Opinion: Don’t Look Up analogically falls short

By Charlie Gstalder, Opinions & Editorials Editor

Don’t Look Up is undoubtedly an enjoyable film, one that sees a star-studded cast —  Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep and Jonah Hill, to name a few — confronting the arrival of an asteroid large enough to eradicate nearly all life on Earth. 

While the film hilariously satirizes nearly all aspects of our modern society, from the Trump presidency to our overreliance on positive news and our obsession with the dating lives of celebrities, it entirely fails in its main goal of serving as an analogy for the climate crisis. 

Now, you may be asking yourself, “This movie is about the climate crisis?” Many of my peers did when I pitched them this article. Such is an understandable viewpoint, a consequence of what I call “birdshot satire.” 

In birdshot satire, the creator takes aim at a vast variety of targets and attempts to satirize each one, striking many but with minimal eficacy. While the birdshot satire approach allows every viewer to find something to laugh about, it risks obscuring the creative intent. And make no mistake, director Adam McKay’s intent was to create a film about the climate crisis. 

In an interview with NPR on Dec. 18, McKay described his goal, explaining, “(The movie) sort of mirrors how I’ve been feeling… about the climate crisis as I see it keep getting worse and worse and speeding up.” 

“And it’s been quite the experience to live in a society that still bombs along like everything is A-OK while the greatest threat to life and human history is before us,” he added. 

My real problem with Don’t Look Up  is its choice of analogy. In his interview with NPR, McKay describes how he and co-writer David Sirota chose the climate crisis analogy. 

“Sirota offhandedly just said, ‘Yeah, it’s like a giant comet’s about to hit Earth, and no one cares,’” McKaysaid. “It’s not the most heavily disguised analogy for the climate crisis… and I like that the idea was big enough that a lot of people could enter it.” 

While I understand and respect the writers’ thought processes, an extinction-size meteor is perhaps the single worst metaphor for the climate crisis. The absurdity of their choice is best illustrated through the critical lens of slow violence.

Slow violence was coined by Rob Nixon in his 2011 book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Slow violence describes the unique challenge in depicting the threat of climate change, as it is an existential threat that mandates immediate action despite not posing an immediate, widespread or  even visible threat. Additionally, Nixon’s slow violence highlights the plight of poor and marginalized communities. 

“Poor communities, often disproportionately exposed to the force fields of slow violence — be they military residues or imported e-waste or the rising tides of climate change — are the communities least likely to attract sustained scientific inquiry into causes, effects and potential redress,” Nixon wrote. 

Put simply, slow violence argues that climate change is hard to depict precisely because it is not like an impending, extinction-size meteor. 

Climate change will not affect everyone across the world at once in a visible, spectacular fashion, as Don’t Look Up depicts. Rather, poor, coastal and island nations will succumb to the climate crisis years before wealthier nations. 

For example, Time magazine claims that the Pacific Island nation of Kiribati could be wiped out by rising sea levels and that the Philippines faces existential threats of climate-related national disasters and flooding. Yet, McKay gives this little to no thought. 

Granted, in the film, the meteor strikes the Pacific Ocean, and we are given a glimpse into Pacific Island Nations watching the fireball streak across the sky. But from then on, the rest of the world is affected almost immediately, quashing any hope that McKay understands the unique plight of these communities. 

Thus, in choosing to depict climate change as an extinction-sized meteor, Don’t Look Up proves ignorant of the unique realities and challenges of the climate crisis, and ultimately dooms its chances of ever being taken seriously as a climate analogy.