By Mordecai Specktor
(WARNING: There are plot spoilers for the movie “Don’t Look Up,” which is streaming on Netflix. It’s enormously popular, so you might want to see it just to know what people are talking about.)
What ‘Don’t Look Up’ is about
The social-political satire “Don’t Look Up,” directed by Adam McKay, concerns the discovery by an astronomy grad student, Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), of a comet on a collision course with planet Earth. She contacts her Ph.D. adviser, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), who confirms her startling find – the large heavenly body measuring about six miles across will hit in some six months.
Kate and Dr. Mindy raise an alarm, and soon they’re waiting outside the Oval Office. However, President Orlean (Meryl Streep) and her demented chief of staff and son, Jason (Jonah Hill), have other pressing concerns: a burgeoning sex scandal with a prospective Supreme Court nominee and the midterms in three weeks. The meeting about the looming destruction of the planet will have to wait for a few hours.
When they finally get their 20 minutes with the president, Dr. Mindy tells her that the comet will have the impact of “a billion Hiroshima bombs.”
“Madam President, this comet is what we call a planet killer,” explains Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan), head of NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office (it’s a real thing).
But the president, a Trump-like narcissist, and her idiot son decide they will “sit tight and assess.”
Of course, this response freaks out Dr. Mindy and Kate, who go to the press. We are treated to their appearance on a network news/variety show, where the emphasis is on making the news “fun.” This poses a challenge to the scientists bringing news about the end of the world.
The TV hosts, played by Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry, are more interested in the break-up of a celebrity couple, Riley Bina (Ariana Grande) and DJ Chello (rapper Kid Cudi). And the mainstream press is no better: a fictional stand-in for the New York Times runs the comet story, but finds that it gains little traction on social media, so they lose interest in Comet Dibiasky.
This rough account of the movie, so far, sounds grim; but I thought it was hilarious. I’m a fan of this kind of satire, and the film evokes other sharp movie satires, including Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 masterpiece “Dr. Stangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” which mines a rich comedic vein in a potential nuclear war between the U.S. and Soviet Union.
(MORE PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD.)
And speaking of mining, a plot thread in “Don’t Look Up” involves the president’s largest donor, billionaire smartphone mogul Dr. Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance). Isherwell has the ear of the president and imposes his plan to break up the comet into “30 smaller meteroids” and mine them for rare minerals worth “almost 140 trillion dollars.”
Isherwell represents the tech gods of Silicon Valley and elsewhere: Zuckerberg, Bezos, Musk, et al., who are guiding capitalism to a brave new future. The movie character’s comet mining scheme has a real-world analog in the controversy over mining minerals needed for batteries and other devices that ostensibly will usher in the green economy – the “Green New Deal” – to replace fossil fuels responsible for the climate crisis.
The problem is that, as is usually the case, these minerals are on Native land. A front-page headline in the Dec. 28 edition of the New York Times reads: “Clean-Energy Gold Rush Alarms Tribes in the U.S.” The article begins with the case of the Nez Perce, in Idaho, who are facing off with a mining company, Perpetua Resources, that proposes to build a “vast open-pit gold mine that would also produce 115 million pounds of antimony – an element that may be critical to manufacturing the high-capacity liquid-metal batteries of the future.”
The Times article notes that the Environmental Protection Agency “found that Perpetua’s initial plan for a 20-year operation would inflict ‘disproportionately high and adverse impacts’ on tribes.”
Here’s the overview, as per the Times: “Across the American West, tribal nations are on the front lines of a new debate over how to balance the needs and costs of clean energy. Extracting the fuels of the future is a process that is often far from clean, and just as fights over the environmental costs of oil exploration helped define the fossil fuel era, conflicts like this one are creating the battle lines of the next energy revolution.”
As for “Don’t Look Up” – which can be seen as an allegory of the existential climate crisis – critics are quite divided on the merits of the movie. I think that some of the issues raised make folks uncomfortable and a fascinating back and forth has ensued.