[Death Creeps] Apathy Is Terror In Don't Look Up
Death Creeps is a monthly column of ecological readings on horror media. Combining the terror of the climate crisis with terror on screen and in print, Sydney Bollinger looks at how horror can act as a guide and reflection on our dire situation.
Director Adam McKay reminds us that we live in a state of impending doom in disaster-comedy film Don't Look Up.
Don’t Look Up (2021), directed by Adam McKay isn’t a horror film — but it should be. When astronomy PhD student Kate Diabasky (Jennifer Lawrence) discovers a comet in our solar system, she’s elated. This discovery could be her big break in the astronomical sciences and it is, but not for a reason she likes. During a post-discovery celebration, Kate’s professor Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) calculates the comet’s trajectory. In six months, it will crash into earth causing an extinction level event.
Much of the existing climate fiction is focused on disaster and apocalypse, but looks at what the world is like after the disaster already hits. Many of Jeff VanDerMeer’s eco science-fiction and horror novels follow this trajectory. Even classic novels like Alas, Babylon (1959) by Pat Frank lean into the disaster trope. Not incidentally, apocalypse fiction has taken over media—likely due to the genre’s boom as a young adult novel powerhouse. In recent years though, it seems that these apocalyptic disasters are fewer and farther between on screen.
Perhaps we’ve reached a point of saturation with this story—or maybe we’re just tired of seeing how our civilization will inevitably be crumbled into a dystopian hellscape. McKay’s film, however, doesn’t look at the aftermath of the disaster's impact. Don’t Look Up is fully engaged in the present. We may not be actually facing threat from a giant comet coming to destroy earth, but the film is an obvious allegory to the climate crisis in that it details exactly how ineffective many of our systems are in actually mitigating our impending doom.
Upon their discovery Kate and Dr. Mindy are invited to The White House to share the news (and warning) with President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep). President Orlean, who is preparing for the midterm elections underestimates the gravity of the situation, telling Kate and Dr. Mindy the plan is to "sit tight and assess." Suddenly they are in a waiting game for what is an urgent issue—the mountain-sized comet hurtling toward earth isn’t waiting for anybody, its speed is steady.
This is where Don’t Look Up becomes a horror film, though it’s non-traditional. The fear isn’t in jump scares or gore or forays into the supernatural. Instead, it’s a fear of humanity’s seeming uselessness in the face of life-threatening events. It’s the fear that whatever humans decide to do can’t possibly be enough. The problem is out of our hands, or so it seems. With good reason, Kate and Dr. Mindy are frustrated following their meeting with the president. It was their one chance to make sure that someone in power would be able to do something about the event to take the lead and save humanity and it’s thwarted by politics. Imminent disaster isn’t good for approval ratings or elections, after all.
From this point forward, Don't Look Up is filmed with a specific kind of dread—the dread of not being listened to. Most of the film is told from the perspectives of Kate and Dr. Mindy, both of whom see this as a disaster that needs to be attended to immediately. Their thoughts are claustrophobic because no one listens to them or takes their words seriously. When the pair are on the set of a talk show similar to Live with Kelly and Ryan. Co-hosts Brie Evantee (Cate Blanchett) and Jack Bremmer (Tyler Perry) have saved the “science story” for the show’s last segment. When Kate and Dr. Mindy share their devastating news, Brie and Jack make jokes to lighten the mood. Dr. Mindy, who was previously deemed not ready for TV, is calm and collected, while Kate freaks out and screams at the camera, imploring the audience to take their words seriously.
Following the interview, Kate becomes a meme and Dr. Mindy is an AILF (Astronomer I’d Like to Fuck). McKay plays with the internet’s tendency to reduce important things down until they’re no longer meaningful. Skipping over the headline, straight to the “easy” reaction to disaster—let’s thirst over the guy who just told us the world is going to end and deem the woman hysterical. It’s not going to end anyway, right? Six months is quite a few months from now and predictions like that can be, well, unpredictable.
That type of thinking is a logical loop not found by climate deniers, but by people who truly believe there is a crisis and are unable to agree that the threat is closer than is comfortable. Surface-level, of course, it’s easy to claim that the film is about climate deniers and politicians who refuse to act on disaster, but in reality that’s not the horror of climate activism. The horror of climate activism is people who know there is a crisis, but choose not to act.
Apathy is always more frightening than powerful dissent because if someone is truly apathetic, they’re unlikely to care that there is a problem and often can block positive action with their determined inaction. Kate and Dr. Mindy aren’t just facing climate deniers, they’re facing the worst of the capitalists and people who just don’t care. Unfortunately for humanity, most people in power aren’t interested in working on climate change anyway—it’s too likely to interfere with their funding or capitalist luxuries.
President Orlean, in desperate need of support for the upcoming midterm elections, decides it's time to act on the earth-shattering asteroid. Disaster is a political moment, which is true of the world outside of the film, as well. COVID-19, our long-endured pandemic, has been politicized and made into an issue of morality rather than what it is: a public health crisis.
So, President Orlean makes destroying the asteroid a uniquely American display complete with a problematic “hero” in the controversial Benedict Drask (Ron Perlman) and a rocket launch from Kennedy Space Center—only for the mission to be abandoned when Jeff Bezos stand-in Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance) steps in and convinces the President to not destroy the asteroid because it has precious, hard-to-acquire minerals used in his phones and other digital devices.
Even in the face of earth’s destruction Peter Isherwell (and others, to be honest) want to use the comet for their own gain, even in the face of death. Indeed, many of the characters don’t fear death—even when told to. As the comet looms closer, President Orlean works with Peter Isherwell on a new solution to destroy the comet. While, Dr. Mindy “sells out” to work on the advising team for the project. Earth is, quite literally, doomed.
"Earth is, quite literally, doomed."
Meanwhile, Kate has been forbidden to speak out about the comet, rejected by her parents because they “support the jobs the comet will bring,” and develops a relationship with Christian burnout Yule (Timothée Chalamet). In the face of a grand disaster, Kate has lost all power, resigning herself to the fate at hand because seemingly no one else cares enough to think of a way to stop the Mt. Everest-sized comet before it hits earth. Then, Dr. Mindy has an epiphany and alongside Kate they work on a new campaign to spread awareness about the comet. It’s a resounding success, but accomplishes nothing other than one of those benefit concerts where celebrities sing a well-intended but meaningless song about saving the world.
Underlying all of these actions is the reality that despite what anyone does, the comet will hit and it does. McKay doesn’t spare the viewer and doesn’t allow the film a happy ending. The comet hits and the earth is swallowed up in catastrophe. President Orlean and Peter Isherwell escape on their rocket, benefited by their access and wealth, but despite the effort of the “Just Look Up” campaign, everyone else dies.
It’s a hard ending to watch, but just watching the film isn’t enough. Climate fiction and climate films aren’t just meant to be consumed. Unless the film leads to action, it’s story amounts to nothing. If the film’s views say anything, it should lead to a mass mobilization of people acting on climate change, but it’s unlikely. Again, we’re back to apathy—or the idea that someone else will fix the problem for us. Who’s going to do the work to save us all from imminent collapse?
Sydney Bollinger is a Charleston-based film writer who focuses on the macabre, the teenage experience, and eco-criticism in film. She is the author of the bi-monthly Slay Away column, Death Creeps and an arts and enteratinment writer for the Charleston City Paper and Into. Sydney is the creator of the Thursday Matinee with a weekly newsletter released every Thursday afternoon in addition to film and television reviews.