Adam McKay’s dark film Don’t Look Uptook the world by storm over the particularly rough ending of 2021, quickly becoming Netflix’s most-watched film ever, even landing an Academy nomination for Best Picture.

While there are many critics, movie watchers, and activists who both praise and condemn the movie’s overall message, I can’t help but wonder if Don’t Look Up is a political satire about the doom our world is facing in the climate crisis or if McKay misses the mark entirely because of his misguided intentions?  

Don’t Look Up follows the attempts and ultimate failures of two scientists trying to warn the world about a planet-destroying comet that is rapidly approaching Earth. They encounter infuriating incompetence from politicians, media personalities, and the powerful voice of an Elon Musk stand-in, all of which ultimately trickles into the general public.  

While the dark comedy attempts to comment on the government’s, celebrities', and media’s indifference toward the climate crisis, Wisecrack breaks down why Don’t Look Up is an unsuccessful satire. 

What is satire?

Satire is a very old art form that is notoriously difficult to define. Many scholars refer to satire as the intersection of good fun and sharp criticism. It attempts to inform and reform the audience watching while also serving as entertainment. These films often use militant irony to portray a problem in an over-the-top way and offer insight for the audience to consider. 

Many films of the genre typically critique prevailing political, social, or economic power structures, and Don’t Look Up does that. It fails, however, to provide implicit criticism in its misrepresentation.  

Climate change is inarguably caused by man-made pollution. A comet heading toward Earth is a natural disaster, which leaves mankind blameless for their inevitable doom. The metaphor is shaky and inadequate. By not making mankind complicit in its own destruction, Don’t Look Up misses a big point about the climate crisis. 

Shooting a nuke into the sky could stop the comet from destroying the Earth. In contrast, stopping climate change would require us to drastically change our lifestyle, particularly for people in high-polluting countries. The reason the film’s comet isn’t destroyed is because of a few peoples’ greed, while the lack of response to climate change comes from a complete lack of political will and a general reluctance on behalf of all of us. 

Don’t Look Up puts the inevitable destruction of mankind on power-hungry politicians, allowing the audience to distance themselves from their inclusion in the ever-growing crisis because they would never vote for someone like President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) who values herself over peoples’ lives. 

Dont_look_up_satire_or_propaganda'Don't Look Up'Credit: Netflix

Why Don't Look Up fails

Unfortunately, writer and director Adam McKay created a film that is designed to appeal to a liberal audience who is aware of and already deeply concerned about climate change and has access to a Netflix account. The film paints the end of the world as the fault of Republican politicians, conservative reporters, and the climate-denying portion of the public, yet this isn’t provoking novel thoughts or the need for radical self-reflection from the audience. Instead, it reinforces what the target audience already believes. 

Don’t Look Up plays it safe in the world of satire rather than creating a provocative or complex message. Shows like Veep tell their audience in a provocative way that power hunger is symptomatic of all politicians, and they will say anything to look like the politician you want to represent your ideas. Films like Sorry to Bother You, Brazil, and Dr. Strangelove also handle satire well.

Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard wrote, “Satire causes pain, but this pain is oriented towards healing,” meaning that we must be faced with the painful truth to begin looking at societal problems in a critical way. 

Contradictory to McKay’s tweet, you can have anxiety about climate change while still noting the shortcomings and failures of Don’t Look Up as a satirical look at the crisis. It’s like saying that everyone should appreciate Water World because of its dramatic examination of the melting ice caps or they don't really care about the dying polar bears. We care, but McKay fails to point out how we all play a part in this issue. 

So how do you make a good satirical film about climate change?

Focus on the short-term compromising solutions that are all too familiar in global climate policy. Be transparent when saying that a global crisis is directly humanity’s fault when creating the metaphorical representation of our impending doom. Don’t be afraid to point out the flaws in your audience, because that is the aim of satire. 

What are some of your favorite examples of satire? Let us know in the comments why you think they are effective! 

Source: Wisecrack