Netflix’s “Don’t Look Up” misjudges efforts to fight climate change

Writer-director Adam McKay’s comedy film “Don’t Look Up” on climate change is causing a stir. It’s trending at the top of Netflix, drawing sharp criticism, and generated heated debate on social media since its release on the streaming site last week.

McKay’s new film, which comes after his Dick Cheney’s uneven biopic, “Vice”, centers on the quest of two scientists (played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) to persuade the world that a planet-killing comet is rushing towards Earth, to clash with a corrupt and self-interested political class, the stingy billionaires of the Silicon Valley who want to exploit the comet in search of rare minerals and a media world addicted to tatting.

The debate over “Don’t Look Up” presents unusually high stakes: it is a film about how people are not paying enough attention to climate change; if he fails to connect or offer insight to his audience, then he will have failed not only in his artistic mission but also in his political mission.

The film’s central vanity and its repeated attempts to indict the media actually obscures more than it enlightens.

In terms of artistic achievement, the film is nobly intentioned and generates solid jokes and caricatures, but it has likely lost many movie critics due to how unpredictably it oscillates between satire and sickening seriousness. I have sometimes felt yelled at for something I already know; it would have been more enriching if the film had leaned more into its absurdity and wallowed less in its simple moralism of the fallen world.

But my main interest here is the political impact: does “Don’t Look Up” give us a clearer picture of our society’s struggle to tackle climate change? On that front, his record is mixed: he does some things right, but the film’s central conceit and repeated attempts to indict the media probably obscures more than it enlightens. Ironically, a movie about how hard it is to concentrate can distract us from some of the real issues that lie ahead.

The masterstroke of “Don’t Look Up” is the role of Silicon Valley mogul Peter Isherwell, played wonderfully by Mark Rylance, who has an ethereal presence and casually reverses government policies to ensure he can take advantage of the doomsday comet. His cheerful indifference to the feelings of others as he walks in and out of the White House while quietly examining his phone and spreading information about how and when people will die using invasive surveillance data is a clever parody of the titans of technology today. Isherwell captures how the rulers of Silicon Valley are indeed demigods in our societies, capable of destroying and creating new worlds in fanciful ways, creating technologies designed to exploit human loneliness, and dressing it up to the limit. breath as in the best interests of the company and not theirs.

But the central – and titular – theme of “Don’t Look” is that our society is plagued by the disease of climate denial: It’s virtually impossible for the scientists in the film to convince people that the comet exists and must be taken seriously. serious. Here, it stumbles enormously.

We are invited to see a cable news show that repeatedly greets the scientists who have discovered the comet as a replacement for our brain-dead media. When scientists initially plead for experts to take the issue of an extinction threat seriously, the hosts remind them that “we are only keeping the bad news in the light.” When the character of Lawrence, a precocious but cynical doctoral student, launches a rant about how everyone is going to die, she is immediately dead, labeled insane and ostracized by the media – “canceled” for telling the truth. These themes are repeated throughout the film.

To say that the media industry prefers to avoid bad news couldn’t be further from the truth.

There are two major problems here: the first, suggesting that the media industry prefers to avoid bad news could not be further from the truth. Bad news is always lucrative for the media. Consider how the early stages of the pandemic resulted in huge news consumption or how the media tends to fare better when they oppose the sitting president or the fact that vertical “good news” in the media were inspired by the ambition to thwart the norm of negativity and suffering in most reporting.

The reality is that climate change has been a media challenge for more complex (and harder to blame) reasons than the idea that talking honestly about bad things is bad for business. One of the problems is that climate change involves gradual and systemic changes. There is no clear villain; there is no one-size-fits-all solution; and developments are slow enough that, apart from exceptionally catastrophic natural disasters, it can be difficult to chronicle the changes in a vivid way. This makes the problem different from political, criminal or commercial crises, for example.

America’s media absolutely deserve strong criticism for its inattention to climate change in the past years – and the way journalists have did not pressure presidential candidates on climate is more than shameful. But it has more to do with structural flaws in the way journalists have learned and are prompted to tell stories: low-key, character-driven narratives, rather than issues in the systems we live in. This characteristic of the way news is typically told exposes the limits of the central metaphor of ‘Don’t Look Up’. Observing climate change – which can vary in its acceleration and effects depending on human intervention, and can be so gradual that it usually cannot be observed every moment – is not perfectly analogous to tracking the threat. distinctly perceptible singular posed by a comet with a clear trajectory guaranteed to wipe out all human life.

The second issue to consider is agency and public accountability. Many producers, editors and journalists have Noted In years past, it can be quite difficult to get the public’s attention to climate change stories – although this has started to change in recent years, it seems. That’s not to say that the media shouldn’t be blamed for not telling climate stories more effectively or striving to be more inventive, but there are limits to what the media can do. do if the audience finds the important stories boring. (Consider how coverage of political gaffes gets more attention than political stories.) The problem is that the endless media income crisis brought on by the advent of the Internet makes it difficult for the media to devote resources to a problem that does not arise. a lot of attention. In other words, the media are not afraid to appear hysterical or to speak the truth. They are in part limited by the fear that people are not interested in certain truths.

The title of the film “Don’t Look Up” argues that the central problem we face is that society has decided to ignore an uncomfortable truth – and one might be led to believe that it is all about. the need for a better message. But ignorance is not the main obstacle. In the USA the majority believe in anthropogenic global warming, and a majority think that the government should do more to fix it. At this stage in history, the problem shifts from recognizing the problem to taking action: building political will; make the climate a top political priority; take seriously ending dependence on fossil fuels and investing in climate-related technologies; seek alternatives to rapacious capitalism; and cultivate cultural changes in the way we deal with everything from meat consumption to travel to waste. The obstacles to these much needed efforts are less the difficulty of awakening a society of dupes than the difficulty of generating mass mobilization for radical change.

Talking heads, myopic politicians and especially companies with vested interests in fossil fuels deserve a lot of blame. “Don’t Look Up” makes decent remarks about their guilt in an entertaining way. But what it lacks is that the solution isn’t just to have the courage to recognize the problem, it’s to develop the power and discipline to do something.

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