Can Works Like ‘Don’t Look Up’ Get Us Out of Our Heads?


In the doomsday smash and Bo Burnham’s pandemic musical “Inside,” themes of climate change, digital distraction and inequality merge and hit home.

Can Works Like ‘Don’t Look Up’ Get Us Out of Our Heads?
Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence star as two scientists desperate to get the American public and its leaders to react to a planet-killing comet in “Don’t Look Up.”Credit...Niko Tavernise/Netflix

Can Works Like ‘Don’t Look Up’ Get Us Out of Our Heads?

An Everest-size comet is hurtling toward Earth, and in exactly six months and 14 days, the planet will be shattered to pieces, leaving every living creature to perish in a cataclysm of fire and flood. In “Don’t Look Up,” Netflix’s hit climate-apocalypse film, this news largely bounces off the American public like a rubber ball. And they return to their phones with a collective “meh” — opting to doomscroll instead of acknowledging certain doom IRL.

With the hope of snapping the masses from their stupor, Jennifer Lawrence’s character, a young scientist with a Greta Thunberg-like disdain for the apathetic, screams into the camera during a live TV appearance: “You should stay up all night every night crying when we’re all, 100 percent, for sure, going to [expletive] die!” She’s swiftly dismissed as hysterical, and an image of her face is gleefully seized on for the full meme treatment. (More spoilers ahead.)

What the internet has done to our minds and what our minds have done to our planet (or haven’t done to save it) are two dots that have been circling each other for some time. Now, onscreen at least, they’re colliding, resonating with audiences and tapping into a particular psyche of our moment.

In “Don’t Look Up,” a satirical incision from Adam McKay with only humor as an anesthetic, these themes are lampooned in equal measure and in no uncertain terms. Though heavy with metaphors — most important, the comet signifying climate change — its message is clear and not open to interpretation: Wake up!

That the movie amassed 152 million hours viewed in one week, according to Netflix, which reports its own figures, suggests a cultural trend taking shape. There’s a hunger for entertainment that favors unflinching articulation and externalization over implication and internalization — to have our greatest fears verbalized without restraint, even heavy-handedly, along with a good deal of style and wit.

Look at “Inside,” Bo Burnham’s pandemic comedy-musical masterpiece from Netflix last year, in which he pools themes of climate disaster with Silicon Valley’s commodification of our thoughts and feelings, and its reliance on keeping us jonesing for distraction. (In the 2020 documentary “The Social Dilemma,” tech experts who had a hand in building these structures sounded an alarm over what they’d done.)

Bo Burnham skewers the internet’s effects on humanity and the planet throughout his Netflix special “Inside.” Credit...Netflix

In his sobering song “That Funny Feeling” which has more than 6.7 million views on YouTube alone, Burnham sums it up in one lyric: “The whole world at your fingertips, the ocean at your door.”

“Twenty-thousand years of this,” he goes on, “seven more to go.” Most likely a nod to the Climate Clock, which displays messages like “the Earth has a deadline.”

At the start of Jim Gaffigan’s new Netflix comedy special, “Comedy Monster,” he responds to opening applause by saying, “That almost makes me forget we’re all going to be dead in a week. I’m kidding. It’ll probably be a month” — seemingly referencing both the pandemic and general vibe.

And “Squid Game,” a wildly violent, rich-eat-the-poor satire from South Korea that was a global smash for Netflix last year, while not about climate change, explored many of the same themes as “Don’t Look Up” — wealth inequality, greed, desensitization and voyeurism — flicking at the same anxieties and offering a similar catharsis.

As with “Squid Game, ” some critics were lukewarm about “Don’t Look Up” — for being too obvious, shallow and shouty — but many climate scientists were moved and appreciative. In therapy, we’re often told that the best way to address our demons is to speak them out loud, using words that don’t skirt the issues or make excuses for them. Otherwise, they will never seem real, thus can never be dealt with. In “Don’t Look Up,” most people don’t snap out of their daze until the comet is finally in physical view. Do the popularity of shows and movies that don’t mince messages reveal a growing readiness to bring our common dread out of the deep space of our subconscious — to see it, to say it, to hear it?

We’ve long been enveloped by a 24-hour news cycle that unfurls in tandem with social media feeds that give near equal weight to all events: Clarendon-tinged vacation photos, celebrity gossip, snappy memes and motivational quotes are delivered as bite-size information flotsam that sails alongside news of political turmoil, mass shootings, social injustice and apocalyptic revelations about our planet.

“Squid Game,” a global streaming sensation last year, explores themes of wealth inequality, greed and desensitization.Credit...Netflix

As Burnham, personifying the internet in his song “Welcome to the Internet,” with more than 62 million YouTube views, asks: “Could I interest you in everything all of the time?”

Next month, Hulu will premiere the mini-series “Pam & Tommy,” a fictionalized account of the release of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee’s personal sex tape, which was stolen from their home in 1995 and sold on what was then called the “World Wide Web.” The show presents the tape as helping the web become more mainstream by appealing to base human compulsions — an on-ramp to what would lie ahead.

The pandemic has sent us further down this rabbit hole in pursuit of distraction, information, connection, all the while we try to shake that sense of impending doom.

At one point in “Inside,” while curled up in the fetal position on the floor under a blanket surrounded by jumbles of cords — an image worthy of a pandemic-era time capsule — Burnham, his eyes closed, ruminates on the mess we’re in.

I don’t know about you guys, but, you know, I’ve been thinking recently that, you know, maybe allowing giant digital media corporations to exploit the neurochemical drama of our children for profit — you know, maybe that was a bad call by us. Maybe the flattening of the entire subjective human experience into a lifeless exchange of value that benefits nobody, except for, you know, a handful of bug-eyed salamanders in Silicon Valley — maybe that as a way of life forever, maybe that’s not good.

In “Don’t Look Up,” the chief “bug-eyed salamander,” a Steve Jobs-like character and the third richest man on the planet, is almost completely responsible for allowing the comet to collide with Earth; his 11th-hour attempt to plumb the rock for trillions of dollars worth of materials fails. In the end, he and a handful of haves escape on a spaceship, leaving the remaining billions of have-nots to die.

Juxtaposed with Jeff Bezos, one of the richest men on Earth, launching into space on his own rocket last year — a trip back-dropped by pandemic devastation (and a passing blip on the cultural radar) — is beyond parody … almost.

Near the end of “Don’t Look Up,” Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, an awkward astronomer turned media darling, delivers an emotional monologue. Staring into the camera, he implores: “What have we done to ourselves? How do we fix it?” Funny. We were just asking ourselves the same thing.