SPOILER WARNING: Movie spoilers ahead!
Netflix’s Don’t Look Up is a masterpiece of sorts—it has an all-star cast and is funny, thought-provoking, interesting, poignant, reflective, and timely. It also has the honor of instigating another shared cultural moment as many Americans have watched this trending movie at the end of the holiday season, when the spread of Omicron and the onset of extreme weather across the country have induced people to stay home.
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence as a scientist and doctoral student from Michigan State University who discover a comet that is on a collision course with planet earth, the film is a satire of American politics, the news media, social media, Hollywood, technology, big business, and yes, even the very scientists who attempt to warn the rest of the world about the latest impending disaster. The film is much more than a satire, though.
Many critics seem to have missed the deeper layers of this film. I think, at heart, it is a memento mori, Latin for “remember death.” What does it mean to live well and choose well, even when the world is ending and you are about to die? Because COVID or not, climate change or not, current disaster averted or not, there is a 100% chance we are all going to die. Yes, that is the darkly funny but true context for the film.
At one point, American President Orlean (Meryl Streep) exclaims, “You can't go around saying to people that there's a 100% chance that they're going to die.” Her point seems to be that people prefer a comfortable lie over the uncomfortable truth. But, as we all know, death is one of the few certainties in life. The imminent impact of a large comet is just this film’s context for getting its characters—and us—to reflect on how we would live, what we would do, if we knew that our own lives, and in fact the existence of the entire planet, were about to expire in just three more hours.
As heavy-handed as the satire sometimes is in this film, most of the characters are critiqued gently, as if some omniscient being is laughing at their real foibles, while also understanding their root causes.
Representing American politics at its worst is President Orlean, a character definitely meant to conjure up a female version of Donald Trump, but also, for the attentive viewer, a mashup of Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama. A close-up of a desk photo shows President Orlean wrapped in the arms of Bill Clinton. Orlean also smokes constantly throughout the movie, bringing to mind Obama’s admission that he smoked nine cigarettes a day while in the White House. These “Easter eggs” seem to be the movie’s way of signaling that recent presidents and presidential candidates from both parties have cared more about votes and midterm election polls than about working for the common good of the country.
When middle-aged midwestern scientist and unassuming professor Dr. Randall Mindy (DiCaprio) and no-nonsense doctoral student Kate Dibiasky (Lawrence) fly to Washington DC in order to inform President Orlean about the comet and the utter destruction it will bring to the planet, members of her cabinet, including her whiny (but hilarious) Chief of Staff and son, Jason (Jonah Hill), spin the horrific news as “a potentially significant event.” President Orlean herself concludes that they should all “sit tight and assess.” When it seems that the midterm election might be threatened, the President decides to do nothing at all.
So, after conferring with their one ally among those in power, the truth-seeking and persevering Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan), head of NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office, Dr. Mindy and Kate agree to break the story to the news media. Unfortunately, the newspaper staff bicker with one another about trivial things, and Dr. Mindy and Kate are directed to break their important news during a science segment on a talk show, hosted by Jack (Tyler Perry) and Brie (Cate Blanchett), who are more interested in shallow gossip than in a serious discussion of the comet. Kate cannot fathom their cavalier attitude and finally loses it, screaming, “Maybe the destruction of the entire planet isn’t supposed to be fun. Maybe it’s supposed to be terrifying, and unsettling, and you should stay up all night every night crying, when we’re all 100% for sure going to f—ing die!” When she rushes off the set, Jack and Brie laugh it off, and Brie begins a flirtation with Dr. Mindy. Later she throws herself at him and they begin an affair in which she shows herself to be a shallow socialite type who hates the getting-to-know-you stage of a relationship and only cares about sex and prestige.
Pop singer Riley Bina (Ariana Grande) also appears on the same talk show to discuss her recent breakup with another singer who cheated on her. Riley, the movie’s primary representation of Hollywood, is rude to Dr. Mindy backstage when he earnestly tries to say he is sorry to hear about her breakup. She tells him to mind his own business but proceeds to tell the whole world live on air that she wants to get back together with her ex-boyfriend. Although Riley is portrayed as lacking in self-awareness, her reckless pursuit of romantic love and later attempt to raise awareness about the comet by giving a concert are portrayed as somewhat foolish but well-intentioned.
Another character, arguably the most sinister in the film, is Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance), who talks with the accent and cadence of Joe Biden—he even pointedly sniffs a woman’s hair at one point—and has the financial and political power of an Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos. He is the CEO of cell phone company “BASH Liif,” whose motto is literally “life, without the stress of living.” The first time we see him, he is on stage at some sort of convention, marketing his company’s new phone, which can sense mood through blood pressure. If it detects that a person is sad, it supplies a funny video and schedules an appointment with a nearby therapist. The BASH commercial is rife with theological imagery, including the famous fresco from the Sistine Chapel in which God reaches out to Adam—only here, God is holding out a BASH Liif phone and the screen reads “Let there be Liif.”
The joke is that while Peter is marketing his phone on stage, surrounded by young children, the phone tells him that he is sad and shows him a cutesy video of a puppy riding a chicken. Not only does he ignore the children’s questions, but he also rebuffs one little girl who tells him that she loves him, and backstage, he tells his crew that he finds the chicken from the video to be “quite threatening.” The movie has fun with this particularly ridiculous fear of nature, later hinting that he meets his death in the form of an alien predator that looks like a giant chicken.
In all of this, Dr. Mindy and Kate come off as flawed prophets, preaching—often shouting—the truth about the impending comet to the public in every way possible, from informing the president, to making talk show appearances, even going on Sesame Street, giving a spiel before Riley Bina’s “The For Real Last Concert to Save the World,” and posting on social media. They are met with nonchalance, self-absorption, and skepticism wherever they go. But despite their noble efforts to be truth-tellers, the film does not portray even them as being entirely in the right. They may be prophets, but Kate struggles with illicit drug usage, comes off as crazy in her media appearances, and admits to crying five times a day about the comet. Dr. Mindy shows himself to be perpetually anxious, dependent on prescription meds, and naively putting his trust in the wrong people.
In one scene, he tells Kate not to cry, and instead suggests that “everyone should be panicking right now.” Eventually Dr. Mindy, who becomes known as “America’s sexiest scientist,” finds himself stumping first for the President and later for BASH Liif. His fame begins to get to him. He cannot say no to his affair with Brie, even after his wife catches on. There are several key moments in which characters present him with simple choices, but he remains uncertain and indecisive. At one point, he laments to Dr. Oglethorpe, “Teddy, come on–what choice do I have here?” Dr. Oglethorpe responds: “A man’s always got choices, Randall; sometimes you just gotta choose the good one!”
In a crucial scene, Dr. Mindy stands with Isherwell and President Orlean in a giant hangar where the BASH drone is stored. President Orlean’s mission to nuke the comet was terminated mid-course after Isherwell informed her that the comet is worth billions of dollars in minerals that are valuable to tech companies. Isherwell’s BASH concocts its own plan to use a drone to break up the comet in order to soften its impact on earth so that the minerals can be harvested. Isherwell, in full dementia mode, starts speaking to the drone, calling it “mankind’s savior,” giving it a name, and saying that it’s “like my first child.” He tells it that it will be a “god in the sky,” as the president laughs nearby like a witless sycophant, and Dr. Mindy watches in concerned horror.
When Mindy dares to question the specifics of Isherwell’s plan and suggests that he is approaching the whole situation as a businessman, Isherwell turns to him in anger and claims to have over 40 million data points on Dr. Mindy and on every decision he has made since 1994. He has determined that Dr. Mindy is the sort of person who believes himself to be motivated by high-minded ideals, but in reality, he merely runs toward pleasure and away from pain. Isherwell can even predict how Dr. Mindy will die: alone.
At this point, the movie shows us, rather than tells us, that Dr. Mindy is learning what choices he must make. When Mindy returns to the talk show, he has his own “Kate moment” and ends up ranting on live TV, just as she had done. He can no longer tolerate Brie’s pleasantries and sees right through the President and BASH. His comments get him arrested again by the FBI, and the next thing we know, he is headed home to try to repair his relationship with his wife.
Meanwhile, while working at a grocery store in Illinois, Kate makes the acquaintance of an anarchist skater boy and petty thief named Yule (Timothee Chalamet), who invites her to hang out with him and his friends after he recognizes her as the girl from TV who told everyone they’re going to die. Kate takes him up on the offer, mainly because she has nothing to lose. Yule’s acquaintances engage in conspiracy theory talk. One says he heard that the President has an underground bunker; another says she heard that BASH built an escape ship. Kate, trying to be the voice of reason, responds, “The truth is way more depressing. They’re not even smart enough to be as evil as you’re giving them credit for.” Although the ridiculousness of President Orlean and Isherwell would seem to corroborate this sentiment, by the end of the movie, it is apparent that these “conspiracies” are true.
Kate reluctantly begins a romantic relationship with Yule after she reminds herself that they are all going to die, but what is a matter of nihilistic indifference to her is more meaningful to him, and he is hurt when she kisses him without purpose. Later, we see them talking at night, and Yule confesses to believing in God. He was raised as an evangelical and now hates his parents, but he found his own way to God. This admission comes seconds before one of the film’s most momentous events: Kate spots the comet streaking through the sky. Dr. Mindy, alone in a car in Michigan, sees it, too. They all look up. Dr. Mindy calls Kate and tries to express his strange mix of feelings: “It’s horrific, and it’s beautiful, at the same time.” In the background of their phone conversation, Yule is raising his arms and praying.
The movie now enters the final showdown, the one in which all human attempts to save the world come to naught and people are left with their last, but meaningful, choices: how do you spend your last few hours—or minutes—before the end of the world? We see an empty road; the only car for miles is the one carrying Dr. Mindy, Kate, and Yule. They are headed to the grocery store and then to Mindy’s home, where he intends to reconcile with his wife and have one last family dinner. Everyone else in America is watching the BASH launch. Only Dr. Mindy seems to grasp that everything has failed, and this really is it.
Dr. Mindy plays a World War II song about soldiers going off to battle. Yule gets vulnerable with Kate and asks if she wants to spend more time together, maybe even get engaged? Smiling, she says, “Sure, why not.” At the grocery store, they delight in picking up wild salmon and fingerling potatoes, and then they arrive home, where Dr. Mindy makes up with his wife and sons, Dr. Oglethorpe comes over, and they all prepare a last supper together. We see them lovingly cooking together, sharing what they are thankful for, enjoying wine and charcuterie and good coffee.
Dr. Mindy’s son remembers the wonder of once coming face to face with a baby deer. Kate is thankful that at least they tried. The lights begin to flicker; the walls begin to shake. But no one is freaking out. We see family, friends, gratitude, humble resignation, a shared meal—not crying or panicking, not drug usage or media obsession. At the end of it all, Dr. Mindy thinks it would be fitting to say “Amen,” even though they are not a religious household. Yule steps up and offers the words to the prayer that is on everyone’s heart:
Dearest Father and Almighty Creator, we ask for your grace tonight, despite our pride; your forgiveness, despite our doubt; most of all, Lord, we ask for your love to soothe us through these dark times. May we face whatever is to come in your divine will with courage and open hearts of acceptance. Amen.
This “last supper” scene enfolds between glimpses of the BASH launch party. The President jokingly asks Peter to tell her how she will die. He replies, almost without pause: “You’re going to be eaten by a bronteroc. We don’t know what it means.” The mission countdown begins. The drone launches. Almost immediately, things start going wrong. It turns out that, despite the high-tech plan to break it up, the comet is still whole. Isherwell and President Orlean leave the room on the pretense of using the bathroom, but really they are boarding their getaway spaceship—they had an escape plan for an elite 2,000 all along.
The President calls Dr. Mindy to offer him a spot for himself and one other person, but he turns down the offer. When the staff members at the launch party realize what is going on, they bail to reunite with their families. Only Jason remains waiting, certain that his mother, the president, will return. But we see that she has forgotten all about him and is long gone with Peter Isherwell on their self-serving escape mission. Jack and Brie, somewhere else in the city, are deciding what to do with their last hour. Brie turns down the suggestion to have sex or pray, saying, “honestly, I think I’d just rather drink and talk shit about people.”
The rest of the world copes with the bad news in a myriad of ways—we see people praying, people on their phones, people rioting, people having sex, talk show hosts ignoring the end of the world, an apparent suicide, animals going haywire, a little baby’s smiling face looking up at its mother from a bathtub. But the true last words belong to Dr. Mindy. Once again, we witness the Mindy household’s joyous dinner, an event that evokes both Christ’s last supper and an earthly embodiment of the wedding feast of the Lamb, complete with a marital reunion. After the final prayer, and looking around at his family and friends, Dr. Mindy says, “We really did have everything, didn’t we.” The room is shaking; the windows begin to give out; time slows down. This is it.
I had not read any plot summaries beforehand, so a part of me was truly surprised to discover that the world really does end at the end of this movie. All of the attempts to save the world fail. Just before the credits roll, we see our destroyed planet from the vantage point of outer space, as remnants of earthly things fly by. Almost the last thing on the screen is a golden calf, spinning around and around as it hurtles through the darkness.
The two “Marvel-style” extra scenes provide a comedic but theologically and philosophically fascinating closure to the film. As the credits roll, we see the BASH ship flying through space. 22,740 years later, it reaches another earth-like planet. 42% of the passengers have died along the way. Those who have survived are almost all old; there are no children in this utopia. They emerge, naked, into an Edenic planet, complete with lush plants and exotic animals. President Orlean runs up to a creature that looks like a cross between a chicken and a dinosaur. We all know what happens next.
As the creature eats her alive, Isherwell warns the others, “whatever you do, don’t pet them!” We get a glimpse of more of these creatures emerging from the trees. They surround the survivors, Jurassic Park-style. All the money in the world, the best technology, a crafty plan to save the elite few, even at the expense of the entire planet—unfortunately, Kate, they were indeed smart enough to be that evil—could not save them. “Life, without the stress of living” is the BASH motto; indeed, we see that the “life” Isherwell and President Orlean have chosen is a life without family—literally—without children, without humility, without remorse, without God. In this anti-Eden, the naked men and women are not without sin, and they do not govern the animals; they get eaten by giant alien chickens within five seconds of their arrival.
The final “extra” scene shows Jason Orlean emerging from the launch room bunker into what looks like literal hell. He is surrounded by steaming black rocks and red flames. “Mom?” He confusedly takes out his phone and nonsensically tries to film himself, shouting, “I’m the last man on earth!” and “Don’t forget to like and subscribe!”
Many of the film’s most interesting points are revealed only after careful observation and reflection. Isherwell’s phone company data set accurately predicts President Orlean’s death, but it is wrong about Dr. Mindy after all: he does not die alone. And his life does not end with the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain, but with his choice to reconcile with his family, open his home to friends, and accept what is coming in a spirit of gratitude and humility. Here is an affirmation of the power and importance of human choice in a world that often sees people in terms of statistics, votes, ratings, and money.
And has there ever been another movie, at least another blockbuster, that so openly confronts our willful denial of death? The last quarter of the film is the most interesting because we see the final power and poignance of choice, even when the world is doomed and death is imminent. How one is to die—this is no trivial choice. In fact, we find that choosing how to die is really no different than choosing how to live.
Brie is shallow and petty to the end, turning down any opportunities for deeper human or divine connection. President Orlean is a self-promoter, willing even to leave behind her own son. Isherwell is simultaneously a money-hungry billionaire technocrat, depressed geriatric, and delusional creator of a lifeless, life-destroying utopia. Dr. Oglethorpe, Kate, Yule, Dr. Mindy, and his family choose to live and die together, expressing their gratitude for the good things of life, enjoying a bountiful meal, praying for God’s grace in their last moments. What are we to make of the fact that it is the scientists from Michigan and the ex-evangelical skater boy from Illinois who ultimately appreciate nature and give thanks to God for it? However much this film satirizes the Trumpian personality of President Orlean and her appeal to angry men, this is certainly not a film that bashes religion or the values of “Trump country.” Midwestern values, if we can call them that, are affirmed in the end: family life, shared meals, gratitude to God.
Director Adam McKay had climate change in mind when he made this film. I also saw parallels with our current COVID situation. At one point, when Dr. Mindy appears on a commercial to support a hotline for people who have questions about the safety of the US government and BASH’s joint solution to mining the dangerous comet, I thought of Dr. Fauci and his role in defending the US government-backed COVID vaccines. If we interpret Don’t Look Up as a satire about our country’s denial of the impending crisis caused by climate change or even by the spread of COVID, the players who most come under fire are the self-serving US President and big tech CEOs, together with the traditional media and social media. Those who come off best are the two scientists in their prophet-like roles.
Even when they make mistakes and are met with roadblocks in all directions, the film affirms their—and our—responsibility to seek the truth, speak the truth, and do what we can for the common good, even when the world laughs at us or ignores us, and even when the governmental and monetary powers try to rope us in to pursue their own ulterior ends. And if (and when) all of our attempts to save the world from an apocalyptic crisis still fail, our response cannot be constant crying or panicking, bitter resignation or nihilism, but, like Dr. Mindy and Kate, we have to realize that we really do have everything, and the only proper response—even, and perhaps especially, in the face of death—should be love for one another and joyful gratitude to God for every last drop of beauty and goodness in this world.
Don’t Look Up is the film’s title, and there are many shades of meaning to that phrase. It is an (im-)moral command addressed to us at certain times by an evil government, at other times by the very phones we carry constantly in our hands. The film is a bleak, sad, yet funny fairy tale, more like a post-modern Hans Christian Andersen story than a classic Disney movie. But even if the residual sense we are left with (and perhaps an unintentional one) is that all our Pelagian efforts to save ourselves will ultimately fail, and there is a 100% chance that we are all going to die, the film does not leave us in a state of meaninglessness.
The real answer, in an “Allegory of the Cave” fashion, is to Look Up! Look up at the hard truths and not down at the comforting lies; look up at the dangerous but wonderful power of nature and not down at the life-sucking devices of our own making; look up at our family and friends and not down at our own narrow, selfish goals; look up at reconciliation and forgiveness and not down at pride; look up at the goodness in people, the beauty of life, and the Creator of all good things, God.