The recent movie Don’t Look Up is getting a lot of buzz. Some 152 million streaming hours were logged during one week after its release on Netflix. The movie is a star-studded, satirical allegory for climate change denial told in the context of impending global doom by an approaching comet. Climate reporter Cara Buckley, writing for the New York Times noted that the movie, “unleashed a flood of hot takes, along with—in what may be a first—sniping between reviewers who didn’t like the film and scientists who did.” And so did the general public like it. At Rotten Tomatoes, the critics’ Tomatometer registers a mere 55% positive while the General Audience score is 78%.
What kind of movie is it, then? It’s really not a disaster movie, like Armageddon, Deep Impact, or the ridiculous climate-themed The Day after Tomorrow. As satire, there are slap-stick echoes of Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. As social commentary, there is linage to The China Syndrome and Network. Along with all of the reviews and commentaries out there in print and online, I recommend the Volts podcast conversation between climate activist David Roberts and director Adam McKay. You need to give yourself one hour and twenty-five minutes, though. I listened while shoveling my driveway.
Like the movie or not, it’s both delightfully and disturbingly provocative. One can analyze it from as many different perspectives as there are movie stars in the cast. My silent generation parents couldn’t get through it and my millennial son can’t stop thinking about it. I am a baby boomer scientist who finds it entertaining and I appreciate the message, but I doubt if 30 years on it will share the prestige of Strangelove or Network.
We learn nothing about climate change in the movie or anything factual about Near Earth Objects (NEOs) as NASA calls them. We got more information than we asked for about the 2007-2008 financial crisis in McKay’s 2015 movie, The Big Short. But we do get McKay’s signature staccato pace and SNL-honed humor, along with Hank Corwin’s jarring editing, perfected in previous collaborations The Big Short and Vice. There were obvious bad guys in those two movies. Its more complicated in Don’t Look Up.
Who are the bad guys in the climate crisis? An easy target for Hollywood might have been the fossil fuel industries. But, ahem, don’t we all use fossil fuels? Don’t Look Up is not concerned with cause of the crisis, but our collective reaction to it. The story illuminates the disfunction in media, popular culture, and politics that repels logical corporate response to a global threat like climate change. The good guys in the end, the scientists and their families, present the best face of humanity. There are three sequential endings to the movie; one poignant and two humorous. As for the poignant moment, a deconstructed evangelical kid gets the last word.
It may be the best-timed release of a movie of its kind, too. While not anticipated by McKay and co-writer David Sirota when they conceived the story in 2019, the movie effectively parodies the ongoing COVID 19 pandemic and widely held political conspiracy theories, as people from right to left fight their culture wars with facts and alternative facts. Almost no one is spared some shame in the movie for acting immature, immoral, reckless, greedy, or arrogant. For the two fictional astronomers and sympathetic NASA official in the movie, there is the obvious frustration of not being understood or heard, but also the temptation of getting caught up in the hype they created with their own discovery or the desire to simply give up in the face of ridicule.
In their first media appearance, on a morning TV talk show called The Daily Rip, the hapless astronomers in Don’t Look Up are blind-sided by the frivolous reaction of the anchors to their dire discovery. Even before the show, a director tells the two scientists to “keep it light.” Likewise, when the scientists meet the US President, she and her team are not interested in swerving from their agenda of keeping America happy and ignorant of the threat.
The plight of our fictional protagonists in the movie reminded me of my own rather trivial experiences as a scientist engaging media. Between 1999 and 2008, I participated in an archaeological expedition excavating a New Kingdom Egyptian fort in the northwest Sinai, Egypt. My contribution was to reconstruct the ancient environmental geography around the fort by mapping surface sediments and landforms. We traced the perimeters of ancient lagoons and inland lakes, and discovered an abandoned river course that likely flowed from the Nile River. The maps were published in peer-reviewed journal articles and expedition monographs. We believe our paleogeography has implications for the biblical Exodus, with reasonable links to the geography of the itinerary as recorded in the Bible. The project director, Dr. James Hoffmeier, is an Egyptologist and Old Testament scholar who has written extensively about the Exodus narrative, including the books Israel in Egypt and Ancient Israel in Sinai. Jim is regularly invited to participate in TV and movie documentaries on the Exodus, which led to my involvement in some of them, too. These programs seem to show up every year at the Passover!
My most recent experience was the most frustrating for me. I was thrilled to be invited to film on location in Egypt. The producer originally reached me with questions about my paleogeographic maps he had discovered in the literature. I was impressed with his questions and the direction he seemed to be taking the program. The morning after a day of international travel, a driver whisked me from the Cairo airport hotel to the city of Ismailia on the west bank of the Suez Canal. I knew my way around downtown Ismailia, so it was delightful to return. My travel bag held all of my preparations: a flip book of maps and digital copies on a flash drive, bedsheet-size satellite photos cut into squares that fit in my suitcase, some of my field notebooks in case I need to look something up. I would need these for my big interview.
But there was no big interview. I found myself participating in a form of documentary improvisational acting with the host of the program, a young, personable, explorer-scientist who knew very little about the local archaeology and the scholarly literature on the Exodus tradition. He would ask me questions that were designed to drive the story forward. Fortunately, they never expected an answer that I felt was untrue or misleading, but the questions were not about my field work and all my preparations stayed in the travel bag.
After my “interview,” I watched as an Egyptian geoscientist was filmed with the host, who asked the professor if he might take samples in a mud flat that might have been an ancient lake or lagoon. I realized they were talking about my field area. Take samples? I leaned to the producer standing next to me and whispered, “Why don’t they just read my paper?” He remained silent with a faint grin.
When my family and I gathered to watch the program, I could only shake my head. I am introduced as a biblical archaeologist, which must amuse all of the real archaeologists I know. My “scene” with the host was ok; at least I was somewhat lucid. At the end of the program the host declares that he has access to satellite imagery that can help the audience see what the region looked like at the time of the Exodus, the location of the Red Sea crossing! He pushes a button on his computer and behold….. my map.
At least, now I when I introduce myself, I can say, “I’m not a biblical archaeologist, but I do play one on TV.”
Would I do it again? I don’t know. It’s hard to turn down a free trip to Egypt. It’s also important that scientists make good use of opportunities to engage with the media, even if sometimes the results are painful. It wasn’t the end of the world, either.