Netflix’s Don’t Look Up has proven unpopular on the review site “Rotten Tomatoes.” It has had mixed reviews at National Review where Kevin Williamson liked it, Kyle Smith hated it, and Ross Douthat found its satirical elements unconvincing.
Written by Adam McKay, the star-studded movie tells the story of an obscure midwestern astronomer (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his Ph.D. student (Jennifer Lawrence) who discover a planet-ending comet hurtling toward earth, and go on an ultimately unsuccessful media tour to warn the world and spur politicians into action.
I agree with Ross that it was not a particularly good allegory for climate change and that it was also a weak satire of institutional liberalism. Still, for a whole 145 minutes, the movie held my attention. In part, that’s because there were wryly entertaining — if also depressingly accurate — depictions of ignorance, incompetence, and corruption in America’s ruling class. But my interest was also sustained by the movie’s materialist and nihilistic assumptions.
Jennifer Lawrence’s character is, I think, intended to be the movie’s hero. But that’s a difficult pill to swallow when — the destruction of earth notwithstanding — she is also a deeply miserable person. In the final scene, when they’re all holding hands around the table, enjoying their last meal (as much as one can), she tries to muster up some gratitude. She might have said she was grateful for 30-odd years of life, or her newfound love, Yule (the rebellious Christian shoplifter played by Timothée Chalamet). Instead, after some hesitation, she says “I’m grateful we tried.”
Perhaps because she doesn’t have anybody to be grateful to, as everything crumbles around her, the only comfort is her own righteousness. It’s in this way that Michael Shellenberger deems environmental alarmism to be a religious substitute in his book Apocalypse Never, which John Tierney neatly summarized in his review for the Wall Street Journal:
For [Shellenberger] and so many others, environmentalism offered emotional relief and spiritual satisfaction, giving them a sense of purpose and transcendence. It has become a substitute religion for those who have abandoned traditional faiths, as he explains in his concluding chapter, “False Gods for Lost Souls.” Its priests have been warning for half a century that humanity is about to be punished for its sins against nature, and no matter how often the doomsday forecasts fail, the faithful still thrill to each new one.
“The trouble with the new environmental religion is that it has become increasingly apocalyptic, destructive, and self-defeating,” he writes. “It leads its adherents to demonize their opponents, often hypocritically. It drives them to seek to restrict power and prosperity at home and abroad. And it spreads anxiety and depression without meeting the deeper psychological, existential, and spiritual needs its ostensibly secular devotees seek.”
In the end, it is Chalamet’s character who offers the most hope. He encourages the others not only to look up but to lift up thine eyes.