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A Comet is Not a Metaphor

Don’t Look Up, a film about corruption, greed, social media, and, supposedly, climate change, has been a wild success on Netflix and generated a wave of commentary. Some of that commentary has come from the makers of the film itself. David Sirota, for instance, one of the writers and producers of the film, as well as a long-time political strategist, tweeted, “A climate movie is the #1 most popular film on the world’s largest streaming platform. This is an enormous win. If you can’t at least acknowledge that, then it’s a safe bet that you’re a character in that film.”

However, in Don’t Look Up the crisis is not, on the surface, climate change. Instead, it’s a rogue comet, which is apparently a metaphor for climate change. And this slip, I think, is worth considering.

What does the comet as metaphor or allegory, in an otherwise insistently unmetaphorical and nonallegorical film, open up for viewers? That climate change is hurtling at us, uncontrollably, and that we need concerted global government action based on effective science? Well, we already know this. That the force of peer-reviewed scholarship needs to be believed rather than thwarted by the spectacular media cycles and junk science propagated by the corporate tech cultists who dominate this epoch of hypercapitalism? Well, this may be a simplified view of science, but it’s also true.

I think, though, that the comet metaphor in Don’t Look Up offers viewers something else: a distraction.  

It is difficult not to understand global catastrophe films in the early 21st century as symptomatic of the climate crisis and our now intimate proximity to the end of the world. Numerous films, from Snowpiercer to Geostorm, make man-made climate crisis the cause of the pre- or post-apocalyptic scenarios they stage. However, there is a significant strain in this genre that, like Don’t Look Up, makes the acute crisis either some interstellar assault on Earth or a geological event beyond the precincts of human agency. In 1998, Armageddon gave us a rogue asteroid from which the world was saved by the labor of fossil fuel extraction when oil drillers were launched into space to destroy the asteroid. In the early- to mid-2000s, Roland Emmerich gave us The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, both of which appear to be climate change blockbusters. However, in The Day After Tomorrow the climate catastrophe is part of an inevitable cycle in natural history, amplified by human action, but also well beyond human causality. The disasters in 2012 are effects of solar flares, an event predicted not by science, but by a mystical vision of the Mayan calendar. In San Andreas, most of the West Coast of the United States is destroyed when a massive earthquake erupts on the San Andreas fault, which scientists belatedly discover to be much longer than previously understood.

All these films, Don’t Look Up included, displace the global climate crisis onto some agency well beyond the actions of humanity. A comet bearing down on Earth as a metaphor for climate crisis has the effect of alleviating humanity of its role and making the response to crisis one of political will and capability, market regulation, and diminishing social media addiction. And these are significant issues, to be sure! National and international political systems are clearly incapable of addressing this. Finance capitalism is incapable of a relationship to crisis not primarily about maintaining the rapacious profit of the .1%. And our emotional and psychic economy is so indebted to market metrics and audience share, likes and retweets, to pure algorithmic pleasure that it is impossible to discern what a legitimate emotional response would be. And yet, for all the attention heaped upon this film it is hard to imagine that this adequately captures our relationship to climate change.

In 2004, the historian Dipesh Chakrabarty wrote of the Anthropocene  that “humans began to acquire this [geological] agency only since the Industrial Revolution, but the process really picked up in the second half of the twentieth century,” and then connects it to Western notions of freedom. “In no discussion of freedom in the period since the Enlightenment was there ever any awareness of the geological agency that human beings were acquiring at the same time as and through processes closely linked to their acquisition of freedom.” In short, global warming is an unintended, and for centuries, unknown, consequence of human action under the guises of industrial capitalism and Enlightenment freedom. What this gets at, then, is that global warming, climate crisis, the Anthropocene, are the products of human agency tied, very intimately, to capitalism and freedom and the attendant colonialism and violence. A comet, over which human action has no control, obviates this condition.

These are not only the structural conditions of modernity, but also the ideological conditions of intimate, quotidian life and thus climate change also demands a radical reconfiguration of everyday life. One need not radically reconfigure everyday life to address a rogue comet – either the world has the capability and the political will to stop it, or it has the capability without the political will, or it does not have the capability. But it doesn’t really matter what we do in everyday life. In effect, Don’t Look Up figures the contemporary crisis as technological and technocratic, and as such is a perfect film for moribund liberal centrism. Take Joe Biden’s vision for addressing the climate crisis: “If we can harness all of our energy and talents, and unmatchable American innovation, we can turn this threat into an opportunity to revitalize the U.S. energy sector and boost growth economy-wide. We can create new industries that reinvigorate our manufacturing and create high-quality, middle-class jobs in cities and towns across the United States. We can lead America to become the world’s clean energy superpower.” But the problems of the climate crisis are precisely located in commitments to capitalism, manufacturing, innovation, and freedom – becoming a clean energy superpower to preserve the rest of modern life is destruction by improved means.

In this sense it’s hard not to compare Don’t Look Up to Melancholia, Lars von Trier’s 2011 film that suggests it is precisely the intimate, quotidian conditions of life that cause the end of the world. What Don’t Look Up and Melancholia share, almost alone among catastrophe films of the twenty-first century, is that the world actually ends, everyone dies. But Melancholia grounds it in the stultifying, debilitating melancholy of the rituals of intimacy, family, and property. A beautifully allegorical film, it makes marriage, family, whiteness, and private property so hegemonically enveloping and crushing that it is impossible to imagine the world any other way. The popular reliance on the inherent good of rational science is revealed as nothing more than an empty masculine fantasy. In the end, debilitating melancholy is the only reasonable response to the world we have created. The rogue planet, named Melancholia, destroys Earth when the two planets collide. The planetary collision, in this case, is an allegory of the destructive relationship between the planet Earth and the quotidian practices of life, the everyday, rote practices of liberal freedom.

In Don’t Look Up’s final scene (except for two scenes in the credits), Dr. Mindy, the Michigan State astronomy professor, is reunited with his family, as well as Kate Dibiasky, the doctoral student who discovered the comet, her end-times boyfriend, and Dr. Oglethorpe of the Planetary Defense Coordination Office. Mindy, Diabasky, and Oglethorpe were the lone voices of scientific reason, even as they were caught up in and distorted by political and media machines. The final scene surveys how people and animals act as the comet reaches impact, cutting to various end times scenarios – mass violence, sex, terrified animals, drunken morning show hosts “talking shit about people,” a Fox News-like network reporting on topless urgent care centers. At this last supper, those gathered discuss the relative merits of store-bought pies and Dr. Mindy’s penchant for high quality coffee – he grinds his own beans!

The end of the world for them is both terrifying and a time to reflect on the banal, commodity pleasures of late modernity. Mindy then looks at his family and friends, and with a wry, melancholic smile says, “we really did have everything, didn’t we? I mean, when you think about it….”

Don’t Look Up tells us the problem is that we don’t think about things effectively and rationally. But it’s not so much that we had everything and inept, corrupt governments, corporate greed, and cultish tech visionaries fucked it up; it’s that having everything as an effort to manage everyday life – mobile devices algorithmically keyed to our moods, small batch, fair-trade coffee, mass produced pies, morning shows, and yes, even that simultaneously sacred and defiled category “science” – is the problem itself, intimately and inextricably bound to the climate crisis. It’s not a comet met with political ineptitude that is the problem; it is life, as currently constituted and as constituted for five centuries, that is killing us.

Brian Connelly: Still hates Florida.

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