"Don’t Look Up" is a Netflix hit. Is that also a win for the climate?

Is it a movie, or is it a climate action campaign? Either way, Julia Fox liked it!

Published January 14, 2022 10:22PM (EST)

Jennifer Lawrence as Kate Dibiasky, Leonardo DiCaprio as Dr. Randall Mindy, and Timothée Chalamet as Yul in "Don't Look Up" (Niko Tavernise/Netflix)
Jennifer Lawrence as Kate Dibiasky, Leonardo DiCaprio as Dr. Randall Mindy, and Timothée Chalamet as Yul in "Don't Look Up" (Niko Tavernise/Netflix)

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Netflix announced on Wednesday that Don't Look Up, the satirical film about our apathetic approach to dealing with global disasters, has become its second-biggest hit of all time.

The film, co-created by director Adam McKay and journalist David Sirota, continues to dominate (or at least feature in) the cultural conversation a full month after its release. Many activists consider this a victory for climate awareness – including some climate scientists and, perhaps most vocally, the makers of the film itself. 

McKay told journalist Eric Holthaus that he "literally made Don't Look Up for the climate community." Granted, when you make a movie for a niche group of people — be they  journalists or scientists or activists — who have spent years deeply invested in the nuances and frustrations of climate communication, you're sure not to please everyone. 

On Wednesday, an article in The New York Times described a saga in which the makers of the film came under some criticism for a climate action website they created to go along with the film. The points of contention will be familiar to anyone in the aforementioned niche group: too much emphasis on individual lifestyle choices like diet and home energy use, not enough on government action and social transformation. Prominent climate activist Peter Kalmus announced on Twitter that he is collaborating with McKay to refine the suggested points of action.

The thing is — as I noted in my review when the film first came out — that this dilemma kind of exemplifies the pitfalls of trying to make a social movement campaign out of an artistic work and vice versa. If Don't Look Up is meant to be a rousing call to action, the fact that (spoiler alert!) everyone dies in a fiery explosion at the end is a confusing choice. It's an effective and logical conclusion for the fictional storyline of the film, but makes for a rather defeatist message in the context of climate mobilization.

We can agree on one thing: The fact that a movie "made for the climate community" became a mainstream commercial success is certainly remarkable. Even Julia Fox liked it!

By Eve Andrews

Eve Andrews is a contributing writer from Grist.org.

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