Don’t Look Up is worth looking up

 

© Netflix / Hyperobject Industries

 

Before I start, a warning – many spoilers ahead!

 

Appropriately for a year that was fairly grim, the final movie I watched in 2021 was the recently released, apocalyptic sci-fi satire Don’t Look Up, which tells the story of how two astronomers (Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) discover a comet hurtling on a course that in six months’ time will bring it smashing into the earth and wiping out all life here.  But their warnings about what’s coming are muffled by a trivia-obsessed media, chiefly represented by fatuous talk show hosts Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry, which refuses to take them seriously.  They’re also thwarted by duplicitous politicians, most notably Meryl Streep as the American president, who are reluctant to take decisive action and blow the damned comet out of the sky because, it transpires, it’s loaded with priceless minerals.

 

Don’t Look Up is interesting in that while it enjoys a healthy 7.3 / 10 approval rating from users of the online film database IMDb, and an even healthier ’82% liked this film’ rating among Google users, the reviews by film critics have been less enthusiastic – approval ratings of 54% and 50% on the critical aggregates Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic respectively.  Among those unimpressed critics were the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, who called it ‘laboured, self-conscious and unrelaxed’, and Rolling Stone’s David Fear, who described it as ‘a righteous two-hour lecture masquerading as a satire’.  Meanwhile, in the Independent, Louis Chilton went the whole hog and penned an article entitled WHAT GOES UP, MUST COME DOWN: WHY IT’S OKAY TO HATE ‘DON’T LOOK UP’.  In this, he opined, “the execution is too broad and condescending… And for a comedy, perhaps its greatest offence is that there are almost no laughs.”

 

So Don’t Look Up has received contrasting levels of appreciation from ordinary viewers and from the critics.  Interestingly, one faction that’s whole-heartedly praised the film has been environmental journalists and scientists.  Climate scientist Peter Kalmus wrote in the Guardian that as someone “doing everything I can to wake people up and avoid planetary destruction, it’s also the most accurate film about society’s terrifying non-response to climate breakdown I’ve seen.”  Meanwhile, in the Guardian too, environmental journalist George Monbiot declared, “The movie is, in my view, a powerful demolition of the grotesque failures of public life.  And the sector whose failures are most brutally exposed is the media…  it seemed all too real.  I felt as if I were watching my adult life flash past me.  As the scientists in the film, trying to draw attention to the approach of a planet-killing comet, bashed their heads against the Great Wall of Denial erected by the media and sought to reach politicians with 10-second attention spans, all the anger and frustration and desperation I’ve felt over the years boiled over.”

 

Well, I have to say I come down on the side of Joe Public (and the environmentalists) and not on the side of the critics who, as part of the mainstream media, were perhaps not best pleased by how the film portrayed that media.  I liked Don’t Look Up and, despite what Louis Chilton claimed in the Independent, enjoyed several hearty laughs during its running time.  There are a few problems, which I’ll talk about in a minute, but generally I’m happy to give the movie the thumbs up.

 

© Netflix / Hyperobject Industries

 

Much of what works in the movie is due to its impeccable cast.  DiCaprio and Lawrence make a good double-act as the astronomers.  DiCaprio is a timid character, at times a bundle of nerves, cerebral but inarticulate when he comes under pressure.  Lawrence is the opposite, ready to forcibly speak her mind when she sees others obfuscating.  As events unfurl, it’s the bumbling DiCaprio who unwittingly becomes a media star, probably because he matches public perceptions of what scientists should be like – cuddly, eccentric Albert Einstein types.  Meanwhile, the abrasive Lawrence is banished from the limelight.  DiCaprio plays along with this and ingratiates himself with the media and political establishments, believing he can exert a positive influence over the people in power who are dealing with the comet.  He can’t, as it turns out, and while he compromises his principles his private life up-ends and he becomes estranged from his wife and children.

 

Perry and Blanchett are simultaneously amusing and chilling as the shallow talk-show hosts, though Blanchett is allowed a sliver of character development later when we learn she has three master’s degrees, meaning that her lack of acumen onscreen is merely an audience-pleasing act.  The sequence where DiCaprio and Lawrence go on their show, The Daily Rip, to break the bad news about the comet to the world, and find the hosts more interested in interviewing a pop-poppet (played by Ariane Grande, no less) about her split with her pop-poppet boyfriend, is a masterclass in cringe comedy worthy of Ricky Gervais or Armando Iannucci.

 

Meryl Streep, meanwhile, is majestically horrible as the president.  It would have been easy to portray her as a female Trump, but she’s smarter and smoother than the blustering, orange-skinned, cunning-without-being-smart property tycoon.  “I say we sit tight and assess,” is her initial reaction to DiCaprio and Lawrence’s warnings, which she justifies with the observation, “You cannot go around saying to people that there’s 100% chance that they’re going to die.  You know?  It’s just nuts!”  When she’s faced with a potentially explosive scandal and needs something to divert the media’s attention, however, she changes her tune.  She suddenly plays up the comet and amid much patriotic hoopla marshals the US’s nuclear firepower in an effort to annihilate it before it reaches the earth.  Her tune changes again when a major donor to her party persuades her to cancel the plan to destroy the comet, because it’s a goldmine of precious metals, and proposes a different way of handling it.

 

The donor is a Silicon Valley billionaire played by Mark Rylance, who believes his company has the capability to send a fleet of rocket-powered robots to the comet and seed it with explosives.  These will break it into small, non-cataclysmic fragments that can be retrieved and put to lucrative use when they fall to earth.  Stiff, eternally smiling, generally weird, Rylance comes across as a creepy mixture of Elon Musk, Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson.  Incidentally, the character’s fondness for having children onstage with him when he’s unveiling his company’s latest high-tech gadgets reminded me faintly of Jackson’s disastrous performance of The Earth Song at the 1996 Brit Awards in London, when he had a crowd of child actors in tow.  Rylance leaves you wondering if the character is a genius or just some arrested-development man-child who’s been extraordinarily lucky.  Due to his wealth, of course, the establishment believe he is a genius and happily go along with his comet-breaking scheme.  You can guess how it ends.

 

© Netflix / Hyperobject Industries

 

The best performance, though, comes from Jonah Hill as the White House Chief of Staff, who also happens to be President Streep’s son.  If writer-director-producer Adam McKay doesn’t satirise Donald Trump directly with Streep, he certainly skewers the Trump White House with Hill’s character, a smug, obnoxious, entitled arse with all the characteristics of the promoted-beyond-their-abilities Trump kids (and Jared Kushner).  Hill makes a meal of the role. “You’re breathing weird.  It’s making me uncomfortable,” he whines at DiCaprio when the latter gets worked up describing the mile-high tsunamis that’ll crash across the planet when the comet hits.  And when DiCaprio tells him the chance of this happening is ’99.78 percent’, he reacts, “Oh, great!  So it’s not 100 percent.”  McKay also uses the character to take a swipe at Trumpism’s biggest coup, that of convincing masses of ordinary, often hard-up people to support a wealthy, right-wing elite by demonising another part of America, the part that’s liberal, urban and educated.  We hear Hill declare at a rally: “There’s three types of American people.  There are you, the working class.  Us, the cool rich.  And then them!”

 

On the minus side, I’d say Don’t Look Up is about half-an-hour too long.  Its unnecessary length means the satire gets a bit samey and the jokes get stretched a bit thin towards the end.  Also, late on, there are jarring tonal shifts.  We have solemn moments where DiCaprio tries to make peace with his loved ones and enjoy some final, life-affirming time with them, even while the gigantic tsunamis surge out from the comet’s strike-point.  This put me in mind of another movie about a collision of celestial bodies, Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia (2011), even though for the most part it’s a million miles removed from Don’t Look Up in mood.  However, intercut with the DiCaprio scenes are ones where the satire continues, with Streep, Rylance and a super-rich select few escaping from the earth, in suspended animation, on board a specially-prepared spaceship, which’ll take them to another earth-type planet 23,000 years from now.  While I enjoyed both sub-plots, having them unwind side-by-side made me feel I was watching two different films.

 

Also, for a movie that’s about the disparagement of science, Don’t Look Up could have been more scientifically accurate in places.  The initial operation to completely destroy the comet involves sending an astronaut (Ron Perlman) up into space on a suicide mission.  He’s in a recommissioned space shuttle and shepherding a flock of rockets carrying nuclear bombs, all on a collision course with the comet.  But the real space shuttle could never get beyond a low-earth orbit because it couldn’t carry enough propellant to go further.  How is Perlman going to reach the comet, which is still a few months away at this point?  Couldn’t they just launch the rockets, without the shuttle, and guide them from the ground?  The ‘sleeper’ spaceship that appears at the end and transports a lucky few to a planet in a faraway solar system sets up a good final gag, but it troubled me too.  If the elite, which includes Rylance’s character, have the technology at their disposal to create a spaceship like that – officially, manned interstellar space travel and suspended animation are beyond human know-how at the moment – couldn’t Rylance have put that fabulous technology to more immediate use and made a better job of his comet-breaking operation?

 

Although people have interpreted Don’t Look Up’s comet as a metaphor for climate change and society’s hopeless attempts, or non-attempts, to address it, I think the film is making broader comments about the scientific community, the media, politicians and their responses to crises generally.  It’s not as if the politicians spend the whole film denying the existence of the comet, as some real-life ones still deny that climate change is happening.  Fairly early on, it’s established that, yes, the comet is heading our way (although we see instances of ‘comet-deniers’ among the general public later on).  It’s more about how self-interest and opportunism get in the way of necessary and meaningful action.

 

When Streep gives Rylance’s daft plan to harvest the comet the go-ahead, I found myself thinking of a real-life, down-to-earth and non-American parallel.  During the Covid-19 pandemic in Britain, Boris Johnson’s Conservative government frequently handed out lucrative contracts for making personal protective equipment (PPE), establishing tracing programmes, setting up testing centres and so on to private companies that lacked medical experience, but were sympathetic to or connected with the Conservative party.  Often, the results were disastrous.  But hey, if you have access to power and can make a fast buck during a catastrophe, why not?

 

So actually, you don’t have to look up.  Just look around you instead.  It’s happening everywhere, this moment.

 

© Netflix / Hyperobject Industries

Hope for the best, expect the worst

 

© Stewart Bremner

 

“Hope for the best, expect the worst,” is a maxim that crops up regularly in Angela Carter’s exuberant 1991 novel Wise Children.  The novel’s two main characters, twin sisters Dora and Nora Chance, keep repeating this to themselves so that they remain grounded and their heads stay screwed on while they negotiate the highs and lows, the euphoria and tragedy, of life during eight decades of the 20th century.

 

It’s also a maxim I think is worth bearing in mind as we approach the American presidential election on November 3rd, little more than a fortnight away.  Yes, I know the polls indicate Joe Biden has a solid and stable lead over the current, revolting incumbent of the White House.  But of course four years ago Hillary Clinton was supposed to have a similarly commanding lead over the Orange Hideousness and we know what happened then.

 

One thing I suspect is overlooked in these polls is what is known in the UK as the Shy Tory factor.  Wikipedia describes this phenomenon as “so-called ‘shy Tories’… voting Conservative after telling pollsters they would not.”  Presumably, they lie to the pollsters because they’re too embarrassed to admit they intend to vote for a chancer like Boris Johnson.  As a result, “the share of the electoral vote won by the Conservative Party” is “significantly higher than the equivalent share in opinion polls.”

 

And I imagine you’d feel embarrassed too if you admitted to a pollster that you were going to vote for a crooked, racist, narcissistic, tax-dodging, pussy-grabbing, pig-ignorant malignity like Trump who shrugs off the deaths of 220,000-and-counting American citizens from Covid-19 with the glib platitude, “It is what it is.”  Thus, I have a horrible suspicion that the Shy Trumper factor will confound the pollsters’ predictions come November 3rd.

 

And that’s before we consider the USA’s idiotic electoral college system, which means that one vote cast in the least populous state, Wyoming, carries three-to-four times the influence of one vote cast in the most populous state, California, and Trump only has to edge it in a few crucial swing states to win.  Like his hapless predecessor Clinton, Biden could very well win the popular vote and still lose.

 

Also, there’s the sad fact that voter suppression has been rife.  This has been done quietly through the gerrymandering, trimming of voter rolls and removal of polling stations by Republican administrations in various states, and noisily through Trump’s attacks on the legitimacy of ballots submitted by mail.  All have been designed to reduce the numbers of voters likely to vote Democrat.

 

Meanwhile, I wouldn’t be surprised if voting on the day itself is disrupted by Trump-supporting fascist gangs and militias such as the Proud Boys, whom he recently instructed on TV to ‘stand by’.  And it’s certain that in the aftermath of an election result that, ostensibly, he loses, he and his lickspittle Republican enablers will use every trick and machination in the legislative book to have votes nullified and overturned so that he manages to grasp that all-important number of 270 electoral college votes.

 

So with Trump back in the White House for another four years, how bad will it be?  Very bad, I’d say.  I expect the USA to become at least a semi-totalitarian state where announcing yourself as a dissident – a Democrat, a liberal, a Black Lives Matter or LGBTQ activist – becomes increasingly risky.  Perhaps Trump’s official state apparatus won’t arrest or hurt you, but his unofficial army of gun-toting admirers, the white supremacists, militiamen and QAnon-obsessed conspiracy-theory fruit-loops, will take the law into their own hands and go after you themselves.  And should any of his right-wing terrorist fanboys be caught in the act of snuffing out his critics, I sure Trump will bend over backwards to ensure they are treated leniently.  Witness how quick he was to defend the actions of Kyle Rittenhouse, the delusional 17-year-old who gunned down two protestors during anti-police demonstrations in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

 

Leniency will also be shown to bad-apple cops and right-wing goons who rough up another group whom Trump despises, journalists working for mainstream and liberal news outlets.  During the Black Lives Matter protests earlier this year, police emboldened by Trump’s rhetoric were already assaulting and harassing reporters and camera crews.  And not long ago, Trump expressed his delight that Ali Velshi, an anchor with MSNBC, was hit by a police rubber bullet while reporting on a protest in Minneapolis.  “Wasn’t it beautiful sight?” he crowed at a rally.  “It’s called law and order.”

 

Elsewhere, expect a nationwide ban on abortion.  I’m sure, though, that Trump’s wealthy elite will be quietly allowed to purchase super-expensive drugs to combat Covid-19 that have been developed with human cells taken from aborted embryos.  The Affordable Health Care Act, hated by Trump because it was an Obama initiative, will go and won’t be replaced.  Environmental protections, already trashed, will be trashed further.  The forests on the west coast will continue to burn and the White House will react only with schadenfreude because everyone in the fire-zone votes Democrat anyway.

 

Science will be denigrated and ridiculed.  The evangelical Christians who loyally vote for Trump, even he obviously despises them, and even though a less Christian specimen of humanity than Trump is difficult to find, will be rewarded by having science removed from school syllabi, textbooks and museums in favour of their own primitive doctrines about how the world was created and how it functions.

 

Hundreds of thousands more Americans will die from Covid-19 while Trump, flaunting his supposedly macho disdain for mask wearing and social distancing, will continue to blame China, the WHO and Democrat state governors.  People of colour will continue to be murdered by the police, protests against these murders will continue to take place, police will continue to attack protestors, militiamen and looters will continue to take advantage of the chaos, and American cities will become ever-more dystopian.

 

Interviewed recently in the Observer, Martin Amis observed, “This election is going to be a referendum on the American character, not on Trump’s performance.”  As such, it’s tempting to dismiss a second Trump win as an America-only problem.  If Americans are dumb and immoral enough to vote for this nightmare, then it’s on them.  They own it.  Unfortunately, a second Trump presidency will impact hugely on the rest of the world too, via his hostility towards NATO, the EU and the Iran nuclear deal, and his disorientating mood-swings regarding China, and his penchant for being a lapdog to authoritarian dictators while insulting and belittling the leaders of long-term democracies (especially if they’re women).

 

Of course, the biggest and most disastrous impact of four more years of Trump, who’s pulled the USA out of the Paris Agreement on climate change mitigation, will be on the environment.  His refusal to take man-made climate change seriously may well scupper any chance humanity has of lessening its worst effects.   Trump doesn’t care about the millions – billions? – of people who could lose not just their livelihoods but their lives as average temperatures rise, huge areas become uncultivatable and possibly uninhabitable, rainfall patterns change disastrously, coasts disappear under rising sea levels and climate refugees take to the road in vast numbers.  Those are the problems of the little people, the losers, the suckers, and Trump only likes WINNERS.

 

I fear that already we’ve passed a tipping point and our species is inevitably facing catastrophe, that the damage we’ve wrought on our planet’s climate is now embedded in the system and will lead from one devastating consequence to another.  But if we haven’t already reached that tipping point, it’s likely that we will have by 2024 or whenever it is that Trump leaves the White House.  (Though don’t be surprised if by 2024 he and his minions in the US Senate and Supreme Court have re-engineered the constitution to allow him to remain in power indefinitely.)  By the way, Trump’s re-election will only goad the Brazilian fascist Bolsonara further in his efforts to torch the Amazon rainforest.

 

And yet, I believe that when future historians look back on this period and wonder how humanity managed to trigger such an ecological, political, economic and social horror show, they won’t finger Trump as the main culprit for all this.  No, the title of Most Villainous Human Being on the Planet in 2020 will surely be awarded to Rupert Murdoch, whose media empire has been instrumental in preparing the way for and then enabling Trump – just as it’s done for climate-change denialism, Brexit and most other things that suck in the modern world.  A Trump re-election will be largely due to Murdoch’s Fox News, a sealed-off bubble and echo-chamber for millions of American right-wingers who only want to hear their views confirmed, never challenged.

 

Future historians?  That’s me suggesting humanity has a future, where there’ll be historians.  Evidence, I’m afraid, that I’m hoping for the best rather than expecting the worst.

 

© Reuters / Jessica Rinaldi