Don’t Look Up

What would be our reactions to the discovery of an impending catastrophic event threatening the Earth and life on our planet?
Enzo Vignoli

The objective limitation of a film like Don’t Look Up is that, in order to induce in the audience the strong impact of the topics it deals with, it should deny itself and be something else. Not a movie, but–impossible to pull off–both an evidence-based documentary and a reality show, but this is not the case. The film has been praised by many as a black comedy, a story dealing with environmental issues with biting irony, a film product that never bores, a film that perfectly holds its 138 minutes without viewers diverting their attention. 


Poster of the movie Don't Look Up

Aside from a limited segment (the classic “niche” audience), those who immerse themselves in this story will always have at least two classic escape routes. The first is that it is fiction, the other is that, even in the unlikely event that the situation described in the film should come close to reality, science will always be able to get us out of trouble. Additionally, the plot, while taking its cue from environmental themes, overtly shifts the threats facing the Earth from human behaviour to an enemy that is making its way from space to our world. We have here a film product of sometimes good calibre made on purpose to create alibis.


Truth be told, director and screenwriter Adam Mckay works to unhinge at least the first two loopholes. The character of President Janie Orlean–impeccably played by Meryl Streep–seems tailor-made on Donald Trump. Even if nothing absolving or redeeming is attributed to other presidents who have succeeded each other in the White House at least in the last fifty years, the fact remains, however, that under that presidential figure the end of mankind will take place. The other embankment is being dangerously eroded by devastating decisions that undermine any chance of salvation for humanity, with the babbling quiescence of scientists and in the name of technological progress–read ways to disproportionately enrich the already wealthy under the pretext of creating new jobs. If, despite all this, the audience finds a way to “escape,” will it be able, instead, to reflect on ourselves, on our politicians, on the omnipotence of technology for the benefit of an economy meant for the very few? 


Seen from this angle, Don’t Look Up is not a catastrophic film. At least not from the point of view of its conclusion, of the outcomes from which viewers can draw elements to critically run for cover. In short, Kate Dibiasky, an astronomy major at Michigan State University (Jennifer Lawrence), tells Professor Randall Mindy (Leonardo di Caprio) that she has discovered the existence of a comet. 


Based on repeated calculations, the two realize that this celestial body, with dimensions between 5 and 10 kilometres, is heading towards the earth and will reach it in six and a half months, with catastrophic effects for all humanity. 


Leonardo Di Caprio in a scene of the movie Don't Look Up

The reactions of American politicians, the world of entertainment, and the entire population are immediately the most obvious ones: the immediate refusal to think the unthinkable, the undercutting, the dismissal, the attempt to undermine both scientists’ credibility. The whole world of the establishment is so immersed in its beliefs and its way of life that it is unable to look away from itself, from what is experienced not as coercion, nor even as “the best of all possible worlds,” but as the only possible world.


As has been noted by others, there is never any mention of Democrats or Republicans in the film, and the political struggle between the two parties is never described. The whole apparatus lives on petty corruption and attempts to divert public attention to gain electoral advantage, according to a well-established practice and necessary to keep the mechanism of the status quo in place. The scientists themselves, who could do nothing but light that terrifying fuse, are unable to cope with such a situation. Professor Randall Mindy is drawn into an affair with a well-known television host (Cate Blanchett is perfect and almost unrecognizable in her depersonalized role) and, to ease the tension, takes refuge in moments in which we catch him laughing, similar to the condemned man played by Sean Penn in Dead Man Walking, directed in 1995 by Tim Robbins.


The rhythm of the film does justice to the convulsive tenor of our lives and the equally skilful editing puts our ability to escape from the existential condition of twenty-first century men to the test. There is skilled directing and screenwriting as well. The movie, after a brief stint in theatres, can now be seen through the Netflix platform and is not recommended for children under 14.


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