This column first appeared in Malta Today
There is a repeated reference during the much-acclaimed satire “Don’t Look Up” which I can completely relate to.
Jennifer Lawrence, who plays Kate Dibiasky, the Ph.D candidate who discovers the comet hurtling towards earth, at first is grateful that the General waiting with them to break the news to the President, has brought them some snacks from the White House canteen (which he tells them cost $10 a pop). However, she is then completely gobsmacked to discover that the snacks are actually available to everyone for free.
Throughout the film she fixates on this point, “he’s a three star General, he works at the Pentagon, why would he do something like that?”. The sheer pettiness of the behaviour niggles at her until, after bringing it up over and over again with several people, it dawns on her that it’s simply a power move, and that he did it, “because he can”.
I feel you Kate. That kind of behaviour sticks in my craw too, and often gets to me more than if someone had to rob a bank to steal $10 million. When I hear accounts of those who are already rich and powerful who stoop so low as to try and rip off others (who are less well off) for a few bucks, it makes my blood boil. It’s just so small-minded, so unnecessary, so MEAN. In the film, it also clearly illustrates something intrinsically corrupt about the General’s character, which is further confirmed by the way he behaves when it comes to the bigger issues. Because let’s face it, if he can lie about something so trivial, he will lie about anything. To someone who is a “nobody” like Kate, the idea that someone of such a high rank would scam them of their money bewilders her, shocks her and ultimately, fills her with inexplicable rage. This seemingly minor incident almost becomes a metaphor for the way the ones with no power in the film will be the ones paying the highest price.
“Don’t Look Up”, for those who have not yet watched it, is about a world so completely obsessed with image, banalities, social media fame, political spin and frivolity that not even the possibility of the world ending can shake people out of their self-induced stupor. Above all, it is about the denial of cold, hard science and facts because everyone believes they are entitled to their ‘opinion’. If it is bad news and depressing they don’’t want to know about it, but would rather’ sex’ it up by making it fun and entertaining so that it can start trending on Twitter.
The real revelation, however, has not been the movie itself but the very polar reactions to it. For some (like me) it was a brilliantly executed wake up call, mirroring actual events in which climate change deniers voice their opinion as clamorously and vociferously, and get as much airtime, as any distinguished scientist. Eerily enough, the script was written before Covid hit, but the plot can be equally applied to the current scenario of conspiracy theorists who are convinced that we are being forced to take the vaccine so that the Government, and possibly Bill Gates, can control us.
Interviewed by The Atlantic, writer/director Adam McKay recalled how after writing the script and they were about to start production in 2020, everything went into lockdown. “We basically went home … and sat on our hands for six months with the rest of the world… The entire time I’m getting emails and texts from our crew, ‘Oh my God, did you see there’s people denying COVID exists?’ At one point I’m like, we don’t make the movie. It happened! We’re too late!” When he returned to the script, he had to make it “20 percent crazier, because reality had played out crazier than the script.”
For other viewers, however, the parody has been completely lost. I read so many comments describing it as crap, that they hated it, or dismissing it as a typical far-fetched “Amerikanata” that it was clear they just didn’t get the message and that the tongue-in-cheek tone of the film had gone completely over the heads. Perhaps they were expecting a light-hearted comedy for these troubled times and were disappointed by the often dark, twisted humour which sneaks up on you like an unexpected punch to the gut. Perhaps the fact that it was a deliberate exaggeration of today’s world which is a bit too close for comfort is not what they want to see right now – in which case, fair enough. After watching something which is very real, I often switch to sheer escapism and dive into something so superficial and silly that I don’t even have to think. “Emily in Paris”, I’m talking about you. Our brains do need a break from the daily tragic events we read about, otherwise we will not be able to cope with the enormity of it all.
However, try as we might, the danger of science denial is not something which we can escape from, even if we wanted to, because it is all around us. It didn’t start now either. I watched a Ted Talk dated February 2010 by journalist Michael Specter which was so way ahead of its time that I had to keep checking the date. 22 years ago he was terrified about anti-vaxxers who were making outlandish claims that the obligatory childhood vaccines were causing autism. Despite all the peer-reviewed research which went into debunking this myth, it persisted and grew. He warned against opinion taking the place of scientific facts, and that this worrying trend would spell disaster for human progress. He is also the author of Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives which basically sums up the whole crux of the film “Don’t Look Up”.
I have not read his book, but I completely agree with him that we are in the grip of too much irrational thinking. I also have a few theories about why denialism has taken such deep root. There is a lack of reading of actual books and newspapers (rather than just scrolling and skimming the day’s headlines); there is the fact that a good grasp of languages (both verbal and written) has been watered down to its bare minimum enabling people to get into Sixth Form and University who are barely coherent and borderline illiterate. General knowledge is practically non-existent, unless it is about pop culture. There are too many shortcuts which are applauded rather than frowned upon (why buy a book when you can just photocopy a few pages? Why read the book when you can watch the film adaptation? Why research something for yourself by going to the actual source when you can just rely on ‘what they said on Facebook?’). Above all there is the belief that, ‘everyone is entitled to their opinion and all opinions are equally valid’ which is perhaps the biggest fallacy of all.
Then there is the mesmerised obsession with reality shows, celebrities who become famous for being famous and probably one of the terms I have come to hate the most ‘influencer’. It is a society built on branding, pouting collagen lips, hype, marketing, narcissistic selfies, froth and a lack of any real depth. It is about whipping out our phone at every opportunity to chronicle the fact that, “Look at me, I am here at this place/event and I have to tell the world about it”. It is the glorification of the banal which is so precisely and incisively portrayed in “Don’t Look Up”. When the love life of a pop star far out shadows the findings of the two scientists, they are bluntly told that they are not getting any likes or re-tweets because they are too boring and dull. The other scientist, played by a bumbling Leonardo di Caprio, is given a complete makeover because he has not caused too many ripples and because the bimbo newscaster has a thing for him, while Kate, who refuses to compromise her principles, is turned into a meme whom everyone ridicules when she snaps, screaming out the unpalatable truth on TV. Kate’s televised meltdown is mocked even as the apocalypse approaches, but when she is finally taken seriously, the public lashes out at her in fury, riots and looting ensue and it’s everyone for himself. The selfishness of a selfish society reaches its apex during a crisis, as we have seen time and again.
As we embark on this new year, more and more I see a world which is divided into those who can see what is happening and those who want to remain blind and oblivious. There are those who claim that, “Don’t Look Up” won’t change anything because those who “get it” do not need to be convinced, while those who shunned it are the ones who really need to understand the message. That may be so, but I still believe that we should keep trying. This one film gives me hope that even film-makers can use their art to open people’s eyes so that maybe we will come to the realisation that our mad rat race for more material wealth is utterly meaningless.
In the end, what will count are the people sitting with us around our dining room table.