Don’t Look Up

The message from the 2021 Netflix movie Don’t Look Up is very simple, and not very subtle. As articulated by Jennifer Lawrence’s character, Kate Dibiasky:

“We’re all one hundred percent for sure going to fucking die.”

And the reason that we are all hundred percent for sure going to fucking die is because we are ruled by self-aggrandising idiot politicians and greedy capitalists. Moreover, the vast majority of people simply don’t want to face the grim reality in front of them, and instead stubbornly keep their nose to the grindstone.

The allegorical reality in the movie is a comet the size of Mount Everest hurtling towards a direct impact with Earth. The reality that the film makers want us to face – to look up to – is the slow moving but equally deadly impact of climate change. The hope seems to be that by presenting climate change in fast-forward, people will finally begin to confront reality, but that hope is mostly undercut by movie’s own bleak portrayal of humanity, or at least humans in America.

The film gives Leonardo DiCaprio and his environmentalist celebrity friends a platform to make a last desperate plea to “save the planet.” And that desperation, frustration, and finally resignation, is all acted out spectacularly and hilariously on screen.

However, the idea that we, human beings, can actually save the planet is fundamentally flawed and an outrageous conceit. As George Carlin pointed out three decades before the movie was released, only human beings could be so supremely arrogant as to assume that they can understand what is wrong with the planet and engineer a solution to fix it:

“Are these fucking people kidding me? Save the planet? We don’t even know how to take care of ourselves yet. We never learned how to care for one another, and we’re going to save the fuckin’ planet?”

Carlin’s point is that the problem is not the planet, it is us. We should focus on fixing us, our pride and arrogance, first:

“There is nothing wrong with the planet. The planet is fine. The people are fucked… Compared to the people, the planet is doing great. It has been here four and half billion years. Do you ever think about the arithmetic?  The planet has been here four and a half billion years and we have been here what, 100,000 years, maybe 200,000 years, and we have only been engaged in heavy industry for a little over 200 years. 200 years versus four and half billion. And we have the conceit to think that we’re somehow a threat.”

At the end of movie, when the destruction of the Earth is imminent, there is a glimmer of hope however in the sense that some people are finally learning how to take care of themselves and care for one another. DiCaprio’s character, Professor Mindy, reconciles with his wife, and Kate Dibiasky finds love with Timothée Chalamet’s Christ-like skateboarder Yule.

The main protagonists sit down to a final family dinner (a last supper) in the Mindy household, reminisce about the good times, and comfort each other with small talk about store bought apple pie and home ground coffee beans.

After spending the entire first two hours of the film desperately trying to get people to look up, at this critical juncture when everyone else is looking up at the comet, this small group of human beings looks down in a moment of prayer. It is a prayer, calmly intoned by Yule, that asks God for “grace despite our pride, forgiveness despite our doubt” and crucially “love to sooth us through these dark times. May we face whatever is to come in your divine will with courage and open hearts of acceptance.”

Yule frames his request in traditional patriarchal terms, addressing the prayer to “Dearest Father and Almighty Creator.” But it is perhaps more fitting here to use Baruch Spinoza’s idea, formed more than three centuries ago, that God is Nature and vice versa. “God is the infinite, necessarily existing, unique substance of the universe.” The comet, the Earth, humankind, are all part of the grand design, and in the end, we all have to submit to God/Nature/the Universe and accept that “we’re all one hundred percent for sure going to fucking die.”

So, the only question left is how do you spend the brief time you have on Earth?  Very often, throughout human history, people have sought the answer to this question by looking up to God in the heavens for guidance. Unfortunately, this has not always worked out well. Perhaps on balance “don’t look up” is best policy after all. Looking down with reverence for the Earth, ourselves, and our fellow inhabitants, may well be the way to go.

Don’t Look Up, 2021, Netflix.

George Carlin, Jammin in New York, 1992, Eardrum/Atlantic Records.

Baruch Spinoza, Ethics, 1677.


“The planet isn’t going anywhere, we are! We’re going away. Pack your shit folks…  The planet will be here and we will be long gone. Just another failed mutation, just another closed end biological mistake, an evolutionary cul-de-sac. The planet will shake us off like a bad case of fleas, a surface nuisance.”

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