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Don’t Look up: did we really watch the same movie?

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Netflix 2021’s Christmas present is called Don’t Look Up: Cosmic Denial, directed by Adam McKay (director of The Big Short and Vice) with a dream casting (Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Jonah Hill, Rob Morgan, Cate Blanchett, Tyler Perry, Mark Rylance, Ariana Grande, Timothée Chalamet, etc.). Synopsis :

Inspired by the theme of the current climate crisis that no one really cares about, the film is about the upcoming fall of a large comet that will completely devastate the Earth, discovered by scientists Randall Mindy and Kate Dibiasky, and the difficulty they face in warning the world in the face of misinformation, denial, as well as the greed of the president of the United States under the thumb of the powerful creator of a large technology company. Translated with (free version)

A movie about the climate with such a cast? Nothing better to relax during 2H20. My opinion and my cinematographic tastes not having any kind of importance, the objective of this article is to come back on the media treatment of the film and the criticisms which were made to it. Indeed, only 24 hours after the release of the film, some people had already seen everything, understood everything, analyzed everything, knew already if the film was a success or not and what impact it would have on climate change.

Not being endowed with this superior intelligence, it took me about ten days to analyze the various criticisms and sensibilities. So let’s look back at the Don’t Look up phenomenon, its successes and possible parallels with climate change.

Don’t look up is an indisputable success

Despite what critics may say, there is one thing that is undeniable about Don’t Look Up: it’s a success! And a worldwide success!

First, a success for Netflix. The film has been streamed 152 million hours, an all-time record in one week for the streaming platform. When you’re at the top of the viewing charts in 94 countries, it’s hard to say anything other than “the movie is a hit”. Is this surprising? Not really. With a cast like that, it’s normal for the film to make some noise. But the fact that he was in the lead and broke records all over the world was not a foregone conclusion.

Secondly, the film has been unanimously praised by scientists. There are hundreds of testimonials on the subject. NASA climate scientist Peter Kalmus sums up this shared sentiment very well: “the movie Don’t Look Up is a satire. But as a climate scientist doing everything I can to wake people up and prevent the destruction of the planet, this is also the most accurate movie I’ve seen about society’s terrifying lack of response to climate degradation.”

This is what director Adam McKay was looking for. In interviews and on Twitter, he repeatedly said that if the movie could relay the voices of climate activists and scientists, “that would be the best possible review.

Dont look up between George Mombiot and Adam McKay on Twitter
Source : Twitter

Thirdly, and most importantly, the movie has gone beyond the green bubble! Well helped by the stars of the movie, the movie makes people react, launches debates, including by people who are not really aware of the importance of climate change and its consequences. Whether this movie is “extraordinary” or not, it makes more talk about global warming than the release of the IPCC report or the COP26. And that is extraordinary. Sad, but extraordinary.

If further proof were needed that this movie is already a success, the hashtag #Dontlookup has also been widely used around the world by politicians and other non-environmental and climate media. When a movie is already the subject of hundreds of memes, jokes and videos comparing certain scenes of the movie with reality, it means that it has gone beyond the borders of climate activists.

Multiplying formats is essential

A few months ago, I launched a bottle to the sea on Twitter: “The same test in 3 different classes and 3 times the same conclusion: all students know Squid Game, but barely 10% know IPCC. When does Netflix make us a series with climate change?“I was completely unaware of the movie’s release at the time, but it fulfilled one of my beliefs: we need pop culture to join the climate fight.

I am firmly convinced that we need to multiply the formats and approaches to raise awareness about climate change. Articles, vidéos, podcasts, Instagram and its influencers, Linkedin, Tik Tok for the most daring, etc. If you think that it is enough “for people to read the IPCC reports“, “to listen to the scientists”, you are very far from it (we will come back to this).

One of the under-used weapons in the fight against climate change (but which will certainly be more and more used when the subject becomes mainstream) is humor. Michael E. Mann, famous climatologist and friend of Leonardo Dicaprio (who was inspired by Mann for his role), explains very well the usefulness and power of humor when the pure and simple scientific truth is not enough:

McKay acknowledges that it is often difficult to deliver hard truths in the form of direct comments. People resist messages they don’t want to hear, especially in today’s toxic political economy. We can’t break in through the front door. It is locked.

So we look for another way in. Humor and satire offer just such a side door. (I’m a convert to this way of thinking – in “The Madhouse Effect” I partnered with Washington Post cartoonist Tom Toles to use humor and satire to communicate the climate crisis.) The same goes for powerful metaphors. And that’s what this movie really is: a powerful and extended metaphor for the ongoing climate crisis.

On the other hand, I would advise you to have a bit of second degree and to take a lot of distance when you read the scientific reports on climate. Relax, it’s not going to be good:

Source : LIMIT

Why did some critics only half laugh?

The reviews of the movie are unfortunately a perfect mirror of what is going on regarding climate issues.

First of all, to understand and appreciate the movie in its full measure, there are certain “prerequisites”:

Source : @Netflixdiaries

It’s also hard to appreciate the movie if you haven’t followed American politics in the last few years, especially the interventions of Donald Trump, thanks to which Idiocracy was no longer a dystopian movie, but a documentary. But if some critics have destroyed the movie, it’s not entirely by chance.

Everyone gets a kick out of it

If the reviews of the movie Don’t Look Up are mixed, it’s because the movie is a perfect metaphor for what’s going on with climate change, and absolutely everyone gets a kick out of it!

Starting with politicians and media who don’t listen to scientists, make fun of them and prefer to chase clicks, likes, money and power. The same people who have been playing the game of climate inaction for decades, who answer to the interests of the fossil fuel industries and other billionaires completely out of touch with reality. Some newspapers have obviously no self-mockery, neither in the United States, nor in France, where newspapers like Les Echos have obviously not really appreciated the movie.

But should we have expected anything else? Should we have hoped that these newspapers that praise the green plane, the responsible capitalism, an ecology of production and other nonsense would come out with a criticism saying “well, the movie describes us perfectly well, we treat very badly the subject of the climate change and moreover when we do it we take the subject lightly. And yes, we prefer profit to the survival of hundreds of millions of people on Earth. And then fuck you!

Parallel between the comet of Don't Look Up and the economy...
Rare image of Bruno le Maire, 2022.

Climatosceptics and climatorassurists as guest stars

Don’t look up is also a very nice caricature of two categories of people who are doing very bad for the climate fight. First, the climate deniers. These merchants of doubt who still dare to deny global warming (in the movie, they say that the comet does not exist, when all you have to do is look up).

Don’t think for a moment that it doesn’t exist anymore, or that it isn’t possible. One only has to look at the polls year after year, or at the openly climate-skeptical and criminal political recuperation, of which Donald Trump is certainly the most representative example. They are certainly less present in France, but they are still there, and still have a disastrous influence on public opinion:

Secondly, air conditioners and other technocrats are dressed for winter. In the movie, it is the people who recognize the existence of the comet, but will tend to say that “it’s okay, since technology will save us“. If you think this is too cartoonish, you’ve probably never heard Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos talk about climate change and their solutions. The psychopath in the movie who plays them thinks there is a great opportunity to get raw materials from the comet and make billions of dollars. It would be “too big, too exaggerated” for some. Yet we have the same, very real, people who want to go and mine resources on other planets

Other characters or situations are also very well represented. The role of social media, the private life of influencers that unleashes far more passions than the imminent arrival of the comet, the stupid contests of the society of the show to the end … a scathing parallel with reality, where influencers grace us with #PrayforGreece and #PrayforCalifornia all year round aboard their private jet in Dubai.

The solutions are not discussed… SO WHAT?

One of the things that has challenged me the most since the release of the movie Don’t Look Up are the comments that are hell bent on criticizing the movie on what it didn’t do. “This is nonsense! Plus they don’t offer clear solutions for climate change.” ! I have read this at least a hundred times. But… did you understand that it was a movie? Are you sure you understood that this was a satire, and not a documentary? Because documentaries on climate change and popularization videos do exist, but they don’t make tens of millions of views!

Not only is it (nowadays) impossible to reach a large audience if we stick to a classical form (documentary or conference), but above all, it is impossible to present the subject, its complexity, its blockages and its solutions in only 2H20. If you think that, you are dreaming, or showing Jaitoutcomprism. I also think of the people who are disappointed that this movie fails to change the “inevitable outcome of the collapse”. Sorry, but expecting a movie to change the world is like expecting aCOP to do the same. Again, relax, it’s just a movie.

Unfortunately, the priority is still to raise awareness of the situation and to make sure that everyone has the orders of magnitude in mind. If the problem is not well understood, we will have again and again politicians who will allow themselves to have anti-science solutions and discourse, like a very large part of the French political class. By the way, and this is only a personal opinion: I am quite happy that director McKay did not propose any solutions in his movie. He looks like Elon Musk’s little nephew, more reasonable, but still an NFT fan:

“Remember after watching #DontLookUp that WE HAVE THE SCIENCE TO SOLVE THE CLIMATE CRISIS. Renewable energy, carbon removal and capture. They just need to be scaled up and developed.
We lack the awareness, the will and the action. Without these three elements, we will have serious problems.”
Source : Twitter

Why Don’t Look up and its comet have nothing to do with climate change

Since it is a satire, one should not expect Don’t Look Up to be a perfect transposition of the current situation with climate change. Among the most important points:

  • The accuracy known to the day of the end of the world with the comet that hits the Earth in 6 months, 14 days… The reality: climate change is already damaging, killing, and will kill more and more without drastic and rapid changes in our economic models.
  • It’s not an ON/OFF switch, we’re all going to die/no one is going to die. The reality is that some people will suffer the consequences of climate change much more than others, progressively and unfairly, since it is the populations that emit the least GHGs that will suffer most from the consequences of climate change.
  • Just listen to the scientists to solve the problem“. The reality: it is a complicated and complex situation, with multiple springs. “Inequality, racism, exploitative relationships are secondary in the movie. Yet these are fundamental features of the climate crisis & essential to understanding inaction“says Stefan Aykut, author of Governing the Climate.
“Live. Laugh. Listen to the scientists, and most importantly, read Bon Pote.”

Finally, if the critics think that the movie “exaggerates on the merchants of doubt and the cynics, Valérie Masson-Delmotte brings an answer that could not be clearer and that could make more than one think:

reality is sometimes worse than fiction. The movie only partially shows the cynicism of those who have everything to gain from the status quo, the role of the merchants of doubt who have knowingly constructed disinformation, greenwashing & sowing confusion.

The last word

Whether critics like it or not, the movie is an undeniable success. If it is too early to know its scope, we can at least hope that its commercial success will resonate in the minds of other filmmakers who will say to themselves that it may not be such a bad idea to talk about climate change. While Don’t Look Up offers the very classic scenario of thinking that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, perhaps in the coming months or years we will have other movies or series that will pave the way to other narratives and solutions.

In addition, we could retain 3 lessons. The first would be that multiplying the formats is essential to get a message across. If this is to happen through Netflix, the very representation of capitalism, it would be stupid to shun this alternative. (If you otherwise don’t have a Netflix subscription, there are other ways to see the movie. If Netflix grumbles, ask them to pay their taxes).

Secondly, to understand that climate change is a political problem, and that it is not enough to listen to science to solve it. It is a question of power in a capitalist, neoliberal system, where the role of fossil fuels is predominant. If you want this to change, get educated, read, spend time. It is essential.

Finally, as they say in France, take a chill pill. Don’t Look Up is just a movie, a satire. Its purpose is not to tell you what to do and how to do it, to give a quick, easy and perfect solution for global warming. It is. A. Movie.

Scene from Don’t Look Up. Crédit : Netflix

He succeeded in making people talk about climate change for more than 10 days, all over the world, and beyond the eco-sphere. This is rare enough to note, so let’s take advantage of it and keep it that way as long as possible. Let’s hope that thousands of fans of Leo Di Caprio or Jennifer Lawrence become climate activists and spread the word. Climate change will be at the center of our lives for the next few decades, it is indeed time to Look Up.



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Thomas Wagner
Prendra sa retraite quand le réchauffement climatique sera de l’histoire ancienne

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