Movie Review: Don't Look Up
Warning: contains spoilers
Don’t Look Up is primarily a movie about existential risk, and many great people have already reviewed it as such. I’m going to be less virtuous and use it as a springboard to talk about politics.
But first, the plot in a nutshell: Male Scientist and Female Scientist discover a comet will hit Earth in six months. They contact the relevant authorities, Black Scientist and Asian Scientist, and go to meet the President (who, despite being a woman, is Donald Trump). The President says scientists are always doomsaying, if people get too panicked she’ll lose the midterm election, and she’ll get around to dealing with this later.
(the Earth, at this point, has five months and however many days left)
In desperation, Male Scientist and Female Scientist finagle their way onto a big TV show. But all the subsequent press is about how sexy Male Scientist is and how shrill Female Scientist sounds. Still in desperation, they go to the New York Times and get an article about the comet. In response, the President has Asian Scientist (who is head of NASA) announce there’s nothing to worry about, and the Times drops their story and accuses the scientists of making them look bad.
Then the President is caught in a scandal; suddenly distracting the public seems like a good idea. She pivots, endorses the comet’s existence, fires Asian Scientist as her “fall guy”, and announces an extravagant and PR-filled comet deflection mission. All the Scientists get behind her and calculate “an 81% chance of success”. The mission launches to great fanfare.
Now we are introduced to Tech CEO, the “third richest man on Earth” and the President’s biggest donor. Tech CEO says the comet’s full of the rare earth elements he needs to make cell phones, and demands the President call off the comet deflection mission. He wants to use his own unproven technology to surgically disassemble and retrieve the comet. Some “Nobel Prize winning scientists” who work for him agree it’ll go great. Rather than offend a campaign donor, the President cancels the comet deflection mission.
The Scientists discuss this among themselves and decide that Tech CEO’s plan won’t work. Male Scientist decides to work within the system and try to change things from the inside, but this process gradually corrupts him. In order to keep his job and access, he stars in TV commercials where he reassures everyone that Tech CEO’s plan is great and they should feel safe. Female Scientist becomes an anti-comet-retrieval crusader. Her words cause riots, and the government responds by destroying her platform and credibility. She drops out of grad school and ends up in a two-bit town, bagging groceries.
The comet becomes visible in the night sky. The President hits on a new slogan, “Don’t Look Up!”, which pacifies her supporters and quells resistance. Conspiracy theorists write deranged blog posts saying there is no comet, and it’s all a Marxist plot. Hollywood celebrities say dumb things about how we “need to consider both sides” and “not let the comet divide us”.
Tech CEO tries his comet disassembly plan, but it fails, leaving Earth officially doomed. Male Scientist has a redemption arc, admits that trying to work within the system was wrong, and reconciles with various people he needs reconciling with. Everyone has a touching moment of togetherness before the comet strikes and kills them all - except the elites, who escaped on a starship designed by Tech CEO! After many years, they reach another habitable planet, but get eaten by alien dinosaurs immediately after landing. The end :-)
Unfortunately, Don’t Look Up can’t stop contradicting itself.
It depicts a monstrous world where the establishment is conspiring to keep the truth from you in every possible way. But it reserves its harshest barbs for anti-establishment wackos, who are constantly played for laughs. “THE COMET IS A MARXIST LIE!” says the guy on the Facebook stand-in. Maybe not literally, but at least he’s genre-savvy.
It depicts elites as simultaneously incompetent and omnicompetent. There’s a great scene where Female Scientist is talking to some rioters. The rioters bombard her with conspiracy theories - the elites have built bunkers! They’re lying low, totally safe, laughing at the idea of the comet wiping out the hoi polloi. “No,” Female Scientist answers, “they’re not that competent”. It’s a great line, played completely seriously. But later we learn that Tech CEO literally built a 2,000 person starship in less than six months so he and the other elites could escape.
But the worst part is…well, basically every scientific institution ends up lying. Asian Scientist, the head of NASA, officially announces there’s nothing to worry about. Tech CEO parades a bunch of Nobel Prize winners who endorse his idiotic plan and say it’ll go great. Male Scientist, during his work-within-the-system phase, makes commercials reassuring people that the comet won’t hurt them. The media is complicit in all of this, systematically preventing the populace from hearing the truth. The only scientist telling it like it is, Female Scientist, has (by the end of the movie) been kicked out of grad school and ended up bagging groceries.
Take this seriously, and the obvious moral of the story is: all conspiracy theories are true. If some rando bagging groceries at the supermarket tells you that every scientist in the world is lying, you should trust her 1000 percent.
But for some reason, everyone else thinks the moral of this story is Believe Experts. Worse, I think the scriptwriter and director and people like that also thought the moral of this story was Believe Experts. I think they asked themselves “How can we create a polemical film that viscerally convinces people to Believe Experts”, and they somehow came up with this movie, where the experts are bad and wrong and destroy humanity.
There’s a debate over whether Don’t Look Up is supposed to be pushing the progressive line on climate change vs. the progressive line on COVID. I’m not sure it can honestly push either.
Apply it to climate change, and you end up in some pretty weird places: I’m sure I can find a grocery-bagger to tell me all the climatologists are wrong and lying; should I believe her?
But apply it to COVID, and it’s even worse. Dr. Fauci and the CDC tell me every day that Pfizer’s vaccine is safe - but Male Scientist and NASA told their victims every day that Tech Company’s comet retrieval plan was safe. Sounds like we can’t trust scientific authorities when there might be a profit motive involved, better skip the jab! I hear ivermectin looks promising…
What went wrong? How can you try so hard to convey your politics, yet fail so badly?
Progressivism, like conservatism and every other political philosophy, is big and complicated and self-contradictory. It tells a lot of stories to define and justify itself. Here are two of them:
First, a story of scruffy hippies and activists protesting the Man, that embodiment of capitalism and conformism and respectability. Think Stonewall, where gay people on the margins of society spat in the face of their supposed betters and demanded their rights. Even academics are part of this tradition: Chomsky and Herman’s Manufacturing Consent accuses the mainstream media of being the Man. It’s jingoist and obsessed with justifying America’s foreign adventures; we need brave truth-tellers to point out where it goes wrong. Environmentalism shares some of this same ethos. In Erin Brockovich, a giant corporation is poisoning people, lying about it, and has bribed or corrupted everyone else into taking their side. Only one brave activist is able to put the pieces together and stand up for ordinary people.
Second, a story that comes out of the Creationism Wars of the early 00s. We are the “reality-based community”, the sane people, the normal people, the people with college degrees and non-spittle-covered keyboards. They are unwashed uneducated lunatics who think that evolution is a lie and Obama was born in Kenya and vaccines cause autism and COVID isn’t real. Maybe they should have been clued in by the fact that 100% of smart people and institutions are on our side, and they are just a couple of weirdos who don’t even agree with each other consistently. If this narrative has a movie, it must be Idiocracy - though a runner up might be Behind the Curve, the documentary about flat-earthers.
The first narrative says “there’s a consensus reality constructed by respectable people, and a few wild-eyed weirdos saying they’ve seen through the veil and it’s all lies…and you should trust the weirdos!” The second starts the same way, but ends “…and you should trust consensus reality!” They’re not actually contradictory - you could be talking about different questions! You are talking about different questions! But they’re contradictory at the mythic narrative level where they’re trying to operate. On that level, there should always be a good guy and a bad guy, and you should be able to tell who’s who by their facial hair or at least the color of their clothing. You shouldn’t have to learn a bunch of facts about the biochemistry of hexavalent chromium (or whatever it was Erin Brockovich was investigating) to resolve the object-level issue; nobody has time for that!
Is it a problem that people have two contradictory narratives at the same time? Take it from a psychiatrist: not at all. People are great at this. Loads of men are walking around with stories like “women are perfect angels” and “women are terrifying demons” in their heads all the time, totally untroubled by the contradiction. Different situations will activate one schema or the other; one that activates both might just never come up.
Partisan hacks - which includes all of us these days - have become masters of accepting contradictory narratives. One day your side controls the government, and you’re pro - unity and anti - obstructionism. The next day, the other guys control the government, and suddenly obstructionism is a necessary part of a vibrant democratic process. One day your side controls the Supreme Court, and it’s a vital check and balance against majoritarian assaults on human rights. The next day the other guys control the Supreme Court, and it’s an anti-democratic gerontocracy that tries to rule in place of the elected government. One day someone is mean to you on Twitter, and it’s cyberbullying and abuse and infliction of mental trauma. The next day you’re mean to someone else on Twitter, and did you know that tone policing via weaponized demands for civility entrenches the power of the already-privileged?
Each of these positions accretes its own narrative - a stock collection of examples, stereotypes, and associated emotions that tells you whether it’s good or bad. When your side is against Twitter harassment, you hear lots of stories of sympathetic people being harassed by evil people and driven to suicide. You see interviews with their crying loved ones. Maybe someone even makes a movie about cyberbullying that viscerally drives in just how hurtful it can be. But when your side is doing the harassing, you hear historical examples of how tone policing and weaponized civility demands produced chilling effects on noble people who wanted to make positive changes. Now the movies include ugly obese Boomers who say sneeringly “hey, watch your tone” when anyone calls them out on their misdeeds, then smirkingly go on to misdeed again, protected from all criticism. You end up with one moral narrative around how Twitter harassment is extraordinarily, villainously bad, and another narrative around how it’s wonderfully, heroically good.
In a perfect world, you notice these contradict each other, you do philosophy, and you end up with principles. Probably you get some nuanced view, like “being overly mean to people on Twitter is bad, and it’s hard to define exactly what does or doesn’t cross the line, but here are my basic heuristics and here are the edge cases I’m not sure about yet”.
In the real world, you Russell conjugate. Remember your Russell conjugations? They’re things like:
I am firm, you are obstinate, he is a pig-headed fool.
I am righteously indignant, you are annoyed, he is making a fuss over nothing.
You call the same thing by two different names, each name is associated with a different narrative, and each narrative permits no nuance. Harassment is obviously 100% wrong, and anyone who disagrees or thinks it’s more complicated than that is a Nazi. Tone policing is also obviously 100% wrong, and anyone who disagrees or thinks it’s more complicated than that is also a Nazi. Depending on which side your friends and enemies are on in any given conflict, you deploy one or the other of these black-and-white narratives, certain that you are 100% in the right.
So I don’t think it’s surprising that people have lots of conflicting narratives around science and power, and sit ready to deploy whichever one is more convenient for the situation at hand.
The interesting part is that both the Erin Brockovich narrative and the Idiocracy narrative can be summarized as “trust science”.
In the Erin Brockovich narrative, Science is the simple truth, the hard physical reality behind the veil of establishment lies and corporate distortion. If a thousand PhDs say one thing, and a humble grocery-bagger says another, but the grocery bagger is backed by reason and experimental evidence, then the grocery-bagger gets the mantle of Science, and the PhDs must gnash their teeth in vain. When God entered the world, it was through a poor Jewish carpenter, in order to humble all the kings and princes of the Earth; when Science enters the world, it’s through Swiss patent clerks, or Hungarian women from third-tier colleges, for the same reason. Magellan supposedly said that “the Church says the Earth is flat, but I know that it is round, for I have seen its shadow on the moon, and I have more faith in the shadow than in the Church.” Science is observing the shadow and telling the Church to screw itself.
But in the Idiocracy narrative, Science is what Dr. Fauci has that some spittle-drenched moron who’s never opened a textbook doesn’t. Science is why you should trust the CDC and the WHO and peer review and “the process” and the consensus of everyone who’s trained in investigating the world and interpreting what they find, instead of some talk show host who sits in his armchair and comes up with ways to dunk on those people.
If you’re going to spout a lot of mutually contradictory narratives, it helps to be able to pretend you’re not doing that, and “trust science” does the job. Trust science trust science trust science, that sure is our unified consensus on all important science-trusting-related issues.
And so some poor shmucks thought “What if we made a movie to show people why they should trust science?” And of course it ended out contradictory.
The one thing Don’t Look Up manages to do consistently, without ever contradicting itself, is insist: this is an easy question.
Many years ago, I wrote a post called The Cowpox Of Doubt. I complained about how people loved talking about flat-earthism or Holocaust denialism or whatever. The more you think about those kinds of questions, the more you absorb lessons like: everything has an obvious right answer, anyone who disagrees with me is an idiot, anyone trying to introduce subtlety is a concern troll, the proper length of time to debate something before dismissing it as obvious and your opponents as acting in bad faith is zero seconds. I argued you should basically never think about flat-earthism. Instead, think about when AGI will happen, or whether inflation will stabilize, or any of a thousand other questions where there are smart people on both sides of the issue. That way, you learn the right skills for solving hard questions, which are the only type you ever have any trouble solving in the first place.
Don’t Look Up decides - well, let’s just say it doesn’t take my advice. In the climactic final scene, obese white men in red baseball caps chant their slogan - “Don’t look up! Don’t look up!” - at a rally, while a clearly visible comet above them barrels towards Earth. The obvious feeling being elicited is condescension. You’re smarter than all those guys - the right answer is super obvious to you. You’re better than those Hollywood celebrities who say we need to “consider both sides”. You know there’s exactly one side to every question, it’s the drop-dead obvious one, and the right amount of time to spend thinking about it is zero seconds.
How are you so great at resolving questions about comets, when you know nothing about astronomy or orbital mechanics? Presumably because you have the right heuristics, the ones about which authorities to trust and which ones not to. But what are those right heuristics? The writers of Don’t Look Up spend 2 hours 18 minutes demonstrating that they have no idea and can’t even keep their answer consistent from one moment to the next.
You should absolutely trust Science. But Science is not clearly visible, like a comet bearing down on you. Science is like the Gnostic God. It exists, somewhere out there, perfect in itself. It is pure and right and beautiful. If you could hear it, it would certainly speak Truth. Yet here we are, in the stupid material universe, seeing through a glass darkly. Good sometimes looks like evil, evil often looks like good, and there’s some jerk with the head of a lion and the body of a snake psyching us out at every turn. Do we trust the priests? The scriptures? The Inner Light of our own hearts? “Just trust in God”. NOT HELPFUL.
What do you do? I guess you do the principled philosophy thing. You collide the two narratives, integrate them, and try to build something useful out of the debris, while constantly being tripped up by fuzzy boundaries and edge cases. The rationalist community has been trying this for fifteen years, and so far what we’ve got is some combination of “these math lectures describe what to do perfectly in theory, shame we disagree on how to apply them to the real world” and “prediction markets seem maybe good” and “turns out the people who obsess over this are often trustworthy on object-level questions” . Other people have been chipping away at the same question for longer and developed Arts of their own, but no one seems fully satisfied.
In conclusion, if there is a comet headed towards Earth, you should probably take some kind of action to deflect it, even if a tech company CEO says not to worry. I believe a metaphorical comet is headed towards Earth right now, and a literal tech company CEO is telling you not to worry, and he is wrong. Half of you will agree with me, half of you will say I’m wrong, and all the narratives and heuristics in the world won’t get us one step closer to consensus, let alone truth. Don’t Look Up does a good job conveying some of the emotions this induces, but doesn’t make enough sense to follow through on its promise.