we see genuine panic in the streets, not to mention on the slopes? I mean, isn’t panic the central theme of every other Hollywood disaster movie?
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But the more I think about it, the more I wonder what it actually takes to make people act.
We have been right in the midst of a fast-moving crisis, one that has killed more than 900,000 Americans, in COVID-19, and yet, at first we acted too slowly and now we’re apparently tired of acting at all. And then there are the anti-vaxxers and the Ron DeSantisians and the Tucker Carlsonians who say that it’s our liberty, not our lives, that is at stake. And then you have someone comparing Dr. Fauci to Dr. Mengele, and Ottawa (a city in a nearby country) shut down by anti-mandate protesters.
As COVID fatigue sets in, blue-state governors are now busily ending statewide mask mandates despite the CDC warning that even as the omicron variant begins to wane, masks should still be worn in indoor settings. It looks like Jared Polis, our anti-mandate Democratic governor, was ahead of the curve.
And how about the Big Lie and the related Trump-inflamed crisis facing American democracy? Again, there’s a clear failure to act. OK, some are acting. Red states are passing voter-suppression laws, making it harder to vote and making it easier for state legislatures to overturn election results. But Democrats, thanks to Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, can’t pass two voting reform bills that would go a long way toward addressing the emergency.
It gets worse. Now that Trump has said he might well pardon January 6 insurrectionists if he were re-elected in 2024, the Republican National Committee (RNC) has gone all in. While passing a resolution to censure GOP Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger for agreeing to serve on the House committee investigating the Capitol assault, the RNC called the investigation “a Democrat-led persecution of ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse.”
Yes. Persecution. Legitimate political discourse. Seriously. Tell that to the people who died and those seriously injured.
They’re saying this even as Mike Pence, the quintessential Trump yes-man, was saying that, no, a vice-president couldn’t legally stop Congress from counting Electoral College votes and that Trump saying so was “un-American.” And even as Manchin and, yes, apparently some Republicans, are backing a bill to clear up the vice-president’s role, so mobs wouldn’t be demanding a future Pence’s head. And even as the House committee keeps turning up more and more evidence of Trump’s active role in his attempt to overturn — he actually used the word — what was clearly a legitimate election, although polls show most Republicans still don’t believe it.
So, would we really ignore a comet guaranteed by scientists to destroy Earth in six months? I don’t know. I do know, though, that there are way too many people who, even when they are looking up, refuse to see.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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