Don’t Look Now, but #Don’tLookUp is Number Two in Netflix History. Is the Message being Heard?

January 12, 2022

“If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” – Samuel Goldwyn

Above, interview with Director Adam McKay.

Will it make a difference? It’s been tried before – Dr. Strangelove comes to mind.

University of North Carolina Greensboro:

Although the production of Dr. Strangelove began before the Test Ban Treaty was signed, the film’s warnings were still applicable after 1963. The treaty may have eased many Americans’ fears about the possibility of nuclear war, but the treaty did not alter US nuclear policies. Kennedy appeased opponents of the treaty in Congress, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the scientific community by promising to continue nuclear testing underground. The United States also continued to develop and stockpile strategic nuclear weapons and rely on this arsenal to deter a first strike.4 The Test Ban Treaty did not lead to a more comprehensive treaty as many supporters had hoped. Indeed, talks of disarmament had been complicated by the proliferation of nuclear weapons to France and communist China.

The threat of nuclear war still hung over the heads of audiences that saw Dr. Strangelove, but not all reviewers were willing to accept Kubrick’s warning.

Reviews of Dr. Strangelove assessed the film’s treatment of nuclear war and the realism of Kubrick’s scenario in order to refute or support Kubrick’s claims. Historian Robert Brent Toplin has recognized that films possess messages about social and political issues, either subtly or forcefully displayed. Toplin noted that critics and audience members have often discussed the messages of films.5 Reviews and subsequent public responses to Dr. Strangelove represented a limited discourse about the film that focused more on Kubrick’s political message and the reasonability of U.S. nuclear policies.

New York Times:

“Don’t Look Up” is a Hollywood rarity on several fronts. It’s a major film about climate change. It racked up a record number of hours viewed in a single week, according to Netflix. It also unleashed a flood of hot takes, along with — in what may be a first — sniping between reviewers who didn’t like the film and scientists who did.

What remains to be seen is whether the film fulfills a primary aim of its director, Adam McKay, who wants it to be, in his words, “a kick in the pants” that prompts urgent action on climate change.

“I’m under no illusions that one film will be the cure to the climate crisis,” Mr. McKay, whose previous films include “The Big Short” and “Vice,” wrote in an email to the Times. “But if it inspires conversation, critical thinking, and makes people less tolerant of inaction from their leaders, then I’d say we accomplished our goal.”

Pictures were made to entertain; if you want to send a message, call Western Union. - Samuel Goldwyn


Either way, at a time when leaders are failing to take the necessary measures to tackle the planet emergency, and the volume and ferocity of so-called “natural” disasters reach ever graver peaks, there is little question that the movie has struck a pretty big nerve. According to Netflix, which self reports its own figures and was the studio behind the film and its distributor, the movie is one of its most popular films ever, amassing an unprecedented 152 million hours viewed in one week.

“The goal of the movie was to raise awareness about the terrifying urgency of the climate crisis, and in that, it succeeded spectacularly,” said Genevieve Guenther, the founder and director of End Climate Silence, an organization that promotes media coverage of climate change.

“You can’t have movies that inspire people into action without a cultural acceptance of climate change,” she added, “which is what this movie will help produce.”

Hollywood has an uneven history depicting climate change in feature films, if it addresses it at all. Some films made their villains eco-terrorists — see Thanos in “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Godzilla: King of Monsters.” Or they present ecological collapse as inevitable — as in “Interstellar,” “Snowpiercer” and the Mad Max films. Rare is the film that imagines a world where humans successfully work together to allay the worst of the crisis, save biodiversity and wean themselves off fossil fuels.

While “Don’t Look Up” doesn’t provide a happy ending either, Mr. McKay has repeatedly stressed that he wants people to work toward that end. Netflix and climate scientists have partnered with an online platform that lists ways people can take action. One of the film’s stars, Jonah Hill, appeared on The Tonight Show and encouraged viewers to ask their congressional representatives to pass HR 794, the Climate Emergency Act. And Mr. DiCaprio urged his 19.4 million Twitter followers to get involved.

“We have the science,” Mr. McKay said on “The Daily Poster,” a website run by David Sirota, a journalist who is also a writer on the film. “We can do this. We have renewable energy. We could invest in carbon removal. There are a lot of things we can do if we have the action, will and awareness.”

Hollywood has played a role in defining big issues before. Stanley Kubrick’s satirical “Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”— itself reviled at the time by some critics — and the “The China Syndrome” shaped attitudes about nuclear power and war. After watching the 1983 television film “The Day After,” which imagined the aftermath of a Cold War atomic battle, President Ronald Reagan wrote in his journal that the film left him “greatly depressed” and hardened his resolve “to see there is never a nuclear war.” In 2012, while discussing his support of marriage equality, then vice-president Joe Biden credited the television series “Will & Grace” for educating the public.

Yet Michael Svoboda, a writing professor at George Washington University and contributor to the web magazine Yale Climate Connections, said while Mr. McKay is clearly impassioned about climate change, he was doubtful whether the film delivered a useful message that would produce results.

“Is he asking people to become more politically involved? Is he trying to reach across the aisle? That doesn’t seem to be the case at all,” Mr. Svoboda said. “Does it create a kind of fatalism, even nihilism, by virtue of its people accepting the inevitability after a good but not particularly well-coordinated fight?”

While “Don’t Look Up” took shots at both liberal elites and members of the right, Mr. Svoboda noted that by the film’s end it was clearly lampooning Trumpian populism. “It’s unlikely that’s going to reach anyone who’s skeptical of climate change,” he said.

All that said, the impassioned responses to the film suggests a hunger for more climate content, said Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a marine biologist and co-founder of the think tank Urban Oceans Lab. That could put less pressure on one piece of work to be all things to all people.

“I would argue not whether one film is perfect, but that clearly we need a lot more of this stuff,” said Dr. Johnson.

Bottom line, big numbers like this on a movie means we’re likely to see more like it. They didn’t exactly leave the door open to a sequel, but who knows?

One Response to “Don’t Look Now, but #Don’tLookUp is Number Two in Netflix History. Is the Message being Heard?”

  1. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    At the least, we should maintain a constant drumbeat of reminders about climate change. This is one part of it.


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