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'Don't Look Up': Can comedy spark climate crisis action?

January 24, 2022

The apocalyptic parody film about a comet heading for Earth has polarized opinion and triggered a global debate on our failure to act on the climate emergency.

four people seated around a table during filming for a TV show
In 'Don't Look Up', morning show hosts (Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry) laugh as scientists (Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) explain that a comet will soon destroy the planet Image: Niko Tavernise/Netflix

"We're trying to tell you that the whole planet is about to be destroyed," PhD student Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) tells morning TV presenters in the film "Don't Look Up." When one of the hosts, played by Cate Blanchett, retorts that they "keep the bad news light," the scientist who has identified a comet headed for Earth yells "we are all gonna f---ing die!"

Meanwhile, politicians and social media influencers are telling the world: "Don't look up."

A thinly veiled parable of the climate crisis and government failure to act, the disaster comedy is the second-most-watched Netflix original film in the streaming platform's history — and the most-watched-ever over a single week.

The film has divided critics and public opinion. But it has inspired broad discussion, not only about the climate crisis, but the best way to communicate its urgency as the 2030 deadline for rapid emissions cuts nears. 

Scientists played by Jennifer Lawrence, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Rob Morgan sit in the Oval Office
Scientists played by Jennifer Lawrence, Leonardo DiCaprio and Rob Morgan sit in the Oval Office and vainly try to convince the US president that the end is nighImage: Niko Tavernise/AP/picture alliance

A climate film that's not about climate

For George Marshall, founder of UK-based climate communications think tank Climate Outreach, the star-studded satire raises climate crisis consciousness with a unique analogy that transcends our preconceptions on the issue.

"It's a film that is clearly about climate change that isn't about climate change," he said. "We know from a whole range of research that if you talk about climate change without triggering people's existing assumptions and prejudices about it [then] people can deal with it."

He describes a "moral complexity" around climate change and who is responsible for it that limits public engagement with the issue —a phenomenon Marshall refers to as "collective silence" in his book, "Don't Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change."

This reticence also relates to the rise of climate denial and more polarized opinions on the issue, which one study argues can be traced, in part, to social identity.

But the satirical, overblown metaphor of a comet heading to Earth "gives it a clarity," said Marshall of the challenge of communicating the growing scientific consensus on global heating. "It's a really clever vehicle."

When will an asteroid hit Earth?

Climate scientists can relate

Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays the film's more reserved astronomer, is one of Hollywood's most vocal climate activists. But until now, he had never found the right big screen vehicle to advocate about his climate concerns.

"I think we all looked at this as an incredibly unique gift," he said about the film written and directed by Adam McKay, who also helmed the "The Big Short," a film about the events that led to the 2008 global economic crisis.

"We'd been wanting to get the message out there about the climate crisis and Adam really cracked the code with creating this narrative," he said.

DiCaprio also wanted to make scientists the central figures in the film. "I wanted to tip my hat to people who devote their lives to this issue, who know what they're talking about," he said.

Climate scientist Peter Kalmus has been vocal in the media about his appreciation of the film, writing that it "captures the madness I see every day." Having been "screaming into the void for 15 years and being largely ignored," Kalmus, who works for NASA, said the film made him feel "like I had been seen."

Making fun of the end of the world

But key to focusing attention on science was not the presentation of voluminous climate research but an outrageous comedic scenario.  

George Marshall says that climate science reports or factual climate documentaries have often failed to capture the public imagination — apart perhaps from Al Gore's 2006 Oscar-winning climate film, "An Inconvenient Truth." 

"Hitting people over the head with scientific data doesn't work," he said. This is evidenced by the increasing anti-science disinformation that is feeding climate denial, even at a time of growing academic consensus on the issue.

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a marine biologist and co-creator of the "How to Save a Planet" podcast, tweeted that "we just need WAY MORE entertaining climate content from Hollywood — that helps us frame the problem and see the solutions. Specifically, way more climate-themed media that involves humor." 

Indeed, research shows that when late night show hosts use comedy to talk about climate it can help increase public engagement on the issue. 

Michael E. Mann, climatologist and author of "The New Climate War," compared the comedic approach of "Don't Look Up" to Charlie Chaplin's absurdist anti-fascist films like "The Dictator", which changed perceptions of the threat from Hitler. 

"McKay's film succeeds not because it's funny and entertaining; it's serious sociopolitical commentary posing as comedy," Mann wrote. "That's the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down."

How to harness rising climate alarm

"Don't Look Up" has also touched a nerve at a time of rising climate crisis alarm and anxiety.

According to a September 2021 study on climate change viewpoints in the US, 33% of respondents expressed alarm about the climate in the last year, a sharp increase that also indicates increasing support for climate action. Recent UK polling also shows near-record levels of concern about the climate. 

Edward Maibach, co-author of the US study and director of George Mason University's Center for Climate Change Communication in Washington DC, describes related research that suggests that "lots of people are willing to engage in civil disobedience to protect the climate." Yet, as the film "Don't Look Up" suggests, "few actually do," he said.

Mass entertainment, and especially comedy, could help bridge that disconnect.

"I'm hoping that Hollywood will start making movies that feature relatable characters who engage in civil disobedience to defend the climate," said Maibach. "The climate stories we need most are those that will inspire and teach people to take their climate advocacy to a new level."

Enhancing an imperfect climate metaphor

According to George Marshall, one problem with "Don't Look Now's" critique of climate politics is a heavy-handed parody of Donald Trump-like, science-denying populist politicians.

The president played by Meryl Streep and her chief of staff and son Jason Orlean (Jonah Hill) reject the immediate comet threat before manipulating it to their own political ends — and those of an eccentric big tech donor who wants not to deflect the asteroid from its collision course, but to mine it for rare earth materials.

A woman in a put points in front of the American flag
Meryl Streep, as President Janie Orlean, tells voters concerned about an incoming comet: 'Don't look up'Image: Niko Tavernise/AP/picture alliance

But when Hollywood liberals like Streep and DiCaprio are seen to mock the conservative response to climate change, it alienates some and "misrepresents" the complexity of the problem, said Marshall.

He believes "a president that is much more like a Obama" would have shown that in fact, there is inaction across the political spectrum.  

Indeed, Trump's successor, the avowedly pro-climate Democrat Joe Biden, has resumed handing out oil and gas drilling permits in his first year of office — including on the eve of the UN climate conference in Glasgow. 

The futility of mass action portrayed in the film, and especially its dark ending, may also count against its ability to inspire climate activism.

Climate communicator Edward Maibach wants instead to see empowering climate films. "I'm hoping for movies that show positive future outcomes, and how they can be created," he said.  

Edited by: Jennifer Collins

Stuart Braun | DW Reporter
Stuart Braun Berlin-based journalist with a focus on climate and culture.