The talk of the scicomm community over the month of December was a new movie from Netflix called Don’t Look Up. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, this movie was originally released in theaters for those brave enough to actually go to a theater. It was added to Netflix on December 24. I finally watched it last night, and I can admit that I was hesitant to watch it. I managed to avoid spoilers, and I’ll try to do the same for you all, but I couldn’t help but see the reactions of friends and colleagues.
And as Pamela said to me this morning, a lot of it came down to “I’m in this picture and I don’t like it”.
Let’s start at the beginning. We open on an observatory in Hawai’i. It’s the Subaru Telescope, in fact, and one of the images that flash on the screen is actually an object my friend Michael (a fellow undergraduate alum) discovered. According to our astrophysics professor and research adviser, their poster hangs in the hallway at the observatory, and the camera crew must have grabbed it from there. Pretty neat, and I’m very excited for him and our professor.
Jennifer Lawrence is doing the graduate student thing, getting the telescope set up for observations, checking out computer data, etc. Pamela could probably speak more to that process than me as she has actually spent nights at a telescope. The telescope’s adaptive optics laser guide turns on, and we get a full shot of the domes up on Mauna Kea. I admit to a few feelings of envy toward my friend Michael again as he actually got to go there and do his follow-up observations on his galaxy discovery.
But I digress.
Jennifer’s character, Kate Dibiasky, has discovered a comet. Her adviser is Dr. Randall Mindy, played by DiCaprio, and he joins her along with the rest of her cohort who is also there working on their research. They’re from Michigan State, a point that is necessary for later. Dr. Mindy starts asking the team questions about the object, and they begin running orbital calculations to get all the ephemeris numbers for this newly found comet, and something is clearly wrong. Dr. Mindy sends the other team members away and keeps Kate with him. It turns out that Comet Dibiasky is very big and headed directly toward Earth, arriving in six months and fourteen days.
And this is where the movie simultaneously fascinates me and also goes a bit off the rails. You see, it’s a satire, examining how our society would react to devastating news like this, and aside from the NASA Planetary Defence coordinator, everyone else basically sucks. I started to feel like the film was a series of Onion headlines brought to life, and actually hit the “thanks, I hate it” point during the first scene in the Oval Office.
Meryl Streep plays the President, and she’s the worst cross between Donald Trump and Bill Clinton that you can imagine. All concerned with politics and her image, and her Chief of Staff is her son, annoyingly portrayed by Jonah Hill in his most Jonah Hill way. They don’t want to take the situation seriously as it won’t poll well. And they are incredibly condescending about the team being from Michigan State and want scientists from Ivy League schools to check the numbers. Gross.
So the scientists turn to the media.
And from there, everything goes further off the rails, with a terrible romance or two, some awful internet memes, and for whatever reason, Ariana Grande playing a pop star. I did manage to make it through the movie, but I essentially hated everyone except the NASA coordinator. Even J Law’s Kate got on my nerves, although I do respect her nihilism and angst, and Dr. Mindy loses the plot early on. This is not a warm, fuzzy movie. It’s a dark satire, and it feels over the top enough to stay satire while at the same time, reminding you that it’s really not that far off from reality.
There’s also a bonus terrible subplot about a tech company called BASH and its founder, who is a pale, socially awkward genius with hints of Steve Jobs but not nearly the charisma. That subplot turned me off from the film a lot, but I can see it was necessary to keep the satire going. Still, I really didn’t like that part.
Overall, if satire is your thing, if you like dark humor, and you don’t mind end-of-the-world scenarios, then Don’t Look Up is for you. The science is fine. In fact, Amy Mainzer of NEOWISE fame was the astronomy consultant on the movie. That’s all well and good, but I still found the movie a little too cringe for my tastes. I also feel like it could have ended five minutes earlier, and the stinger after the credits was wholly unnecessary. I know Ally disagrees a bit, and we’ll have her review in our bonus content on Patreon.
Honestly, though, please please please look up. It’s pretty amazing up there.