Don't Look Up is a disaster movie for the climate change times

Don't Look Up may be just another entry in the long line of disaster movies, but it's also one of the first to truly grapple with climate change. Disasterologists and literary experts say that is the natural evolution of storytelling now that climate change is a real part of everyday life

Netflix comedy is among wave of fiction grappling with everyday realities of climate change

Leonardo DiCaprio, left, and Jennifer Lawrence appear in this still from Netflix's disaster movie Don't Look Up. It is one of the first disaster movies to grapple with climate change as a central theme. (Niko Tavernise/Netflix)

Don't Look Up, the new disaster movie jam-packed with stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Meryl Streep, Chris Evans, Jennifer Lawrence, Ariana Grande, Timothée Chalamet, Jonah Hill — and about a dozen more — starts similarly to any other disaster movie. 

A group of scientists toiling away in anonymity make a startling discovery: a comet is on a collision course for Earth, and they need to buckle down, come together and save humanity. 

But the difference in this particular disaster movie? Nobody cares. 

"I've been really terrified about the climate, the collapse of the livable atmosphere. It seems to be getting faster and faster," director Adam McKay said in an interview with CBC.

"Yet for some reason, it's not penetrating our culture. There's still this idea that it's just one of many issues, even though the science makes it very clear: this is the story in the history of mankind."

That's the message at the heart of Don't Look Up. Though the disaster isn't human-caused, McKay was inspired to co-write the script with journalist David Sirota after the United Nations' IPCC report's warnings of risks like "extreme drought, precipitation deficits, and risks associated with water availability" kept him up at night. 

WATCH | In Don't Look Up, scientists discover a comet heading for Earth and no one cares:

That's what makes this disaster movie unlike 2012, The Day After Tomorrow, San Andreas or Greenland. Instead of action-packed examples of escapism, disasterologists and literary experts say Don't Look Up — and other fiction like it — is the natural evolution of storytelling now that climate change is a real part of everyday life.

The apocalypse feels less like a distant nightmare and more like a real risk that lives right around the corner, so our stories are evolving to reflect it.

"I think you're going to see it start to show up in a lot of movies and a lot of storytelling, whether it's television or books or music," McKay said. "It's going to permeate everything"

The discovery of 'cli-fi'

Don't Look Up is far from the only disaster movie to pull elements of climate change into its plot. Going all the way back to Kevin Costner's Waterworld — the 1995 critical flop about a world underwater due to the melting of the polar ice caps — Hollywood has looked to a changing environment for its stories.

And Sherryl Vint, a professor of media and cultural studies at the University of California in Riverside, explained that responding to developments in the real world has always been an element of science fiction. Though the name "cli-fi" — or climate fiction — is a new invention, science fiction in particular has always reflected how technological and scientific changes can lead to apocalyptic or dystopian ends "if these technologies get out of our control."

There was a "huge boom" of end-of-the-world apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction in the 1950s in response to the invention of the atom bomb, Vint said, and then a heyday of disaster fiction in the 1970s in response to a "counter-cultural move towards Earth Day" and the beginnings of environmental politics.

What's changing now, she explained, is where those stories end up. 

"Works that have to do with climate change are increasingly being written by authors who don't necessarily identify with the speculative genre," Vint said. Instead of being confined to a particular niche, every art discipline is beginning to ask and answer the same questions about what a climate-altered future might look like, "because it's sort of becoming a near-future realism in a way."

Vint also describes a shift from stories about human-caused apocalypse going beyond genre fiction and becoming "capital L literature" — like in the novels Station Eleven, The Overstory and New York 2140 — delivering a more accurate and realistic depiction of how people adapt to disasters and their fallout. 

While this everyday depiction of the effects of climate change is less entrenched on screen than it is in novels, their number is increasing. Angelina Jolie's wildfire disaster movie Those Who Wish Me Dead released within months of devastating fires in California, Oregon and British Columbia — one of the few movies to use forest fires as its subject. And earlier this month, the black comedy Silent Night showed a group of friends gathering for Christmas dinner, knowing that a human-caused environmental catastrophe will end all life within 24 hours. 

Kiera Knightley appears in a still from the movie Silent Night. The black comedy, which takes place on Christmas, shows parents and their children struggling with a coming apocalypse. (TIFF)

These depictions of the end of the world may seem like a bleaker experience than action-oriented films, but Northwest Missouri State University disaster researcher and educator John Carr sees them as an evolution of the genre — and a helpful one. 

Disaster movies are uniquely useful for disaster researchers, Carr said, as they are the primary way that average people are informed about disasters and inspired to take action to avoid them. So far though, they have largely focused on outsized, unrealistic events — an asteroid crashing into Earth, or the planet freezing over — instead of even semi-realistic depictions of the disasters we are increasingly likely to face. 

That's useful as escapism — traditionally the main purpose of disaster movies — but it doesn't do a good job of representing how we can confront, and overcome, those coming disasters. That, says Carr, is more important than ever.

"We're sitting here saying we don't have a lot of time to build consensus. Our clock is running out. We need to try and reach out, to connect with people, to make sure we have a common understanding so that we can have a common solution to work towards," he said. 

"Those mediums are an opportunity for that consensus building to take place."

'Now we rebuild'

While Don't Look Up and Silent Night both do a better job of grappling with the real human cost, and experience, of climate change-induced disaster, Samantha Montano, an author and disaster researcher at Massachusetts Maritime Academy, says there's more to be done.

As disaster movies have focused mostly on the identifying and surviving disasters, they have also largely ignored the aftermath. In almost every film, regardless of how realistically it depicts disasters, the story ends when the disaster does.

Like 2015's San Andreas, the film ends with Dwayne Johnson's character looking over the rubble of the city before he delivers the final line: "Now we rebuild." That omits the real — and longest-lasting — part of a disaster, and the one that will be most difficult to deal with in ongoing climate crisis.

"You never see that part of the disaster, which is what takes up the most time for communities in real life when a disaster happens," Montano said.

"We are kind of grappling with the reality of these increased disasters and the uncertainty surrounding action on climate change. To not really have images of what it looks like for the world to come together and successfully act and create a better world is a real absence of imagination."


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