The unbearable smugness of the Netflix elites

Don’t Look Up is a preposterous movie that is wrong about everything.

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Culture USA

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Don’t Look Up is the least subtle allegory of modern times. It is a mallet of a metaphor. It is the bluntest of parables, smashing through TV and tablet screens across the globe and screaming at viewers: ‘This is a film about a comet but REALLY IT IS ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE.’ They really do scream, especially Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays the clever, sexy scientist Dr Randall Mindy, who, unlike the dentally challenged rednecks he has the misfortune to call his fellow citizens, knows that the comet is real and that it really will hit the Earth. Poor Mindy is in a constant state of apoplexy at fickle, dim mankind, on one occasion bellowing: ‘YOU ARE ALL GOING TO FUCKING DIE.’ Leo, being a green nut himself, really hams it up, revelling in this mad, morally infantile script that gives free rein to his fire-and-brimstone eco-beliefs. Next time you see The Revenant, you’ll root for the bear.

It is hard to describe just how preposterous Don’t Look Up is. Adam McKay’s 145-minute lecture disguised as a movie is on Netflix. (Where else?) It tells the story of two low-level astronomers – Mindy and his punkish PhD student, Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) – who spot a comet that is hurtling towards our big, dumb planet. They try to warn humankind, but to little avail. The president of the United States – Meryl Streep as a female Trump – is too busy thinking about the Midterms and the media’s discovery of the fact that she once sent a photo of her vagina to her nominee for the Supreme Court to worry about something as trifling as the extinction of all life on Earth. Let’s sit on it, she says. Businessmen wonder if the arrival of the comet might be a good thing. Think of all the minerals it will contain! Think of how many mobile phones we could make! Evil, money-grubbing capitalists? Original. As for the plebs: they’re far more concerned with celebrity tittle-tattle and earning a living – so vulgar! – than they are with the heat death of humankind.

It really is this unsubtle. It’s like someone reached into the head of a freshly politicised 16-year-old TikToker and turned the contents into a film. It falls to an Expert (Mindy) and a Cool Person (Dibiasky) to try to prise open the eyes of the ignorant throng. These are the heroes of our age in the eyes of the Netflix elites – people with postgraduate degrees and funny-coloured hair. Lawrence as Dibiasky sports a severe, red-dyed fringe – to distinguish her from the billions of normies who don’t care about the comet that’s about to vaporise them – and she goes on TV to weep and wail about the destruction of the planet, like George Monbiot recently did. One good line is when Streep’s president says they should use Dibiasky for media work more often, because she’ll connect with ‘disaffected youth and the mentally ill’. Every time DiCaprio and Lawrence’s characters were on screen, I felt myself turning a bit Betjeman. ‘Come, friendly comet…’ It is sweet relief when they die. (Come on, that doesn’t count as a spoiler – you knew this crap wasn’t going to have a happy ending.)

For the whole two-and-a-half days, or hours, or whatever, that this film lasts, you can feel the writers Adam McKay and David Sirota jabbing you in the ribs and saying: ‘It’s actually about climate change! Do you see?’ Yes we see! We get it – the comet is climate change, the politicos saying ‘Don’t look up’ are the climate-change deniers, and the scientists saying ‘Holy crap, we’re all going to die’ are the heroic climate-change activists. Blah, blah, blah, as Greta might say. It is of course this element of the film – its distillation of the climate-change issue into a morally reductive comedic fairytale – that has got many critics hot under the collar. They love this nonsense. And it really is nonsense. It is Don’t Look Up’s hammer-like eco-messaging that is the most preposterous thing of all.

Its wrongness cannot be overstated. Seriously, what planet do Netflix execs and writers live on if they think scientists who warn about the end of the world risk being persecuted by the political establishment? Both Mindy and Dibiasky are hunted down by the CIA and forced ‘off grid’ for their warnings about End Times. LOL. The CIA is super-green, you muppets. It loves apocalyptic bollocks. Who can forget the New York Times piece from last year that praised the CIA for its ‘environmental sleuthing’, for ‘spy[ing] for planet Earth’? Makes a change from plotting the assassination of disagreeable foreign leaders, I guess. In the real world, far from the Californian bubble inhabited by the Netflix elites, it is scientists who question the idea that climate change will shortly propel us towards the End of Days who are persecuted, No Platformed, shut down. This silly film is the polar opposite of the truth.

And then there’s the classism. Classism really isn’t too strong a word for it. Don’t Look Up drips with elitist contempt for the masses. Streep’s Prez whips up the red-cap-wearing idiocracy into a frenzy of comet denialism. When Dibiasky goes to visit her parents shortly before extinction day they tell her they’re hopeful about the business world’s belief that the comet might be safely broken up and mined for minerals. ‘Your dad and I are for the jobs the comet will provide’, her working-class mum says, and the role of the audience at this point is very, very clear – we’re meant to laugh, to mock, to agonise over the existence of such braindead creatures that worry more about their end-of-month wages than they do about the end of the world that bothers the clever heads of rich Californian movie execs. If Streep is an impersonation of Trump, these characters are caricatures of Rust Belt voters who want good, honest jobs in excavation and manufacturing and transport. Jonah Hill plays the president’s conceited son (Hill is easily the best thing in the movie, in equal parts ridiculous and hilarious), and at one point he openly talks about the successful coalition of the dumb he has created between ‘the working class and the cool rich’.

The slogan of the manipulative Trumpite elites who brainwash the ignorant multitude is literally ‘Don’t look up’. They have it printed on caps and t-shirts. They say ‘Don’t look up’ and the working classes obediently refuse to look up. Which means they don’t see the comet even when it is close by. I’m not making this up. There’s McKay and Sirota digging you in the ribs again: ‘Ordinary people are stupid as shit – do you see?’ Guys, we see. There’s a scene in which one of the working-class robots decides, finally, to look up and, lo, he sees the comet. ‘They lied to us’, he says. God I would love to see the casting notes for this bit-part character. Must be fat. Must look good in a mullet. Must be able to sound dumb as hell. The snobbery of this movie is as unsubtle as its eco-metaphors. You’re beaten across the face with it from beginning to end. It just feels depressing after two-and-a-half years. Or hours. However long this thing is.

Don’t Look Up sums up the unbearable smugness of the Netflix elites, of those West and East Coast cultural movers and shakers who see it as their responsibility to ‘raise the awareness’ of the little people. The makers of this movie really have convinced themselves that they are brave soothsayers who risk being collared by the CIA and capitalism itself for their reckless propagation of The Truth, when in reality they themselves are the new corporate elites who exercise an extraordinary amount of influence over public life in the 21st century. These days, it isn’t ‘denialism’ that is the problem – it’s catastrophism, the view of everything, especially climate change, as a calamity that our hubristic species has brought upon itself. That is the elite consensus opinion right now and, not surprisingly, Netflix, the cultural embodiment of the new elites, is riddled with this decadent, indulgent End of Days hysteria. Seriously, I can’t have been the only person who was rooting more for the working-class upstarts chanting ‘Don’t look up’ than I was for DiCaprio’s shrill, self-satisfied prophesier of doom.

Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

Picture by: Getty.

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