Is Don’t Look Up a great movie about climate change, or a terrible one?

Don’t read on if you haven’t seen it and plan to, because spoilers.

Micah Sifry
4 min readDec 27, 2021

Meryl Streep in her role as President of the United States in Don’t Look Up

The just-released film, which stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence as two well-meaning astronomers who discover a “planet-killing” comet headed straight for earth, and Meryl Streep as a Trump-like President who glibly tries to ignore the problem, is currently the most popular movie on Netflix. For good reason, because it’s a rollicking fun satire of American politics, media, tech and celebrity culture.

The screenplay, which was cowritten by filmmaker Adam McKay and progressive muckraker David Sirota, suggests that Americans are so polarized by raw partisanship and dumbed down by clickbait and morning TV pablum that they wouldn’t take effective action against their impending doom. Even worse, that when the dysfunctional powers-that-be in Washington manage to launch a fleet of nuclear-armed rockets to blow the comet off course, a mega-rich tech mogul (played with subdued perfection by Mark Rylance) would be able to convince the President to abort their mission in favor of his own hare-brained plan to wait until it gets closer to earth in order to blow it into smaller, less dangerous pieces and then mine them for valuable rare minerals. Needless to say, things don’t end well.

Some of Don’t Look Up’s satirical moments are absolutely sublime. For example, when the comet gets close enough to be seen from Earth, DiCaprio and Lawrence’s characters attempt a last-ditch campaign to get people to “look up” in order to confirm with their own eyes that disaster is truly coming. In response, Streep’s President holds a series of MAGA-like rallies punctuated by chants of “Don’t look up” and public opinion remains hopelessly divided.

What McKay and Sirota are bluntly saying is, to paraphrase Jack Nicholson’s great line from A Few Good Men: Americans can’t handle the truth. Climate change isn’t quite like an “extinction-level event” due to happen in exactly six months and ten days like the movie’s impending comet strike, but if the richest and most powerful country on the earth can’t mobilize itself to repel an obvious mortal threat, why should we expect any different about the impending rise of the oceans and intensification…