AS a much-anticipated release for the high-earning Christmas season, how heartening it would have been to report that it received unadulterated acclaim. The ingredients are solid gold after all, proved time and time again by the well-trodden sci-fi/impending-apocalypse pop-culture trope.
The film Don’t Look Up is a satire created by a well-established director, and features several Hollywood heavyweights. It concerns two astronomers who must bear the cross of, first, discovering that a comet large enough to be an extinction-level-event is on course for a collision with Earth, and, second, to convince the world that the danger is real but can still be averted.
This is straight up Hollywood’s alley. Amongst the notable movies along this trope, for example, is 1998’s Deep Impact; another is Armageddon, both of which did well at the box-office. As with pretty much all such sci-fi/disaster big-budget/mainstream box-office-consumption movies, the formula (be it a space event or a virus or alien-invasion scenario that threatens life on Earth, from The Day After to Independence Day to 2012) is simple. The danger is discovered; news of it is leaked or publicised; governments, with the US in the lead since we’re referring to Hollywood, swing into action — either to save the planet, or to save the so-considered ‘best and the brightest’. (In real life, Nasa’s DART mission just went up in November to test whether it is within current scientific capability to knock an asteroid off course.)
Don’t Look Up unforgivingly explores the relationship between science (read: fact), society, and the media; governments’ dependence on votes and campaign-funding lobbies; the cynicism of capitalism, big business, etc. The canvas is large, and the satirical brushstrokes therefore broad — which is part of the critique against the film.
The media are players in the game.
Far from having their information taken on board by the government, the astronomers find themselves blown off, left instead to approach day-time television shows and notably just one mainstream press outlet. But these are governed by data analyses and algorithm-crunching that understands ‘newsworthiness’ through the number of ‘likes’, Tweets, ‘shares’, internet challenges gone viral, ‘bumps’, and so on.
Science and fact get left by the wayside. The astronomers’ message — the incoming comet being clearly a metaphor for climate change — gets lost in all the memes; the polarisation of an audience that neither understands, nor has the tools or courage to; the ‘believers’ and the ‘deniers’. When the approaching comet becomes visible to the naked eye, the ‘believers’ urge people to just ‘look up’. The state apparatus, meanwhile, appeals to its ‘denier’ vote base (read: analogous to the Republicans) through the ‘Don’t look up’ campaign.
There is much in the movie that reads as a clever, well-fleshed-out, and deeply sobering text. It is one that several climate-change scientists have said constitutes their daily Sisyphean task. Climate-change science is unarguable; but the message gets lost in the politics and the vested interests, mainly political or financial — all the noise amplified by the media, especially social media platforms that are now so heavily in play, and are leading the media-society relationship (studied through an anthropological lens) to an increasingly murky place. As critics that have received McKay’s film well have pointed out, in the very rejection of it lies proof of the pudding the writer/director has prepared — that the reception constitutes enough of an exemplar of dumbed-down-ness and nay-saying to have been included in the film itself. The media is key to my argument here, that far from being the entirely objective reporters that hacks such as I like to think of ourselves as, we are part of an industry that has a power/momentum of its own, astronomically far beyond the reach and scope of the individuals that constitute its cogs. I imply no conspiracy, because a conspiracy requires intent. Rather, behemoth entities develop over time an internal weight of their own that takes them along a certain path (not unlike an avalanche), herded and shaped by all sorts of imperatives ranging from the financial, to audience-reception, to the mindsets and/or backgrounds of their human resource, to global narratives and memes. The media, especially social media, are not mere reporters — they are players in the game. (They did, after all, win Trump his election.) Optics in today’s world is everything, and the media collectively constitute a primary narrative-shaping and optic-defining entity.
Increasingly, audiences do not develop understanding because unthinking reliance on certain streams of very easily accessed media lulls them into the fallacy that understanding has already been processed for them, in convenient, bite-sized pieces.
This is no new idea. In academia, think Manufacturing Consent; in pop culture, think Wag the Dog; there’s a whole universe of exploration on the subject in between. This is a well-established idea that is worth spreading around as much as possible.
The writer is a journalist.
Published in Dawn, January 6th, 2022