This article contains spoilers for DON’T LOOK UP.
In the new Netflix hit movie, Don’t Look Up, written and directed by satirical filmmaker Adam McKay (The Big Short, Anchorman), two rather low-level astronomers (Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) discover a comet is headed directly toward Earth, with the object set to smash into our little planet in six months. When it does, it will completely obliterate all life.
The pair of scientists, Dr. Mindy (DiCaprio) and PhD candidate Dibiasky (Lawrence), bring their findings to the White House where they are met with indifference from the narcissistic, idiotic President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) and her possibly even dumber bro-dude son/chief of staff (Jonah Hill). They next take their discovery to the media where it is treated frivolously by morning talk show hosts Brie Evantee (Cate Blanchett) and Jack Bremmer (Tyler Perry), although the former starts an affair with Mindy.
It’s only when a sex scandal threatens the President’s hold on office does she turn the nation’s attention to the comet. But even that is short-lived as she aborts a mission to destroy it in space when the eccentric head of an Apple-like company called BASH (and a top donor to Orlean) discovers that the comet may contain trillions of dollars’ worth of minerals and rare elements. Although the original mission had a decent chance of destroying or at least deflecting the comet, it is now up to Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance) and his BASH team, whose plan has not been reviewed by scientists at all.
Why They Won’t Look Up
Although Mindy has initially been co-opted by the Orlean administration and made its National Science Advisor–part of the effort is to persuade the public that the BASH plan to mine the comet will create untold riches and countless jobs–he eventually turns on them and abandons the administration. When the comet finally becomes visible in the sky, he and Dibiasky reteam to begin a grassroots “Just Look Up” movement to convince the public of the danger and encourage other countries to launch their own missions to intercept it.
In response, Orlean launches her own “Don’t Look Up” campaign, essentially telling Americans (and others) to pretend that the comet doesn’t exist (here’s looking at you, climate change deniers and anti-vaxxers). This is implemented because Orlean and her administration think the comet will be worth countless trillions of dollars, which will of course enrich the entire elite class of which she is a member.
The irony of this being turned into a campaign though is demonstrated by the scene where Lawrence’s Dibiasky goes to her parents’ house and is not let through the door, because they are “pro-comet” and excited about all the alleged jobs it will create. This is an intentionally loaded allegory for all the millions of people who are convinced that mining coal, drilling offshore, and building oil pipelines is creating a tide of jobs that raises all boats. Yet, somehow, despite these “job creation” projects, income inequality continues to widen year after year and decade after decade, as the wealth generated by these climate-killing endeavors disproportionately lines the pockets of the wealthier classes. Meanwhile, a cynic might say that those who think they’re “pro-jobs” are actually digging their world’s own grave as they support policies which are an existential threat to the planet.
But back to the movie…
After an international mission to destroy the comet doesn’t even get off the launchpad and BASH’s own attempt to mine it goes disastrously wrong–despite Isherwell’s moronic, sage-like assurances that it will–the final bell is rung: the comet is coming for us and nothing can stop it.
Why Mindy Stays on Earth
Naturally, the Orlean administration, its top donors and its hangers-on have a back-up plan: a ship has been constructed in secret that will take all of them–in hypersleep–into deep space to find a new planet on which to restart human civilization. As the comet draws near, Orlean and her minions flee in the spacecraft, although they accidentally leave her son behind.
Mindy is offered a spot on the ship but declines, choosing instead to spend humanity’s last hours on Earth with his family (he has reconciled with his wife following his dalliance with Evantee), Dibiasky and her new boyfriend (Timothee Chalamet) and Ted Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan), the former head of NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office and the sole sane voice in Washington that heeded the astronomers’ warnings.
The Mindys and their friends share a warm last night together, giving a moving demonstration of human dignity in the face of extinction. After more than two hours of watching the inanity, corruption, ignorance, and self-absorption of the various institutions that McKay’s film skewers (often with funny results, but sometimes with too heavy a hand), these few minutes portraying our better nature–our attributes of love, generosity, decency, and courage–feel like the proverbial cool drink of water in the midst of a seemingly endless desert.
And then the lights go out.
About That Spaceship Post-Credits Scene…
More than 22,000 years after the Earth is destroyed (22,740, to be exact), the starship bearing Orlean and the last dregs of humanity (all wealthy, elite, and aged) lands on what appears to be a green, vibrant, Earth-like planet. The ship’s passengers awaken from their sleep and disembark, naked, to begin briefly exploring their new surroundings–that is, until Orlean is killed and eaten by a dinosaur-like creature. More of the planet’s predatory inhabitants emerge to surround the humans, and as we fade out it doesn’t appear that the seeds of human civilization are going to survive for very long out in the stars.
In a final post-credits tag, Orlean’s son is shown climbing out of the rubble back on Earth millennia earlier, crying for his mommy and trying haplessly to post pictures via social media on his now-useless phone.
In the grand tradition of some of our bleakest satire and sci-fi, whether it be Dr. Strangelove or Planet of the Apes or Threads, Don’t Look Up warns us that while we may have the means, the smarts, and the technology to at least attempt to save the human race and the Earth itself, it’s our worst instincts that are going to do us in.
As long as we squabble and deny and obfuscate, as long as we are motivated not by humanism and love but by greed, power and selfishness, then we are not going to make it. That comet in the movie can be anything–climate change, new viruses, global war, attempts to overthrow a legitimate democracy–but what it really represents is our own pettiness and stupidity crashing into our fragile little race and world and blowing both to smithereens.
That is what Don’t Look Up is all about in the end, and that is why–whether you like McKay’s approach to the subject or not–the ending of the movie, pardon the pun, hits home.
Don’t Look Up is now streaming on Netflix.