The comedy and philosophy of “Don’t Look Up”

Netflix’s # 1 New Movie is Do not seek, a “comedy” starring Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio, who play graduate astronomy student Kate Dibiasky and her teacher, Dr. Randall Mindy. The first discovers a giant comet and the second understands that it is destined to strike the Earth. I know, hilarious, isn’t it? This is (supposedly) the “problem” with this movie: it’s not funny. And it is not. Truly. I only remember laughing a few times, like when Jonah Hill (who plays the president’s son turned White House chief of staff) tried to kiss Jennifer Lawrence. Indeed, one has the impression that it is about a comedy only by the style of the credits.

So why would I say this is a must see watch? (Spoilers to come.)

The reason it’s not funny is that it seems like a failed attempt at satire. Satire is successful when it takes something true – a property or trend that something or someone has – and then exaggerates it for comedic effect. Saturday Night Live is famous for it; The Church Lady is an exaggeration of the real women I knew growing up in church. They weren’t that bad (and they didn’t have their own talk show), but they said and did the kinds of things The Church Lady did, like acting like they were morally superior to everyone else. (They did not dance, however; this is prohibited in the Nazarene Church.) But satire fails when what is portrayed is not actually an exaggeration.

What Do not seek is meant to exaggerate is how society would react if we found out that a planet-killing comet was on a collision course with Earth. Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe (played by Rob Morgan), the head of the Planetary Defense Coordination Office, calls Kate and Randall to the White House, only to be ignored by the White House. “Do you know of the doomsday meetings we’ve had over the years?” Drought, famine, plague, population growth… ”So Kate and Randall take part in talk shows, desperate to raise public awareness, but their discovery is trivialized as“ a small scientific experiment ”. When Kate tries to stress the gravity of the situation, the internet responds with a variety of memes designed to poke fun at her.

It is only when it is to her political advantage that President Orléans (Meryl Streep) promises to call for a mission to deflect the comet. At the last minute, however, she remembers it because Sir Peter Isherwell, a tech billionaire (played by Mark Rylance) who is one of her major donors, discovered that the comet contains billions of dollars of rare minerals. Under the (obviously false) pretext that he will inaugurate a “golden age” (of universal justice, equity and opulence), he hatches a plan to break the comet, to land its fragments safely on Earth. and exploit it.

The result is a wave of confusion. Only 37% don’t want the comet to strike, 40% “are for the jobs the comet will provide” and 23% don’t believe the comet exists – even the comet’s appearance in the sky doesn’t seem to change that. While Kate and Randall stress that people have to “just look up” to see that the threat is real, President Orléans co-opts the phrase and her cult supporters chant “Don’t look up” at her rallies. They, she said, I just want you to be scared.

When Isherwell’s mission fails, Orleans and around 2,000 wealthy donors (minus his son) board a spaceship developed in secret to make its way to the nearest habitable planet. And while the planet Earth is destroyed, Kate, Randall and some of their family and friends enjoy a good meal, a prayer and a little conversation, like how, if you grew up with her, one might prefer the taste of the store- bought an apple pie.

The reason you haven’t laughed at all of this is because you know almost exactly what would happen if such a comet were discovered. This is not an exaggeration; it is not hyperbole; it is not satire. We would deny it; we would reject it; we would laugh at those who fight for our survival. We would put the opportunity to enrich the rich before the survival of the species. (After all, we’ve done it before with climate change, and 23% of Americans don’t think the Earth revolves around the sun.) And the reason the film’s comedy attempts fail is that this realization haunts the viewer throughout the film. It’s almost as if Do not seek is the sixth season of Black mirror, which is not known for its comedy, but for the way it reflects society and exposes our weaknesses in a disturbing way.

Same Do not seek the little lines that should be funny are too close to reality for comfort.

  • The fact that President Orléans smokes makes her more popular, not less, because it means she “keeps things real.” Jason, the president’s son, openly admits he would sleep with her and wants to see her in Playboy.
  • “If people don’t want to be poor,” said the president, “they should pick better Lotto numbers. Acting on the comet is only politically expedient because she got caught sending a photo of her “private parts” to her disgraced Supreme Court candidate.
  • Isherwell’s tech company has so much data on people that it can predict not only their buying habits, but also how they die.
  • A producer whose film Utter devastation is to release the day the comet strikes, carries a pin with both an “up” and “down” arrow because he thinks “as a country we need to stop arguing, and … [because] we are all tired of politics.
  • Minutes from the destruction of the planet, the Patriot News Network reports “the one story everyone is talking about … topless emergency care centers.”

Besides its sci-fi elements (like a working interplanetary spaceship), the film’s only unrealistic moment occurs during a rally when one of President Orleans’ supporters looks up, sees the comet, and realizes ( with the rest of the crowd) that he lied to. (In fact, he would admit the comet exists, but insists it’s not really a threat.)

And that’s why everyone on the planet should be watching Do not seek. Everyone should come face to face with – and face, struggle, admit, and lament – what the film shows: the darker side of what humanity has become, and what that probably involves. Indeed, I’m not even sure the directors of the film wanted Do not seek be satirical. It’s billed as a comedy, but it’s supposed to do exactly what it does: disturb you.

Copyright David Kyle Johnson, 2021


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