The recently released Netflix movie Don’t Look Up is a satirical film featuring a star-studded cast of actors. The film tells a gripping story about a comet heading for earth as a metaphor for climate change, but it also provides a profound commentary on American politics, entertainment, and social media.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays an astronomer named Dr. Mindy who, together with his graduate student, Kate Dibiasky, discover a large comet which is hurtling directly towards earth. They alert the authorities and soon find themselves airlifted to the White House to consult with the president (played by Meryl Streep). At this point, the film seems to be following the predictable trajectory of typical apocalyptic movies in which people battle heroically against existential threats.
But at this point the movie takes a startling turn, depicting a world that does not seem too far off from our own. Streep plays a bombastic and shallow president who brushes off the threat of the comet as she becomes implicated in a sex scandal with her Supreme Court nominee. The two scientists, Mindy and Dibiasky, turn to the television media to warn about the impending collision of the comet. They appear on a “news” show that resembles many of the “infotainment” talk shows one finds on television today. The hosts interview the astronomers with light-hearted banter, glossing over the serious message they are earnestly trying to convey. In frustration, Dibiasky loses her composure and pleads for people to recognize the urgency of the threat. Instead of heeding her passionate plea, she is later mocked and dismissed on social media. Throughout the movie the pervasive influence of social media is ever-present, distracting people from real and urgent concerns with a steady stream of shallow entertainment.
We are then introduced to an awkward billionaire tech mogul named Peter Isherwell as he announces the latest developments in his ubiquitous smartphone products that sense your moods to provide “life without the stress of living.” Seeking a way to take attention away from her scandal, the president acknowledges the threat of the comet and announces a plan on live television to divert the comet with nuclear weapons. Isherwell convinces the president to abandon her plan when trillions of dollars in rare-earth materials, essential to the production of electronic devices, is discovered in the comet. Fed by social media, attitudes towards the comet become polarized, with some dismissing the threat as a conspiracy (wearing baseball caps emblazoned with the words “don’t look up”), others welcome it as a commercial mining opportunity, while scientists and those who heed them grow increasingly alarmed.
The words of the late Neil Postman kept leaping into my mind as I watched this film. Nearly 40 years ago Postman warned that with television everything becomes a form of entertainment, including news and politics. This film is a parable depicting Postman’s thesis in social media, entertainment, and politics, and the sad consequences of misinformation.
In his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman wrote these prophetic words: “When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience, and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk…”1 These words are a fitting summary for this film.
I referred to this film in my computer science capstone class at Calvin University as part of a discussion on social media and the responsibility of computer scientists in shaping the digital world. One of our activities involves requiring students to participate in a 24 hour “technology fast” in which they give up some form of digital technology for a day and reflect on the experience. The reflections from students are profound testimonies of the ways digital media shapes our daily habits and practices, with implications for how it shapes our hearts and minds. In the words of my colleague, Jamie Smith, social media tools are not “benign conduits of information and communication; they are world-making and identity-constituting. They invite and demand modes of interaction that function as liturgies. Like so many formative liturgies, they extort the essential by the seemingly insignificant, precisely by telling us a story, capturing our imaginations to perceive the world in ways we aren’t even aware of. We imagine more than we know…”2
Emily Dickinson once wrote a poem titled “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” The poem describes how it can be hard to tell the truth directly and so it’s best to “tell it slant” and in a roundabout way so as not to overwhelm people with its dazzling brightness. I think that’s what Don’t Look Up does: it tells a preposterous story that, in a roundabout way, echoes aspects of our own world, and in doing so, illustrates the dangers of a technologically driven world saturated in social media and entertainment. Will people come to recognize the truth in time to save the world? You will have to watch the film to find out!
An earlier version of this article originally appeared in Christian Courier.