What Don't Look Up Teaches Us About Ourselves

The latest Netflix blockbuster says more about our capacity for self delusion than we realise.

The smash hit movie of the December holidays has to be Don’t Look Up, a dry disaster satire. The plot is based on the discovery of a huge comet heading directly towards Earth, which scientists call a ‘planet killer’.

The collision seems inevitable, which sets the scene for an involved and surreal interplay between the scientific and political establishments as the clock ticks down.

By now the more perceptive of you will have noticed the parallels between a killer comet and the extinction threat coming from climate change. Which of course is the point.

The satire, headed up by a posse of A list actors including Leo DeCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, is clearly showing us how ridiculous it is to ignore the real threats from the climate crisis.

Did we totally miss the underlying premise of the plotline? 

The really interesting thing has been the movie’s reception from different audience segments. The critics have generally been very flattering, although it’s clear that some media commentators totally missed the underlying premise of the plotline, either deliberately or through willful ignorance.


Sweden’s main television channel SVT1 spent a whole show unironically discussing whether we could in fact divert a comet if it was headed to earth. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw described it as ‘slapstick apocalypse’, and so on.

But even for the rest of us mere mortals, the reaction has been rather strange. The movie pitches itself on the razor thin line between in-your-face doomsterism and surreal humour, and for some people that clearly causes genuine discomfort. Not so much at the calamity our species faces, but that a piece of art is clearly shining a laserbeam of light on the whole sorry issue. How dare they remind us of the climate emergency like this?

I have talked to a few people about their reactions to the film and almost all offered some generic praise of the movie, with an unsaid ‘but’ in the background. The unspoken thought seem to be – yes things are serious, but do we really need to expose it so ruthlessly?

Not with a bang, but with a whimper?

I came away from these brief discussions feeling they thought it was ‘a good movie’ in an entertaining way, great cast and script. But they weren’t emotionally able to talk about the message of the film at all.

Too raw for those who understand the situation, too boring for the non-believers. 

We all know by now how cognitive dissonance can warp our world view, but to see it in action like this is astonishing.

A question keeps repeating in my head. ‘What normal rational species, faced with a real possibility of disaster, cannot or will not deal with the facts, even when presented as powerfully as this?” Is it collective delusion or the result of a world battered into submission by financial and pandemic catastrophe? No energy or mental space to think about anything else?

Is this really how it might end? In the words of T. S. Elliot and Nevil Shute, ‘not with a bang, but a whimper?‘ How sad.

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