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‘Don’t Look Up’ is a cautionary climate story

Jennifer Lawrence, Leonardo DiCaprio, Meryl Streep, Jonah Hill, and Adam McKay attend the "Don't Look Up" World Premiere at Jazz at Lincoln Center on Sunday in New York City.Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Netflix

On Sunday, I took the train to New York City, put on a freshly ironed dress, and headed to the world premiere of “Don’t Look Up,” the hotly anticipated new Adam McKay film shot in Boston last year that’s a clear climate change parable. I’ve covered major climate media events before, from the Sunrise Movement’s splashy 2018 protest in Nancy Pelosi’s office to last month’s international climate policy negotiations in Glasgow, but this one was different.

From my plush seat in the Jazz at Lincoln Center theater, I watched as McKay introduced the film by calling on star after star from the cast to join him on stage. Kid Cudi walked out in fuzzy slippers, followed by Tyler Perry and Jonah Hill. Meryl Streep stepped out to shrieking applause, but the crowd really lost it when Leonardo DiCaprio stepped out.


As I took in the celebrity, I felt a slight twinge of irony. From the trailers, I knew the film included a biting denunciation of the media’s treatment of dire current events, and yet here we all were fawning over actors instead of grappling with the crisis’s urgency. Then Jennifer Lawrence walked out, radiant in a gold Dior gown, and I stopped thinking altogether.

“Wow,” I whispered aloud.

But shortly after the film started, I nearly forgot that it was full of big names because the story hit so close to home.

“Don’t Look Up” is about Dr. Randall Mindy and Kate Dibiasky, an astronomy professor and grad student duo (DiCaprio and Lawrence) who learn that a comet is headed directly toward Earth. At first, it appears to be an exciting and benign discovery, but they soon realize it is due to collide with the planet in just six months, destroying all life as we know it.


The astronomers immediately alert scientific authorities and quickly land a meeting with the US president, played by Streep. But White House officials blow them off, belittling their certainty.

“I say we sit tight and assess,” the president says.

Once it becomes politically advantageous to do so, the White House launches a plan to destroy the comet. But midway through its execution, powerful tech executive Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance) interferes — his company’s scientists have discovered that the comet is full of rare earth minerals and other highly profitable materials.

The White House promptly abandons its well-vetted scheme in favor of one hatched by Isherwell’s team that could preserve the materials for his profit, entering a public-private partnership with his company.

The parallels to the climate crisis are almost painfully obvious. Instances of politicians focusing on the “economic opportunity” presented by the climate crisis ran through my head. (At climate negotiations in Glasgow last month, to cite a recent example, EPA Chief Gina McCarthy said that the US must “turn this challenge into a creative opportunity,” noting that “all that will make money.”) Many businesses are hungrily expecting to profit from the climate crisis, too. This obsession with wealth generation also has led to undue focus on unproven technologies, perhaps most notably carbon capture and storage, which has not been shown to work at scale, but is favored by the oil and gas industry because it would preserve existing business models.


“It comes straight out of the work of one of the greatest climate reporters of our time, Naomi Klein, and her writing on disaster capitalism,” David Sirota, the film’s executive producer, said. “I mean, that is what disaster capitalism is: trying to find profits in the middle of emergencies where desire for profits trumps everything else.”

The critiques of the government and profit-seeking capitalists movie are plain, but the film also saves some of its most cutting criticism for the media. Kate and Dr. Mindy go on a political daytime talk show anchored by two jokey hosts, Jack Bremmer (Tyler Perry) and Brie Evantee (Cate Blanchett), who instruct them to keep things light. Dire warnings about the impending end of the world are overshadowed by quippy one-liners and the desire to make Dr. Mindy into a TV star.

These scenes are genuinely hilarious, but I often found it hard to laugh. When the professor delivered a final, desperate diatribe on the talk show calling the hosts out for their unwarranted cheeriness — and essentially spelling out the film’s entire thesis — I struggled to blink back tears.

Still, when I saw so much coverage the next day focusing on Jonah Hill’s new girlfriend’s presence at the event and, yes, Jennifer Lawrence’s dress, I felt a pit in my stomach.

I talked with executive producer Sirota about this the day after the premiere, and he said he knew what I meant. “We’re diagnosing the problem with the system ... but putting the movie into that same system,” he said.


He hopes, though, that by lending their platforms to the cause of climate change, the celebrities involved in the film can help raise awareness of the need for transformative policy change. “These actors are grabbing the world by the lapels,” he said.

More and more people — including A-list actors — are beginning to realize that the stakes of the crisis couldn’t be higher, and that averting catastrophe will require systemic change. “Don’t Look Up” is perhaps the first climate movie to grapple with that. (Al Gore’s 2006 film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” for instance, concludes by calling on viewers to buy energy-efficient light bulbs and recycle.)

No matter how many Oscars it ends up winning, the film by itself can’t solve the world’s problems. Its producers are under no illusions about this: In the film, big celebrities fight to stop the comet, but the ending is far from optimistic.

But if the star-studded cast can help get more people to grapple with the failures of America’s most-trusted institutions, it has done its job. As for us in the media, we had better sit up and pay attention.

Dharna Noor can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @dharnanoor.