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The phenomenon of ‘Don’t Look Up’ (Part 2) » Yale Climate Connections

By the end of the Sunday, January 9, Don’t Look Up, writer-director Adam McKay’s dark satire about the impending impact of an Earth-killing comet, intended as an analogy for inaction on climate change, had been streamed on Netflix for a total of 322 million hours, putting it within striking distance of the most-watched movie in the platform’s history.

Dividing that imposing number by the film’s running time (2 hours and 18 minutes) provides a high-end estimate of the number of viewings: 140 million. That’s 51 million more than the number of people who bought tickets to see Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow (Day After) during the entirety of its 2004 run. In other words, in just three weeks Don’t Look Up has eclipsed Day After as the most widely viewed fictional film treatment of climate change.*

But Don’t Look Up’s run isn’t over. On January 7, McKay’s production company, Hyperobject Industries,** released the first two episodes of its podcast about the making of the movie, The Last Movie Ever Made. The company plans to release four more episodes, one each week until Friday, February 4. By continuing to provide new material for discussion, through the podcast and his tweets and blog posts, McKay is likely to keep people talking about, and watching, Don’t Look Up.

In fact, the discussion among film critics and fans is already quite lengthy and animated, another metric by which Don’t Look Up has matched or surpassed the impact of Day After. (See this site’s accounts of the production and reception of Day After here and here.)

Since the film’s limited theatrical release on December 10 (its Netflix run began on December 24) YCC has identified 59 reviews of Don’t Look Up, of which 35 were mostly positive (59%) and 24 mostly negative (41%). This slightly more positive ratio – Rotten Tomatoes had a positive score of 55% – likely reflects the inclusion of later, more personal reactions to the film by climate scientists and activists who objected to the early, often dismissive reviews. (Readers can find Yale Climate Connections’ review of Don’t Look Up here.)

Negative reviews

Negative reviews largely came from film critics who follow the currents of popular culture closely, critics like Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney, Rolling Stone’s David Fear, Variety’s Peter Debruge, and Vulture’s Alison Willmore. Given the leftie reputations of McKay and his cast, negative reviews from conservative venues like The Wall Street Journal (Joe Morgenstern), National Review (Kyle Smith), and Hollywood in Toto: The Right Take on Entertainment (Christian Toto) were not surprising, but ideology was not a reliable predictor.

Common themes in these negative reviews were the film’s heavy-handed messaging, the underwhelming performances of the too-many stars, and the inherently smug (people are such idiots) premise.

Some negative reviews also came from commentators familiar with the political divide over climate change, commentators like CNN’s Holly Thomas. Thomas wrote that she feared that the film’s evident biases would intensify existing animosities and thereby alienate even the political independents climate activists need to win over if they ever hope to pass and implement effective climate measures.

Two pieces stand out for the ways they flesh out this internal – the film foils its own ambitions – critique. For New York magazine, Eric Levitz explained in depth why presenting an impending comet as an analogy for climate change distorts perceptions and will likely make effective political action even more difficult. Writing for The New Yorker, Richard Brody argued Don’t Look Up’s real and purely cynical ambition “was getting itself talked about.” By not recognizing any distinctions between parties or purposes, Brody wrote, McKay further degrades the politics he ridicules. 

Positive reviews

The positive reviews were written by two different groups of people: (1) pop culture critics and fans who enjoyed the star-studded spectacle of Don’t Look Up on its own terms (see for example the reviews by The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis and The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday), and (2) an impressive number of climate scientists, reporters, and activists who felt the film voiced the anger, frustration, and despair they felt in trying to communicate the urgency of the climate crisis in the real world.

Several in the latter group – including Kate Aronoff, Eric Holthaus, Ayana Johnson (her tweet was cited in Holthaus’s post), Peter Kalmus, Michael Mann, Bill McKibben (who noted he first used the comet analogy in 2001), George Monbiot, Rebecca Oppenheimer, David Roberts, and Gavin Schmidt – said, in their different ways, that they “felt seen” by the film.

A few environmental reporters, however, like Grist’s Eve Andrews and Time’s Justin Worland, agreed with mostly negative reviewers regarding the film’s too simplistic portrayal of the media.

After three weeks, the number and intensity of reviews became another topic for discussion; accusatory “explanations,” like David Vetter’s “sneering” piece for Forbes, then spurred further debate.

The most fully developed of these pieces was written by Nathan J. Robinson for Current Affairs, who argued “there is nothing wrong with being ‘shrill’ or ‘unsubtle’ when trying to make an important political point.” And that point, for Robinson, “is not that the working class are sheep who don’t care about the future, but that the rich manipulate people’s perceptions of one another to serve their own interests” (italics in original).

Ben Goldfarb’s review for Hill Country News quotes McKay himself in proffering a similar view. The real target of Don’t Look Up is the “massive, shifting system of careerism, profitization, politics, and leveraged power.”

The unexpected (at least partial) endorsements of the film by three conservative commentators – Matthew Garnett (The Federalist), Emily Jashinsky (The Federalist) and Kevin Williamson (National Review) – lend credence to these lines of argument.

As did the first episode of the podcast, The Last Movie Ever Made.

Podcasting ‘Don’t Look Up

The first 10 minutes of the first episode of The Last Movie Ever Made, “The Titanic Band,” covers much the same ground surveyed in Vanity Fair’s earlier profile of Adam McKay. In those 10 minutes, McKay is followed from aspiring stand-up comic, to head writer for Saturday Night Live, to writer/director of goofball comedies, to writer/director of political satires.

But then the podcast goes on to describe, in ways Vanity Fair did not, McKay’s deepening engagement with climate change, which became a passionate, even sleepless concern after he read David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth. Don’t Look Up developed out of McKay’s need to manage the anxieties – and the anger – ignited by Wallace-Well’s book, which explains some of the “we’re all going to die” moments in the film.

The podcast makes clear that McKay wanted to make a movie that could make a big bang. The boldly drawn characters and savage absurdities were part of the plan. So too was the star-studded cast: Major stars draw major attention.

The pandemic, and President Trump’s mishandling of it, both delayed the film’s production and forced a rewrite of the script. (“I had to up the crazy,” McKay says at one point.) The second episode of the podcast, “Mission Hopefully Possible,” describes in detail what it was like to shoot a movie under pandemic lockdown conditions. McKay became very familiar with COVID protocols and acutely felt his responsibility for the safety and health of his cast and crew, an experience that further fueled his anger over the derelictions of duty evident in failed responses to the pandemic – and to the climate crisis.

Onward (and upward?) from ‘Don’t Look Up

If one tallies the many ways MacKay has engaged the public in the run-up to and since the film’s release, ways that include the podcast, one might conclude that Don’t Look Up is better understood as an ongoing campaign than as one two-hour-and-18-minute movie.

Simply by promoting more talk about climate change, Don’t Look Up may deliver a positive result. However, it’s also possible that Don’t Look Up could make the conditions for communicating climate change even more difficult. The comet analogy may confuse more than it invigorates. The broad-brush denunciations of all politicians and all media may further diminish the public trust necessary for collective action. And the one scene praised even in negative reviews of the movie, the reconstituted family that gathers for a final prayerful meal at the end, may ultimately promote a sort of religious resignation or fatalism in the face of climate change.

Even those most positive about the film, the scientists and activists who feel vindicated and invigorated by Don’t Look Up’s full-throttle attack on science denial, may find it harder to do their work if the people who must be persuaded have become more resistant as a result of the negative ways they feel they were portrayed by McKay and company.

Which brings to mind the one way The Day After Tomorrow still surpasses Don’t Look Up. More studies have been conducted about audience perceptions and responses to Day After than about any other fictional depiction of climate change. (See, for example, this 2004 study from Environment.)

That film’s effects on viewers were mixed and temporary: a short-term increase in concern in the U.S., apprehensions of a colder future in the U.K, and confusion in Germany and Japan. The one long-term impact of Day After was on the film industry itself: a string of imitations made the very low-probability outcome of a new ice age one of the widely viewed visualizations of climate change.

It’s clear that McKay wants to defend science. And satire is the genre he knows and does best. But expression is not persuasion. To understand what Don’t Look Up actually delivers to audiences will require, well, some of that unbiased, peer-reviewed science that McKay wants to defend.

*Hours streamed does not equate with hours viewed: the TV could be on with no one watching. From the total number alone, one also cannot determine whether the movie was watched all the way through. Thus the simple division of hours-streamed by the running-time-of-the-film only produces an upper-end estimate. Similarly, a fully accurate comparison with The Day After Tomorrow would require controlling for background differences between 2004 and 2021-22. To arrive at the viewership for The Day After Tomorrow, its worldwide box office total ($552,639,571) was divided by the average ticket price for 2004 ($6.21), yielding a result of 88,992,000 tickets purchased or 63.5% of the highest estimate for the number of people who streamed Don’t Look Up.

**The name Adam McKay chose for his production company itself provides evidence of his interest in climate change. “Hyperobject,” the term coined by eco-philosopher Timothy Morton, denotes  an “entit[y] of such vast temporal and spatial dimensions that [it] defeat[s] traditional ideas about what a thing is.”

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