When Don’t Look Up lands on Netflix on Christmas Eve, it won’t be the first time films have brought us the terrifying prospect of Earth being destroyed by a planet-killing comet.
There’s something very 2021 about Don’t Look Up’s version of events, however. Previous iterations of the theme have traditionally focused on the heroic attempts of scientists (Sean Connery uniting Cold War rivals in 1979’s Meteor) or heroic muscle men (Bruce Willis and a giant drill in 1998’s Armageddon) to save the world from impending apocalypse.
In Don’t Look Up, however, we’re firmly in the social media age. Our heroes, two low-level astronomers played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, find that instead of being hailed as saviours for discovering the comet that is on a collision course with Earth, they are pilloried, accused of spreading “fake news” and used as political footballs.
That’s when they manage to make their voices heard at all over the constant noise of a celebrity-obsessed, polarised public more interested in shouting their own barely formed opinions into the social media abyss.
From climate change denial to the militant anti-vax movement, via the Brexit campaign’s dismissal of “experts” and a recent US administration that embraced the doctrine of “alternative facts", it seems many scientists have found their reputation in tatters.
DiCaprio admits he is all too familiar with the situation. “I was thankful to play a character who's based on so many of the people that I've met from the scientific community, in particular climate scientists who are trying to communicate the urgency of this issue, and feeling like they're always subjected to the last page on the newspaper," he says.
“They’re politicised, there are alternative facts, there are just too many other things that we're inundated with, and we’re so immensely distracted from the truth nowadays. Then of course Covid hit and there are whole new scientific arguments going on there. This just feels like such an important film to be a part of at this particular time."
As an active environmental campaigner himself, DiCaprio says he’s been looking for a film like this one for years, but wanted to make sure he found the right one.
“What Adam [McKay, writer/director] did here was create a film that was about the climate crisis, but he created a sense of urgency by also making it about a comet that's going to hit Earth within eight months,” he explains.
“I think he really cracked the code with this narrative – there are so many comparisons that we can make with the climate crisis and this storyline. It's the most important issue all of us can be talking about, and it takes artists like this to change the narrative, to create conversation.”
The Oscar-winning actor says he hopes he can give back to the scientific community by returning some of the voice they appear to have lost in recent times.
“I really wanted to try to articulate the frustration of the scientific community, how one is sitting there in a pulpit speaking the truth, and all these other noises are sort of drowning out the main lesson," he says.
"I’m trying to understand the frustration in the scientific community – they’re realising the world is falling apart, but how do you cut straight to the chase about the truth of this issue? Adam wrote so brilliantly, and I'm honoured to be a part of it.”
Don't Look Up boasts a huge star power – its ensemble cast includes not only himself and Lawrence, but also Meryl Streep as the science-denying populist president, Jonah Hill as her son, and further turns from the likes of Tyler Perry, Cate Blanchett, Ariana Grande and many more.
But in the hands of McKay, a former Saturday Night Live writer, co-creator of Anchorman, and the creative force behind Oscar-nominated black comedies The Big Short and Vice, the message is never too forced, the film avoids preaching, and the harsh realities are always served alongside a helpful dose of laughter.
“We wanted to deal with this subject, the climate crisis, which is arguably the greatest threat to life in the history of mankind, but it can almost be like an animal attacking you. It can just be overwhelming,” the director says. “If you're able to laugh, that's really important. You can feel the urgency and you can feel sadness and you can feel lost while also having a sense of humour. That was really the intention with this movie after the crazy last five or 10 years we've all had across the planet. Wouldn't it be nice to laugh at some of this?”
The script finds the balance perfectly, and there’s no denying that for a gloom-laden warning about the end of the world as we know it, Don’t Look Up is great fun. For McKay, that’s a case of mission accomplished.
“I think we get hit with the thumping Doomsday talk quite a bit, which by the way is totally legit when it comes to climate change. But I did think it was important that that people be allowed to laugh and have some distance,” he says. “It's a great unifier, too. You can't fake laughter, it’s not a political thing, and it never really works when you try and fake it. So yeah, that was kind of the thinking behind it.”
Don’t Look Up will be out on Netflix on December 24