Signs of the climate crisis are closing in. More than ever before – not to mention faster than ever before – the general public is coming round to the idea that the earth really is entering into a state of true peril, and that change is not happening fast enough.
Events which promised to prove transformative for the world, such as the COP26 Summit held in Glasgow earlier this year, continue to land below expectations – and, as a result, pass by members of the who have yet to realise the full scope of the issue. If the world leaders aren’t scrambling to change things, then what is there to worry about?
There is, of course, plenty to worry about, but only a portion of the global population appear to be worried. The differences in mindset between those who have come to this realisation, and those you haven’t, is now incredibly stark, and frustrations are quite clearly mounting.
These frustrations are understandable. When the truth is barrelling down on us like a comet from the sky, why is it that so many people – even world leaders – are capable of smiling away the threat, and continuing on with life-as-normal?
We have, in a roundabout way, synopsised the all-star Netflix original of the year, Don’t Look Up – a dark comedy that claims to have been ‘based on real events that haven’t happened – yet’. While, on the surface, it almost comes across as a parody of the apocalyptic film genre, it offers viewers a sober warning – one that we all need to pay attention to.
Don’t Look Up
The film is centred on a comet heading towards the planet, and due to collide in no more than six months’ time. When the news breaks, the public and government officials are split into two camps: those who recognise the severity of the threat, and those who mock them for fearmongering, giving into alarmism and panic, and who continue to act as though nothing is wrong, steered that way by world leaders who realise the rich stores of precious elements housed within the comet, and its untold mining potential. Even when the comet becomes visible to the naked eye, members of the public are simply told, ‘Don’t look up!’ by a governmental public service campaign.
Without spoiling the ending, the comet’s shadow begins to grow, alongside a sense of doom, but also a desire not to give into it – to look down, instead of up, and to treat fear as ignorance, rather than the other way around.
The film is, quite clearly, commentary on current, global attitudes toward climate change. While our world isn’t sitting in the path of a devastating comet, it is in harm’s way – and it will take more than wishful thinking to move it to safety. Opportunities for significant change are wasted and moved further down the list of priorities. As the film’s director, Adam McKay, stated: “society that tends to place it as the fourth or fifth news story”.
Don’t Look Up certainly isn’t the first film to bring audiences face-to-face with the realities (or future risks) of climate change and, in many cases, the apocalyptic genre has been offering a glimpse into humanity’s future for decades. Don’t Look Up is, however, unique in its decision to shine a spotlight on our responses to the crisis – and, more importantly, our leaders’.
Its satirical approach is uncomfortable. The viewer presses their nose to a world that is totally incomprehensible but, at the same time, devastatingly recognisable.
Prolific director Christopher Nolan is no stranger to considering the earth’s future, and to depicting a planet starved of resources and hope within his films. 2014’s Interstellar, starring Matthew McConaughey, depicts a planet on the brink of devastation, making a final leap towards a future that is drifting just out of reach.
The mood is very different to the darkly humorous tone of Don’t Look Up, and instead of forcing the viewer to confront public opinion, it forces the viewer to confront a very realistic and sober picture of a planet not so different from our own. True, this planet has moved beyond the crisis, but it hasn’t moved into some fantastical, unrealistic reinterpretation of the one we inhabit now.
Writing for the Guardian back in 2014, Catharine Shoard wrote that, ‘Interstellar suggests the survival of the species may depend on enough people extending a sense of empathy beyond their immediate family.’ This is not unlike the core message of Don’t Look Up – the idea that, while navel-gazing and burying one’s head in the sand may offer the greatest immediate comfort, it is taking us further and further from hope.
Something that bridges the gap between these two very different films is the fact that both are past the point of hope. Interstellar takes place in a world that is already beyond help; Don’t Look Up, on the other hand, faces a threat that arose and exists outside of humanity’s control and that, for the most part, just has to be waited on. Most of history’s greatest films have a hero, and they follow that hero to a point of resolution and safety. This genre, on the other hand, creates a discomfiting knot in the viewer’s stomach – one that carries through into reality, without a sense of community, there is no hero.
The catastrophe we face outside of the cinema is not a single, spectacular, make-or-break moment on the shoulders of a single protagonist or an unstoppable comet. In reality, it is playing out in a sequence of events seen and felt around the world – one after another after another, and each one representing an ominous stirring of the volcano that is climate disaster.
Dark Waters, starring Mark Ruffalo and Anne Hathaway, depicts a single moment contained to one small part of West Virginia, following a chemical leak caused by DuPont Co. The film is based on real events and follows the lengthy court case that resulted from it. It is nowhere near the scale of disaster felt during a comet collision, but it tackles the hard battle activists and whistle-blowers face when trying to convey the significance of the issue to the general public – not to mention policymakers.
Rather than pointing the finger directly at the public, the film shines the light on the ways in which largescale corporations often find greater benefit in attempting to allay fears and downplay concerns, even if that comes at the sacrifice of public safety. In a similar sense, corporate promises to help tackle climate change are not always proving to be reliable, which is why, often, the politics of climate reform are proving just as daunting as the risks of inaction.
The fight to incite empathy from parts of the world not affected by these crises has been mirrored more recently in the concerns over the Dakota Access Pipeline. Actress Shailene Woodley brought significant attention to the dangers posed to indigenous nations, who risked significant contamination to the surrounding environment in the event that the pipeline broke. The risk was the direct result of our ongoing dependence on fossil fuels, and the disharmony between their use and our own health and wellbeing. Renewable solutions like wind and solar PV have been consistently overlooked by policy makers, despite the data proving their ability to offer environmental and economic recovery.
‘Just Look Up’
In the past, we have talked about how a number of big names in Hollywood (and beyond) have used their platform to draw attention to the impending climate crisis. Recent years have seen both Zac Efron and Woody Harrelson weigh in on the threats posed to life as we know it, while many other celebrities-turned-activists have sought to reshape the general public’s perception of the threat.
Out of character, Don’t Look Up lead Leonardo DiCaprio is himself a passionate ambassador for climate change issues. In addition to standing as executive producer of a number of pivotal documentaries, including The 11th Hour and Before the Flood, he also founded the Re:wild foundation, which is focussed toward the restoration of natural habitats and ecosystems.
Alongside DiCaprio, other Hollywood veterans are consistently breaking out of their usual boxes to contribute to the ongoing dialogue surrounding the climate crisis. Jane Fonda, Livia Firth, Jaden Smith, Rosario Dawson, Prince Harry, and Meghan Markle have all forced a growing number of people to confront the metaphorical comet, and to realise that this is an issue impacting everyone – not just remote corners of the world.
Don’t Look Up is, in many ways, the first of its kind. A unique combination of political satire and the well-loved apocalyptic genre, its ability to force viewers to reflect on how their communities and governments respond to the warning cries of science and activism is as deeply moving as it is terrifying.
The film was an overnight success and catapulted up through Netflix’s rankings – a fact which should offer some reassurance to those of us who have been awake to the threat for some time already.