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The most interesting thing Don’t Look Up has to say about the apocalypse

When Don’t Look Up stops trying to be funny, it has something deeply important to say.

Don’t Look Up’s stars (Leonardo DiCaprio as Dr. Randall Mindy and Jennifer Lawrence as Kate Dibiasky) take their comet warning to daytime TV (with Cate Blanchett as Brie Evantee and Tyler Perry as Jack Bremmer,)
Niko Tavernise/Netflix
Kelsey Piper is a senior writer at Future Perfect, Vox’s effective altruism-inspired section on the world’s biggest challenges. She explores wide-ranging topics like climate change, artificial intelligence, vaccine development, and factory farms, and also writes the Future Perfect newsletter.

Don’t Look Up, Adam McKay’s dark satire about humanity’s efforts to deflect a comet that’s going to destroy us all, is — at least according to my social media feeds — either one of the most important movies ever or so bad as to be nearly unwatchable. (Reviewers are similarly split — the film currently has a 55 percent critics’ score on Rotten Tomatoes, though Netflix has reported that Don’t Look Up recorded more than 152 million viewing hours for the week of December 27, the most in the platform’s history.)

A lot of this comes down to what you think of the movie’s politics, which are rather confused for a film that was made with the explicit political aim of encouraging viewers to take climate change seriously — as many, many critics have already noted.

But as others have already pointed out, the movie doesn’t really work at all as an allegory for the long-term threat of climate change, which is very unlike a comet that will leave no survivors if we don’t nuke it in the next six months.

What it does do incredibly well is serve as an allegory for actual comets, or supervolcanic eruptions, or transformative AI, or engineered pandemics, or for anything else that really might abruptly end humanity — and that might well get you laughed off daytime TV for freaking out about them, as happens to the protagonists in one of Don’t Look Up’s best-crafted scenes.

Beyond that, there’s another element of what Don’t Look Up has to say that has been somewhat neglected in the conversation about it, probably because talking about it involves massive spoilers.

Be warned: From here, I’m going to tell you exactly how this movie ends.

Don’t Look Up on what it means for us to lose

The apocalyptic disaster movie — think I Am Legend, Independence Day, 2012, War of the Worlds, The Day After Tomorrow — has its conventions. The hero starts out as an ordinary family man (and yes, it’s almost always a man), but when circumstances demand it, he realizes he has something more than the ordinary inside him. The fate of the world rests on his shoulders, and he’ll save it, or at least salvage something of it for the survivors and the people he loves.

It’s very clearly this genre that Don’t Look Up is in dialogue with, especially in Leonardo DiCaprio’s character’s plot: He begins as an awkward astronomy professor and becomes the face of the comet revelation. Seduced by power and fame, he betrays his wife, and as the world comes to an end he realizes what really matters, making a pilgrimage home to reunite with his family and face his mistakes.

Toward the end of Don’t Look Up, Randall (Leonardo DiCaprio) travels home to reconcile with his family.
Niko Tavernise/Netflix

It’s similar to the arc of John Cusack’s character in 2012, who reconciles with his ex as the floods begin to recede, with notes of the poignant reunion the hero of War of the Worlds (played by Tom Cruise) has with his estranged family at the end of the movie. The apocalypse, in this genre convention, is a backdrop for men to realize their mettle, put aside childish things, save their families, save the world, and then choose to live and love in it.

Don’t Look Up is pointedly at odds with that tradition.

The scheme to break apart the comet headed for Earth fails. With humanity facing its doom, the heroes and their loved ones gather around the dinner table and share memories and prayer and family jokes. DiCaprio wins his wife’s forgiveness and gruffly greets his adult children.

And then the comet hits. He, and they, die. Humanity (save for a couple of characters killed off in a closing scene later) is wiped out.

Taking the end of the world seriously

It’s the most serious thing the movie has to say; there are no interjections of the usual Adam McKay silliness interwoven elsewhere (though he does undercut the haunting takeaway with that jokey coda).

Don’t Look Up isn’t about ordinary people who discover inside them the heroism to save the ones they love. It’s about ordinary people who know what’s coming and ultimately aren’t heroes at all. They make a couple of futile attempts to do something, which amount to nothing. And then they die, because that’s what will happen, if we aren’t up to the task ahead of us.

There probably isn’t a comet coming, though with more surveillance we could be a whole lot more secure. But a lot of people who work on existential risks — threats that might plausibly destroy our world — believe that this century will be the most dangerous one in human history. Emerging technologies like AI and synthetic biology make it easier than ever to inadvertently create threats to the entire human species.

Our existing mechanisms for responding to pandemics, let alone to risks we’ve never imagined, aren’t good enough. The power of love won’t preserve the world. There are no adults in the room, and if we don’t become those adults — and maybe even if we do — we could die, and we may destroy our world so completely that nothing will ever grow in the ashes.

As I wrote these words — and as I watched this film — I felt myself flinching away. I don’t want to believe that we are not up to the task of facing existential threats to humanity. I want to believe that everything’s going to turn out okay, that the worst possible outcome can’t actually really happen, for real.

I felt suddenly aware of how often I refuse to glance up at the metaphorical sky lest there’s a comet there, refuse to pick up Toby Ord’s The Precipice, the seminal book on existential risk, lest its pages reveal a danger bearing down on our civilization that no heroes lie in wait to save us from. (Spoiler: The book does, indeed, reveal a whole bunch of them, and argues there is a one-in-six chance one will destroy us this century.)

Don’t Look Up mostly doesn’t know exactly what it’s trying to say. But it knows this, and it captures it perfectly: Humanity is on track to make mistakes we can’t recover from, and we don’t want to look at that, and we don’t know what to do even when we see it.

The point of acknowledging that, of course, isn’t to sink back, self-satisfied, into wise and informed despair. It’s to get us to look up — to look at the threats to our world wherever they’re coming from, and however uncomfortable they are to acknowledge, and then to actually act.

A version of this story was initially published in the Future Perfect newsletter. Sign up here to subscribe!