‘Don’t Look Up': The Satire Of The Year We Didn't Know We Need

Tushar Gupta

Dec 30, 2021, 06:33 PM | Updated 06:33 PM IST

Don't Look Up
Don't Look Up
  • Don’t Look Up angers everyone equally, irrespective of what political ideology they stand for, and that’s the strength of the movie.
  • In the final hour of the movie, an exasperated Dr. Mindy, played by Leonardo Di Caprio, loses his calm on national television, restating that a comet is headed directly towards the planet, has a 100 per cent certainty of hitting us, and consequently, will kill us all.

    He snaps at one of the anchors for trying to sugarcoat everything, and for being unable to say things as they are, and as he gets up, he cries his heart out, saying that he hopes the President realises what she is doing but according to him, the entire administration is out of its mind. It is at that precise moment one realises that the movie was the satire we never knew we needed.

    A broken, lost, and confused Dr. Mindy could be anyone of us from the last 18-months. They could be one of the scientists trying to warn the world about global warming as wildfires range across Australia and America. They could be one of the doctors asking people to mask up to protect themselves and others from the virus.

    They could be one of the policymakers asking people to get the jab and not believe the conspiracy theorists. They could be one of the market guys, freaking out over the bull run in the crypto and NFTs market. They could be that daily wage earner, wondering what purpose would a night curfew serve as unchecked election rallies go on through the day in his state. They could definitely be you, at some point, from the last 18-months.

    On paper, the movie must have been envisioned as a satire on the denial of climate change, with the comet hurtling towards the earth being a metaphor for the gradual global warming, and the rising temperatures and sea levels. However, from the opening shot, the movie ends up becoming an intelligent satire on everything that is broken within the system of Western democracies today, from politics to media to the biggest stakeholder, the people themselves.

    The President of the United States, played by Meryl Streep, is an amalgamation of President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden. The Chief of Staff, played by Jonah Hill, who also plays the son of the POTUS, is a subtle yet unmissable dig at the administration of Trump.

    When the POTUS first learns about the comet from the two scientists, the other one played by Jennifer Lawrence, after making them wait overnight while struggling through the news cycle that exposes the infamous modelling career of her Supreme Court nominee, her concern is not the comet but the upcoming mid-terms that she could lose if the news got out. Thus, ignorant, she and her son dismiss the scientists, keeping politics above the response to an imminent threat.

    The sequence reminds one of a lot of events from the real world. For the viewers in the West, it could be the administration of Biden struggling with the ‘Build Back Better Act’, or the vaccine approval that was put on hold last year in the United States before the polling was complete. Politics in the White House not only overshadows science, but also human lives.

    In India, one is not alien to politics triumphing policymaking, for the governments of the day put a quiet lid on difficult issues in the election season, especially if it threatens their vote bank. Some go beyond elections and keep the emergency aid for floods waiting for the right party leader to come and complete the photo-op. Perhaps, it’s a mockery of the democracy we are all part of, or a mockery of the choices we have made in this democracy, but it’s as close to the truth as it gets on screen.

    The digs on contemporary print and television media are a delight to watch, even if one comes from the profession. In the first public appearance, the two scientists are made to wait for their sequence as politics and the breakup of a popstar couple overshadow their news of a comet hurtling towards earth and killing everyone. The two news anchors while hosting the female popstar ask if she has a message for her former boyfriend, and what follows is a testament to the seriousness of television news today. Not going to spoil it here!

    When the two scientists do get the attention of the news anchors in an otherwise jolly mood, the anchor is more concerned about their media training, about keeping the bad news light for it impacts the viewer ratings. Later, they learn that social media was also not impressed with their doomsday news, and was more focussed on the breakup of the popstar couple. At this point, they could have called the comet a ‘Truth Bomb’.

    Eventually, when PhD candidate Dibiasky, played by Jennifer Lawrence, has a meltdown on the show for not being taken seriously, they laugh her off, and her boyfriend working as an editor in what can be called a Buzzfeed equivalent, quickly puts together an article where he describes their private life to garner some clickbait brownie points.

    Again, an accurate representation of the traditional media of the day. One of the author’s favourite scenes is when a conservative news channel, probably modelled on Fox News, is more concerned about topless urgent care centres (whatever that means) even as the world is coming apart.

    No wonder the critics from the conventional media houses crucified the movie for going nowhere given it exposed their hypocrisy and shallow coverage of issues everywhere.

    Even though the movie was released on Netflix, it does not spare the Big Tech. An amalgamation of the personalities of the late Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and any other awkward Silicon Valley giant one can imagine leads the mission to mine rare materials from the comet, but only after disrupting a DART-like mission aimed at annihilating the rock through nuclear warheads.

    A confused Dibiasky questions the Chief of Staff as to why this Big Tech giant gets a free pass with the President only to learn that the man has full clearance because he is a ‘Platinum Eagle Level Donor’.

    The greatest thing about this unexpected Chrismtas surprise on Netflix is not the ensemble cast, or it being the best doomsday movie without needing the Speilberg-like blasts and explosion effects, or not even the fact that it exposes the woke and weak faultlines of a world distracted and disrupted by pop culture, politics, tribal icons, media, or the Big Tech, but that it forces the viewer to think, but only after giving them a good laugh for over two hours.

    In the final sequence of the movie, a group of old but filthy rich people, represented as the oil tycoons, lobbyists, and the Wall Street devils, deliberate over the continuity of humanity, but as the screen zooms out, the viewer is left with a subtle question. Can the fate of humanity be left to a group of people with too many resources and yet too little at stake?

    From the politicians we elect for the top job, to the politicians we allow to thrive, to the news anchors we believe blindly, to the pop culture icons we look up to for validation for the events of the day, to the people we rely on analysis only because they come with fancy degrees from the best universities and colleges, and to the companies we willingly submit ourselves to, the movie warrants an urgent introspection on all fronts.

    The movie does not want one to sit and over-intellectualise what it offers, but simply employ basic common sense.

    Don’t Look Up angers everyone equally, irrespective of what political ideology they stand for, and that’s the strength of the movie, for the comet is nothing but climate change we cannot see, or we refuse to see, and the consequences of foolishness do not differentiate amongst people and their politics, as the pandemic tells us.

    'Don't Look Up' for spoilers, for it's the best movie of 2021, right there with Spider-Man.

    Tushar is a senior-sub-editor at Swarajya. He tweets at @Tushar15_

    Get Swarajya in your inbox.