The comet in Don’t Look Up is meant to represent climate change. However, the two can’t entirely be connected. Here’s what the comet says instead.
Warning: the following contains SPOILERS for Don’t Look Up.
The comet hurtling towards Earth in Don’t Look Up actually hurts the movie, even if it conveys some key points in the overall message. Adam McKay’s bitingly relevant political satire begins with astronomy PhD candidate Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) discovering a massive comet that has a 100% chance of impacting Earth. She and Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) then begin their mission of alerting Washington officials about the comet’s impending destruction with the help of Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan) of the Planetary Defense Coordination Office, proven real in Don’t Look Up through a fourth-wall break to keep its humorous yet direct tone. Lampooned throughout the movie are caricatured political figures, billionaires, talk show hosts, and influential celebrities that all work against the public good to fulfill their personal interests.
Don’t Look Up aims at a wide target in its satire, which can be difficult to do successfully. At times, the message veers away from satire and right into frustration, with separate instances of Lawrence or DiCaprio directly screaming a “We’re all going to die!” message on a TV show. Despite their characters’ desperation, the figureheads directing a solution continue to ignore them and instead promote public divisiveness towards the threat. The movie’s aggressive and close-to-home message, coupled with a tonal dichotomy, has earned Don’t Look Up mixed reviews among critics yet relatively favorable reviews among viewers.
Contributing to the mixed reviews is the planet-killing comet not hitting Don’t Look Up’s main allegory quite right, despite the fact that it’s clearly a central driver for the movie’s message. What the comet represents versus what message the comet executes are close, but it misses some key points. Looking again at the comet’s meaning, here’s what can be ascertained.
The Comet Mainly Represents Climate Change
While it can apply to any number of threats like the COVID-19 pandemic or the dangerous spread of disinformation, Don’t Look Up points to how the comet more closely applies to the climate change crisis. The comet is a direct threat to the planet, not solely the human race. Showing what Don’t Look Up really means are the characters in how they react to the comet threat versus how the climate change threat is treated in real life. The populace expresses a general ambivalence towards the issue until it’s too late, and media outlets provoke a divisive “true vs. false” narrative despite overwhelming scientific evidence proving the threat’s existence. Furthermore, scientists have to literally shout their message to be taken seriously, and even that isn’t effective in stopping the comet. Supporting this allegory, Don’t Look Up adds transitional shots of nature and life on Earth.
Why The Comet Isn’t Like Climate Change
Where the comet fails as a climate change allegory is the fact that it’s too direct of a threat. The comet adds to the movie’s muddled message, even with Don’t Look Up’s great ending having the power to really drive home the thesis. While climate change has plenty of empirical scientific evidence, there is no hit-the-mark solution to solving it. Don’t Look Up proves twice that the comet can be blown to bits with missiles. Unfortunately, such is not the case for climate change. It’s a broader threat with more gradual consequences due to many factors ranging from pollution to inefficient energy sources. Furthermore, while a comet coming to Earth leaves no traces until it makes impact, climate change has already caused irreparable damage to Earth. Solutions for climate change follow more under how it can be curbed, not prevented altogether. The same argument can be made for COVID-19 or the spread of disinformation.
Points Made – What The Comet Proves Instead
Don’t Look Up gets a lot of its science right regarding a hypothetical comet crisis coming towards Earth. It also effectively uses the comet to express society’s reaction to a threat, even if the threat that the comet allegory aims for doesn’t quite hit the mark. The comet, like climate change, does impose a serious threat to life on Earth, even if climate change feels less direct. Furthermore, Don’t Look Up’s message is strengthened through not only its use of a hypothetical cataclysmic threat but of an event that humanity actually has complete power to control. By proving that it was not the scope of the threat at hand but rather intervening capitalistic motives and polarizing 24-hour media access leading to the comet’s impact, Don’t Look Up displays the severity of media manipulation and political divisiveness.
Don’t Look Up’s strengths lie in its character motivations towards the comet. One example is Meryl Streep’s brilliantly-performed President Orlean completely passing over Lawrence and DiCaprio’s scientifically-backed doomsday threats in favor of supporting her political ratings. Likewise, the billionaire tech CEO Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance) pulls aside President Orlean during a favorably-effective launch mission towards the comet, calling to stop the mission altogether in favor of finding a way to mine the comet’s precious mineral resources for monetary gain. At nearly every instant, Don’t Look Up finds a way to have supporting characters downplay the science brought forth. Such tactics include trying to display a more pleasant truth on their Good Morning America-esque show, starting Twitter arguments and futile social media challenges that don’t grasp the comet threat’s severity, or using star power to promote one side or another in lieu of listening to the scientists. Nobody listening in Don’t Look Up is the movie’s way of addressing society’s primary problems. This message would be clear regardless of the impending doomsday threat.
Even though Don’t Look Up’s comet intends to represent climate change specifically, it best supports a broader message pinpointing various societal ills relevant to this time period. The movie ends with Dr. Mindy and Kate Dibiasky with friends and family having a casual dinner as the comet approaches impact. It perfectly evokes a collective learned helplessness developed by the extreme gridlock society faces. The point becomes more poignant when the billionaires and politicians responsible for the comet’s impact leave Earth on a spacecraft headed towards the nearest life-sustaining planet. Don’t Look Up’s two credit sequences then showing these important figures being the only surviving members of humanity is equally humorous as it is tragic. Just as the proverbial “bread and circuses” contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire, Don’t Look Up displays how a surplus of distractions maintains a state of easy manipulation and collective stasis. With that, humanity opens itself to dangerous consequences.
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