What would we do if we discovered the world was going to end?


I think we already know, but now Netflix has turned it into a metaphor in this new movie, Don’t Look Up.

(I think the gag about the government putting a bag over your head is part of the metaphor.)

I watched it last night, and I liked it in a grim, cynical, we-are-so-fucked sort of way. The story in the movie is about our response to learning that a planet-killing comet is going to smash into the Earth in six months, which is a nice, sharp, discretely bounded example of a catastrophe, so it does differ from our current situation where the oncoming catastrophe is messy and slow. It makes no difference, though, since we’d probably react to either kind of disaster with ineffectual denial. (Probably? In the case of our current situation, definitely.)

Michael Mann appreciated the message of the movie.

McKay’s film succeeds not because it’s funny and entertaining; it’s serious sociopolitical commentary posing as comedy. It’s a cautionary tale about the climate crisis stitched together by McKay’s signature biting humor. That’s the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down.

As we look toward the next decade — a critical decade from the standpoint of averting truly catastrophic climate change — we need more unconventional endeavors like “Don’t Look Up” to communicate the perils of climate inaction. Scientific research, on its own, will travel only so far (until scientists distill a 900-page report into a 90-second TikTok). Science isn’t finished until it’s successfully communicated.

As Beth Osnes, associate professor of theater and environmental studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said, “Climate change isn’t a laughing matter, but sometimes you have to laugh at your pain to get to a solution.” So let’s stop to have a laugh or two. And then get on with the work at hand.

I think he’s right, but we also have to appreciate how hard it’s going to be. The movie made that obvious: even when our doom was obvious, when there was a comet hanging in the sky, there were still people scheming to use it for political gain or corporate greed. The signs and portents of our troubles are all around us, yet we still have conservative think-tanks denying the need to take action because it might interfere with corporate profits, and we have a political party that’s raison d’etre seems to be about disenfranchising the citizenry because they might vote against greed and exploitation. What is the work at hand? It’s not just doing good science, it also seems to require crushing a corrupt political party, replacing a negligent one, and dismantling all of capitalism. It’s all a bit overwhelming.

Comments

  1. says

    I’m reminded of the Comet Scare of 1910. Halley’s Comet was passing and astronomers detected cyanide in it’s tail. Spectroscopy was a new idea at the time and we were just learning how to use it to see what things in space are made of. Some people latched onto this and started spreading fear about the cyanide. Some went as far as selling “Anti-Comet” medicine to “protect” you from the cyanide. It was all a shameless scam.

  2. birgerjohansson says

    The film seems remarkably close to the one-page story “Goliath” published in the “futures” fiction page of the journal “Nature”.

  3. F.O. says

    Was it in the Altemeyer’s experiments where they removed the sociopath leaders from a group and all of the sudden the group would address crisis in a timely way?

  4. Jean says

    I think there is another unintended (and apparently mostly not seen) message displaying the navel-gazing nature of the US population. To think that the US government could hide a world ending event from the rest of the world (at least not one of their own making) and that no other country would attempt anything is absurd, to say the least, and patronizing. And having the president addressing the people of the earth as their de facto leader is another fantasy.

  5. Rob Grigjanis says

    It reeks of star-studded, ham-fisted failure. I might give it a look when it hits the telly, but I suspect I won’t last ten minutes.

  6. canadiansteve says

    I also enjoyed it a lot. Definitely not going to go on to critical acclaim or anything, but entertaining, and sadly accurate commentary on many levels.
    @6 Jean – I think that was intentional, though subtle – the way that Americans imagine that n-one else could do anything. If I recall correctly, when the results are first shared they say to share it with other institutions around the world for confirmation, but then the Americans later try to make it a state secret.

    PZ said:

    we have a political party that’s raison d’etre seems to be about disenfranchising the citizenry because they might vote against greed and exploitation

    Correction – you have two parties for whom this is their raison d’etre. It’s just that one puts a slightly friendlier face on it.

  7. says

    The “next decade is the critical decade” has been decades. Meanwhile the US govt expects to increase fossil fuel use through 2050. I probably won’t watch this movie but that’s like planning a space mission to nudge the comet for 20 years after impact.

  8. naturalistguy says

    There’s no way this would actually happen once word got out and other astronomers took a look. So what we have is a little fantasy that suits David Sirota. What a surprise that the U.S. President is a bespectacled woman, instead of someone who looks like like, um, Bernie Sanders. Not.

  9. James Fehlinger says

    To think that the US government could hide a world ending event
    from the rest of the world (at least not one of their own making)
    and that no other country would attempt anything is absurd,
    to say the least, and patronizing. And having the president
    addressing the people of the earth as their de facto leader is
    another fantasy.

    . . .

    [W]hen the results are first shared they say to share it with
    other institutions around the world for confirmation, but then
    the Americans later try to make it a state secret.

    . . .

    There’s no way this would actually happen once word got out and
    other astronomers took a look.

    I haven’t actually seen the film, but yes — this is the first thing that
    crossed my mind. A sensible first response, I should think (for an American
    astronomer) wouldn’t be to go screaming to the White House, but to
    consult with a global network of fellow astronomers. But what do I
    know?

    However, a similar scenario arises in 1997’s Contact , where
    Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) first alerts radio dishes around the
    world of the existence of the signal. She is later sternly
    (though in the event toothlessly) reprimanded — to the point of
    being subtly accused of being a traitor — by the fatuous a-hole
    of a National Security Advisor (or whatever the hell he is)
    played by James Woods.

    ;->

  10. says

    The movie is a satire. Nitpicking over details is irrelevant. There’s a lot of stuff that wouldn’t pass muster as science — for instance, they do send off drilling robots and nukes and so forth to try and blow up the comet. They fail because they identify precious minerals in it, so a multi-billionaire decides to scuttle the mission because he imagines extracting trillions of dollars from the rocks after it splashes down.
    Everyone in the fictional world does know about the comet, and other countries are launching missions to deflect or blow it up. Their control center explodes mysteriously, no no, it couldn’t be sabotage, wink wink.

  11. astringer says

    I second PZ at 12: I watch the movie a few days ago, and (as a non-US resident) saw it more as an attack the US stance on a number issues, but predominantly climate change hesitancy. I was strongly reminded of Neil Gaiman’s description of Terry Pratchett: “Terry Pratchett isn’t jolly. He’s angry”. I think Don’t Look Up failed as a comedy, but then I also think it was written, and acted, with anger. That came through.

  12. unclefrogy says

    I saw the trailer for this movie the other day it took a few a little time before i realized it was some kind of dark comedy I was not in the mood for it right then so I let it pass. I watched some predictable serial space fantasy adventures instead lots of bang and zoom and mumbled dialog and ultimate escape from catastrophe
    the problems of the next 10 years are indeed daunting , I alternate between thoughts of confidence that we will get through with some loses and ones of chaos destruction and utter collapse

  13. snarkrates says

    Haven’t seen the show yet, but I can comment a little on what the so-called planetary defense initiative. Basically, we couldn’t do jack against a comet 6 months away from ending life on Earth. The most effective strategy is to identify threats years in advance–and then you can let the sun do your work by painting portions of the asteroid/comet different colors and relying on differential absorption of solar photons.

    Of course NASA instead wants to nuke the asteroids–more expensive, but what use is a planetary defense that doesn’t go boom?

    And basically, every other country is probably a decade behind NASA in this area. It’s not even on the radar of most space agencies.

    I could quite easily see this sort of thing occurring. For one thing, you’ll almost never have 100% certainty of a collision. If you have a 50% chance of wiping out civilization and making sure it’s safe costs money, most Rethugs will just bet on black.

  14. Jean says

    PZ, I know it’s a satire and I actually watched it as such because otherwise it’s unwatchable as a non-US resident. But this is inline with so many other things that go unnoticed and/or unsaid about the US attitude that actually result in real-world consequences. Being more self aware and humble (I’m Canadian, haha) would go a long way towards reducing the harm done by the US to the rest of the world (not that there isn’t good as well but some of it comes with a heavy price).
    Sorry to be overly dramatic and slightly off topic but with Trump and COVID, a lot of people in the US should stop thinking that they’re God’s gift to the world. And I’m glad that most people on the blogs here are aware of it

  15. Brian Wright says

    I despised the film. It was poorly edited and just not funny. I was expecting something like Dr. Strangelove, but Adam McKay is no Stanley Kubrick.

    As to why it wasn’t funny? This excerpt from the NYT review says it best:

    “One problem is that some of McKay’s biggest targets here — specifically in politics and infotainment — have already reached maximum self-parody or tragedy (or both). What is left to satirically skewer when facts are derided as opinion, flat Earthers attend annual conferences, and conspiracy theory movements like QAnon have become powerful political forces?”

  16. naturalistguy says

    Better to watch The Death of Stalin again, which is wickedly funny and also has a great cast. Jacob Issac as Marshall Zhukov was a hoot.

  17. Rob Grigjanis says

    PZ @12: Yes, it’s obviously a satire. But effective satire is really hard to pull off. From what I’ve seen, Americans aren’t very good at it.

  18. says

    I’d sort of agree. As a satire, they forgot the funny. They even left out the faintly amusing. It’s grim and dark, and the ending is damningly nihilistic. The one thing it desperately needed is a feeble glimmer of hope — if we could fix this one huge thing, maybe we’d survive — and it lacks that completely. We’re simply utterly doomed, might as well sit down to dinner with our family and wait for the comet to strike.

  19. unbelievingdwindler says

    I thought it was hilarious. I laughed out loud often. I loved Meryl Streep’s performance.

  20. naturalistguy says

    @23

    Still an American though. And for another great American satire, don’t forget Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976). “I’m Mad As Hell and I’m Not Gonna Take This Anymore!”

  21. Rob Grigjanis says

    @25: Sure. One who lived his last forty years in the UK.

    In the end, I guess it comes down to taste. Lumet (and Altman) made some great movies, but I found their attempts at satire (including Network and M.A.S.H.) unsubtle (i.e. tediously obvious), bash-on-the-head tripe. Americans doing satire is like the French doing sci-fi. And I’m sure mileage varies hugely there as well.

  22. says

    Wait wait wait. Kubrick moved to the UK in 1961, Dr Strangelove was released in 1964, and he and Southern started writing it in 1962. If one year’s exposure to the comedy environment of Merry England taught him the art of satire, I have to ask a) why bring up the 40 years? and b) what happened to Kubrick’s sense of humor? He got pretty heavy-handed with subsequent films. Maybe you could make a case for Barry Lyndon, but there isn’t much to laugh at in 2001 or Eyes Wide Shut or The Shining.

  23. naturalistguy says

    @ 26

    Thinking of Robert Altman, Tim Robbins directed the political satire Bob Roberts (1992) that was pretty funny and definitely biting. (Loved the supercilious Gore Vidal being cast as the Democrat too.)

  24. naturalistguy says

    @28

    I think Kubrick liked working in England more than Hollywood, because Kubrick wanted full creative control of his films. And I don’t think of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange as being heavy-handed, although it certainly is violent.

  25. naturalistguy says

    About Robert Altman again, his satire of Hollywood The Player (1992) starring Tim Robbins was scathing, and damn funny too. Roger Ebert liked it: The Player

  26. Rob Grigjanis says

    @28: Yeah, it took him that long to realize he didn’t belong in the US. Nurture isn’t everything. And humour doesn’t have to permeate everything. Have you seen Paths of Glory? His best film, IMO, and made before he moved to Blighty.

  27. klatu says

    This entire thread is giving off extreme “Ok, boomer” vibes.

    Roger Ebert? Dude hasn’t been relevant for decades. Still conjuring up his
    over-inflated, desiccated ego from beyond the grave is base necromancy, IMO.
    The guy only liked really boring, family-friendly kitsch.

    Similarly for Kubrick. We’re now talking about movies that were made 60 years ago. With a mindset from 60 years ago. With science and tech from 60 years ago.
    In a world that didn’t stand on the precipice of absoule system collapse, globally.
    Does it really still matter how well made they for their time?

    Just sticking with movies here, are there really no reference points that hit a bit closer to home? Was nothing made in the past 60 fucking years that (some of) you people would consider significant art? Or is the history of movies really this bland and empty? Has capitalism made art impossible? Is that it?

    I don’t know. But it would be a more interesting discourse than anything involving links to rogerebert.com.

    Every movie doesn’t have to be a Kubrick to be worthwhile. It’s like complaining that every movie isn’t Citizen Kane (another relic I can’t really relate to). If you subscribe to the idea that movies are art, then you need to concede that art is also about entertainment. Art that doesn’t entertain inevitably lands in the proverbial dustbin of history, simply as a function of its lack of contemporary appeal. (Very few people can honestly claim to enjoy the orignial MacBeth, for instance, regardless of acclaim or merit.)

  28. Rob Grigjanis says

    klatu @33:

    Very few people can honestly claim to enjoy the orignial MacBeth, for instance, regardless of acclaim or merit.

    What is that based on? A comprehensive study of people’s honesty?

  29. klatu says

    @Rob Grigjanis
    I don’t know.

    How many people have actually read it? I did. It’s brilliant. It’s also a boring slog to get through and I kind of hate it. That wasn’t the point.

    It just annoyed me how this discussion got bogged down in really ancient preconceptions of what makes a good movie.

  30. chrislawson says

    There is a smidge of humour in 2001: most clearly in the scene where Dr Floyd, the senior NASA scientist, bites his knuckle while reading the instructions for the zero-g toilet, and I would suggest that HAL’s unceasing politeness as he becomes homicidal is a kind of gallows humour. It’s not much, though, and Kubrick used humour pretty sparingly with the exception of Dr Strangelove and a few lines here and there in Spartacus (haven’t seen Barry Lyndon or Lolita).

  31. unclefrogy says

    didn’t stand on the precipice of absoule system collapse

    not sure here but I would suggest that a nuclear holocaust might count a a system collapse or certainly was considered so at the time to likely precipitate one
    as for the Scottish play there is no one alive to day who has ever seen “the original” production, plays are for seeing and hearing primarily though you can of course read any you like reading the score for La boheme is not the same as hearing and seeing it. all productions offer something and some are better then others. but what do i know I am old.

  32. chrislawson says

    klatu@33–

    Dr Strangelove was about a world on the verge of existential destruction. Yes, the film is nearly 60 years old, and the most pressing threat is no longer global nuclear war but environmental collapse. Still, the basic satire remains valid: world leaders are too entrenched in their myopic politics to prevent even the most stupid, venal, and self-destructive decisions.

    And far from being “boomer”-centric to talk about Strangelove, it’s a sign that some art is meaningful and relevant for generations. I am not a boomer. Strangelove was made before I was born, but it resonates with me like few other films. I should add that I enjoy MacBeth, which I have read and seen as several stage productions.

    I’m not sure why you are opposed to discussing older cultural touchstones. You can always add more recent examples if you prefer. In my own estimation there are many, many films set around or after global collapses from various causes including environmental destruction, alien invasion, nuclear war, unspecified civilisation collapse, asteroid/comet collision, epidemic, zombies, ghosts, elder gods, demons, spiritual curse, time travel, rogue AI, physics experiment gone wrong, homicidal plants, and even neuro-linguistic meltdown. Lots to choose from, and all of them could work as metaphors for political failure. Most of them, however, are survival stories rather than satirical eviscerations of the politics behind the crises.

  33. James Fehlinger says

    Yes, [ Dr. Strangelove ] is nearly 60 years old, and the most
    pressing threat is no longer global nuclear war but environmental collapse.

    Ya think?

    I mean, it’s not like the nukes and the ICBMs have gone away,
    and it’s not inconceivable that environmental difficulties could
    precipitate the thermonuclear war that’s been hanging overhead
    for the past 70 years, however jaded folks have become about it all
    since the (OK, Boomer!) days of the Cuban missile crisis,
    Herman “Strangelove” Kahn’s On Thermonuclear War ,
    The Day After , Testament , Threads , suburban bomb shelters,
    and duck-and-cover drills in public schools (those were about the
    threat of nukes back in my day, rather than the threat of kids with guns).

  34. PaulBC says

    What would I personally do if the world was going to end imminently, assuming there was nothing I could do about it? (which isn’t the premise if I read PZ@12; in this movie, they might be able to do something?)

    Right now as I type, I am waiting for a Cricut maker to cut out matboard tiles that can be used to implement a Margolus neighborhood cellular automaton. It takes 8 passes with the knife blade and is super-slow. The cool part is I can do it at home now instead of ordering laser cuts as I was doing previously. I’d like to think that if I knew the world was ending, I’d keep doing this. It is an activity carried out for no reason other than the the fact it brings me joy. Even if I could send a laser signal into the cosmos explaining I’m doing that, it would have little significance. It can end with me and that’s OK. ET already has it figured out.

    In reality, I would probably freak out. Go “walk the earth” or try to contact old friends. Who knows. Also, I would have to deal with the reactions of my family. I suppose if the world is actually ending, it doesn’t matter what you do. The trick (as with global warming) is when it might not end depending on your decisions.

  35. PaulBC says

    James Fehlinger@41 It’s remarkable that there has not been a regional nuclear conflict since the end of the Cold War and MAD. I agree that it’s a more direct threat than global warming. However, the hair-trigger global nuclear conflict that I accepted most of my youth seems to be unlikely. Even a single large city hit with a hydrogen bomb would (apart from the humanitarian catastrophe) have global impact in terms of addressing the emergency and that’s assuming the conflict ended miraculously with that one city. So yeah, the problem has not gone away, but the chances of some form of survival seem higher.

  36. chrislawson says

    JF@41–

    I don’t think the threat of nuclear war has gone away, but it’s less likely than the mid-60s and less likely to be global. Meanwhile, environmental degradation and habitat destruction has increased exponentially in those 60 years, has many intersecting causal agents, no single point of prevention, and a rampaging sociopathic ruling class that actively fights all attempts to ameliorate the damage to the point where thousands of coal-rolling Americans now pollute the environment as a performative recreational exercise.

  37. PaulBC says

    Sorry for the triple comment, but I think On the Beach, though it’s been a while since I read it, is still one of the best novels on what people might do if they really knew the world was going to end and couldn’t do anything about it. It’s probably far too optimistic though. People are less likely to make peace with their fate than simply make everything far worse than it is already.

  38. imback says

    I’ve now watched Don’t Look Up twice, both times synchronized with sets of relatives and friends over chat. I enjoyed it both times. It is pretty much tongue-in-cheek deep satire all the way, with various targets. (BELOW THERE BE SPOILERS.) The main target is climate change denial, with the ultimate denial encouraged by the obfuscators is literally don’t look up. It also skewers the Planet B hope when those privileged to escape to a new biological planet get eaten immediately upon arrival. And it skewers social media when the only survivor on Earth takes a selfie to share. The US assuming they’re in control is another skewer. I laughed in a few places but it was all dark humor which you have to be in the mood for.

  39. imback says

    Also the two most vile characters were wonderfully played by Meryl Streep and Cate Blanchett, and Mark Rylance did a great job playing the Elon Musk character. Doing these roles was surely easier when subtlety is not called for.

  40. says

    Rob Grigjanis @7
    “I might give it a look when it hits the telly…”
    It’s Netflix, so it’s already on television or whatever device you use to watch streaming services and won’t be on a broadcast channel.

  41. says

    I watched this movie for the first time yesterday afternoon, and I currently have my fourth viewing on pause.
    (I’m retired and housesitting for my daughter, so I have some time on my hands.)
    Already I love this movie. No, don’t expect serious realism; it’s not a documentary. It’s not even a sci-fi end of world thriller. It’s some of the most scathing social satire I’ve ever seen, covering everything from the narcissism of social media to the corporateness of old mainstream media, from the dangers of electing politicians who treat office like a reality show to the vapidness of celebrities who can turn the most worthy cause into the emptiest glitz.
    And while it wasn’t really laugh out loud funny, a few of the characters kept me giggling (the tech visionary being my favorite).
    Yeah, I thought of climate change some but I also thought very much of America’s response to the pandemic and the way we politicize everything and act like demonstrable scientific facts, including even mathematics, are just matters of opinion. It’s America-centric, for sure, but I think it’s meant to point up American society’s inability to deal with a crisis and mostly avoid criticizing the rest of the world too much. Others try to do the right thing but fail for reasons we don’t really find out about. It might have to do with them having to cobble everything together too quickly, too late in the game after the USA cuts them out of any joint effort.
    Yeah, it’s dark, but I guess I can still see some beauty in the dark. There’s a montage near the end that I thought really symbolized well the fragility of the only bit of life we know of in the universe. I found myself weeping a little over a shot of a bee hovering in flight. A goddamned bee. Maybe I’m just old and suffering from that weird senility that old Vulcans get, but I thought it was just perfect. I mean, the small things matter, and you can see the whole from the smallest piece, sort of like a hologram.
    Anyway, my two cents. Back to viewing #four.

  42. James Fehlinger says

    I think On the Beach, though it’s been a while since I read it,
    is still one of the best novels on what people might do if they
    really knew the world was going to end and couldn’t do anything
    about it.

    A couple of years ago (before the pandemic) I re-read Greg Bear’s
    The Forge of God , which is centered on an end-of-the-world
    scenario concoted by hostile aliens (not an invasion, just a
    very efficiently-engineered and thoroughly total destruction of
    the planet, and with a months-long lead-up to a not-precisely-known
    0-hour), and which has some strikingly moving scenes of people
    spending their (unpanicked) last hours. One guy goes to Yosemite
    to spend his last days, along with a bunch of other folks.

    But there’s another particularly moving scene in which an
    oceanographer’s birthday party is being celebrated aboard a ship
    when 0-minute arrives, and the fusion explosives that have been
    planted deep in oceanic trenches (just to soften up the crust,
    you know — the knockout punch is delivered by matter and antimatter
    missiles that have burrowed their way to the Earth’s core)
    ignite, and the old scientist carefully sets his birthday cake
    and glass of wine down on the deck as the sea around him lights
    up, seconds before a gigantic rising bubble of superheated steam
    smashes the ship to smithereens.

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