Popular Media Review: ‘Don’t Look Up’ and ‘Greenland’ – a Member’s View
Don’t Look Up.… every where we look, this film’s being discussed. Excellent! Readers will know that Bruce McConachie is a regular contributor to this blog, reviewing films with an eye to how they resonate with the predicament humanity now finds itself in. So as you’d expect, he’s taken a look at DLU – and in addition another offering, Greenland. This is his personal perspective, of course, and none the worse for that; some readers will agree, some won’t. In particular contrast, many readers will have seen Jem Bendell’s own review and commentary, here. In addition there are simply scads of responses to it on our Facebook group, and it’s generating some really lively and engaging discussion. There have been a couple of discussion groups around it facilitated by DAF members too – so interest’s clearly high. Whilst there’s clearly a mix of responses to it, it does give the chance to air important issues widely – and for those who find it polarising, it also gives us the chance to practice some of the DAF principles we commit to through our Charter: we get to practice disagreeing whilst remaining respectful, compassionate, curious and loving. And that’s really important – as times get tougher, we’re all going to need to remember how to interact, co-operate and work with people with whom we differ on certain issues.SO….in the interests of doing just that….we’d like to invite you, our readers, to add your own reviews – whether off the cuff, or in response to Bruce’s thoughts on the movie. We think we’ll end up with what someone (our eloquent Dorian) describes as a ‘variegated bouquet’ of views. Got a view? Got a response to a view? Send it to us, provided you’re happy for us to share it on here. (We can’t promise to publish them all – we might be submerged under DLU emails! – but we’ll appreciate them). Send them headed ‘DLU’ to firstname.lastname@example.org, or just post in the comments….
The editorial team
A few nights ago, I participated in a Zoom “watch party” sponsored by a nearby church Ecosystem Study Group for Don’t Look Up, the popular 2021 film about the looming apocalypse of climate chaos. Although I had already seen the film and formed some opinions about it, I was eager to get a sense of how a group of ethically oriented viewers might respond to a film that was pitched to a very different audience. I was not disappointed.
Written and directed by Adam McKay, Don’t Look Up has already won or been nominated for several accolades. Despite average reviews, these include two rankings among the top-ten films of the year and nominations for “Best Film” and “Best Director.” Following a short run in movie houses, Netflix began streaming the movie on December 24.
Don’t Look Up mixes a standard sci-fi disaster plot with Saturday Night Life light satire and a sentimental ending. Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence play an American astronomer and his graduate assistant, who discover a gigantic comet and correctly calculate that it will plummet to Earth in about six months, destroying all life on our planet. When they try to warn the public about the coming catastrophe, they are met with political calculation from President Orlean (an alternatingly flippant and domineering Meryl Streep), happy talk by the media (Cate Blanchett as a predatory news anchor and her co-host), and utopian flim-flam (from billionaire Mark Rylance in unctuous-hesitation mode). Once in a while, DiCaprio’s and Lawrence’s characters break through the miasma of patriotic blather, jokey one-liners, and smug technobabble with their genuine panic about the inevitability of extinction if nothing is done, but Twitter and other social media soon correct their faux pas and attempt to guide them back to innocuous normalcy.
One member of the watch party wondered if the satiric tone of most of the film might steer the audience away from understanding that the approaching comet is a metaphor for the likelihood of ecological calamity. Another noted, however, that McKay was careful to avoid this problem by seeding his film with appealing images of the natural world. I agree that these placid pics keep the metaphor alive for most of Don’t Look Up.
The metaphorical connection is stretched almost beyond recognition, though, when the movie’s plot holds out the hope that bombarding the comet with nuclear warheads might effectively steer it away from crashing into the Earth. When that mission is called off, a second attempt is launched to break up the comet into manageable chunks with smaller atomic bombs so that it can be mined by billionaire Rylance’s company for precious metals after it hits the Earth. So, yes, we can understand that the speeding comet is a bit like a fast approaching ecological catastrophe, but nuking the enemy of Mother Nature to save the Earth is simply a metaphor too far. It reminds me of the US Army officer’s explanation, “We had to destroy the village in order to save it,” during the war in Vietnam.
The comet as a stand-in for climate chaos falls apart completely when the movie reverts to safe sentiment at the end. By then it is apparent that DiCaprio, who refused to sign on for the film until he got the script he wanted, decided that his astronomer character had to come out on the side of familial togetherness at the conclusion of the flick. For most of it, DiCaprio’s Dr. Mindy makes a series of bad choices that render him a shill for Streep’s increasingly Trumpian President, a yes-man to Rylance’s ever-smiling billionaire, and a sex toy for Blanchett’s omnivorous media star.
So our hero experiences several moments of Truth – apparently including the Hollywood truism that matinee idols should not play amoral, dithering jerks throughout the flick – and decides to reform. He returns to the bosom of his (amazingly forgiving) wife and family and brings the other good guys of the film along with him. These include former grad student/ Lawrence’s weed-smoking boyfriend and NASA’s Head of Planetary Defense Coordination, a Black astronomer who has stood on the side of Science from the start. With no intruding pictures or commentary about the fate of the Earth, we move in for close-ups of Mindy and his extended family at the dinner table just before the comet hits. The family toasts their togetherness, congratulates itself for trying to save the world, and – when they discover that the boyfriend’s evangelical parents taught their son how to pray – holds hands to ask for grace from “the Lord.”
In contrast, the President, fleeing with members of America’s elite in the billionaire’s spaceship to escape the Earth, discovers too late that she has left her son behind. This allows the Hallmark-card morality at the end of the tale to deliver just deserts to both families: After Mindy and the good guys bask in the grace of God, President Orlean’s son emerges from the rubble of the White House and tries in vain to text his mother, who is eventually killed by a dinosaur bird when the billionaire’s spaceship lands on an Earth-like planet thousands of years later. Never mind that human greed, fear, lassitude, stupidity, and hubris have killed Mother Nature; Don’t Look Up ends with a Sunday school lesson about American family values.
In short, the film turns its back on ecology and reverts to melodramatic type – the genre of sci-fi disaster flicks from Them! (1954) to Independence Day (1996) that typically saves America and honors heroes and worthy families. McKay and DiCaprio are not the first US filmmakers to mix ecological concerns into the usual recipe for the genre. Preceding the release of Don’t Look Up by a year was Greenland, a 2020 film that whips up a similar blend. Like McKay’s production, Greenland centers on a comet’s collision with the Earth, except in this case the comet begins to fragment in space, raining down debris for several days before the biggest chunk hits Europe at the end of the flick, knocking out much of western civilization. There’s no evidence that the first film influenced the second; both were in development and production at roughly the same time. Apparently, the pandemic slowed the release of Look Up longer than the first film.
Greenland favors gritty realism over satiric jibes, but its general shape was cut from the same pattern. Their similarity, in fact, prompts some useful comparisons. Unlike McKay’s effort, family is central to Greenland throughout. John Garrity, a structural engineer, is living with his estranged wife and their diabetic son in Atlanta when he gets a strange message from the Department of Homeland Security telling him that he and his family must prepare for emergency sheltering. When they arrive at an Air Force base for departure, the family is accidentally separated, an angry mob overwhelms the planned departures of the DHS elect, and Garrity must fight to reunite with his family at his father-in-law’s house in Tennessee. There they learn that the government is sending some citizens to underground bunkers in Greenland to survive the comet’s imminent strike. Following several more harrowing trials, they eventually catch the last plane out of Canada to Thule Air Force Base and make their way to an underground bunker just as its doors are closing. We learn that the impact of the comet kills 75% of life on Earth and watch when John, his wife, and their son emerge from the bunker nine months later to make radio contact with other survivors of the cataclysm.
Greenland’s implicit criticism of Homeland Security’s decision to save structural engineers like John Garrity and his family (presumably so that he can help to rebuild the post-comet world) distinguishes this film from Don’t Look Up. The family is given wristbands at the Air Force base to separate them from other citizens and guarantee their safe passage and survival. But separating the sheep from the goats in this way later works against them when rioters at the base demand their own wristbands and start a fire that destroys several evacuation planes. After the family’s separation, the wristbands mark his son and wife as targets for kidnappers hoping to use their plastic talismans as tickets to safety, and Garrity is almost killed when a thief tries to steal his own circle of salvation. His family barely overcomes these close calls. Although plebian rioting and disgust with elite privilege also mark some of the episodes of Don’t Look Up, the makers of Greenland underlined the problem of class bias in life-and-death situations in a so-called democracy better than the easy satire of Don’t Look Up ever does.
More concerning to me is that the disaster frame of the main plot in both films leaves little room for asking how humanity got into the ecological mess we are facing and how we might best get ourselves out of it or at least mitigate the damage we are continuing to cause. Like many sci-fi fantasies from the 1950s onward, Greenland and Don’t Look Up ask us to believe that the threat of planetary destruction comes from “outer space,” not from ourselves, and demands a massive military response.
In this regard, Greenland draws directly on Cold War fears and solutions. The bunker the Garritys retreat to will remind most American spectators over fifty of the fallout shelters that the US and NATO dug in Greenland to protect selected officials, generals, and skilled citizens from death in the event of nuclear war. While a post-war nuclear winter has some parallels to the ecological catastrophe we are rushing toward, they are separate consequences that proceed from very different causes. And it’s increasingly clear that the Paris Accord is no substitute for the SALT disarmament talks that eventually put a lid on the likelihood of a Dr. Strangelove conclusion to the Cold War.
Not surprisingly, the grotesque apocalypse that ends Kubrick’s 1964 film finds echoes in both recent movies. Recall the combatants in his “war room” who argue about an American “mineshaft gap” that may be insufficient to house all the survivors that deserve to live underground after Doomsday and Captain T.J. “King” Kong’s rodeo whoop on top of The Bomb as he rides it down to its Russian target. That last memorable image from `64 finds an apt parallel in Colonel Drask’s obnoxious singing of a minstrel tune as he prepares to bomb the comet in McKay’s film.
Although more directly attuned than Greenland to the social and commercial media chatter that is numbing our sensitivity to ecological disaster, Don’t Look Up offers little in the way of viable political action to forestall our oblivion. Dr. Strangelove helped to motivate anti-war movements during the Cold War era, but the pervasive virtue signaling of Don’t Look Up is better suited for generating Hollywood ratings, awards, and profits. If those who compete to run the major institutions of American life – the media, governmental, and economic elite – are as vain, corrupt, and shameless as their counterparts in the film, how might it be possible to reshape these institutions toward democratic inclusiveness and egalitarian justice in the future?
The participants in the discussion group I attended had some good ideas. Most recognized that Hollywood might have a role to play in educating the public about the ecological dangers to come, but doubted that Don’t Look Up would change many minds. Instead of saving one nuclear family at a time, several participants emphasized the need for structural, systemic changes that could only come from governmental mandates. Others put their faith in grassroots community actions as a way of changing the harmful habits of our consumerist culture. Several understood that social and ecological collapse is likely to come much faster than has been predicted and urged practical preparations now. I agree with all of these suggestions.
I welcome your comments. Please post them below or send them to email@example.com.
Text: Bruce McConachie Copyright 2022. Image: Cat Jenkins
Bruce McConachie is a retired professor of popular dramatic entertainment. His latest book, Drama, Politics and Evolution (2021) looks at the interplay of popular films and politics to examine the gradual disintegration of social cohesion in the US after 1965.