Climate Change: Can the Big Screen really help?
Considering Netflix’s recent satire, Don’t Look Up, Floris De Bruin interrogates the role of satire and entertainment in the fight for climate justice.
“Maybe it’s supposed to be terrifying when we’re all 100 per cent for sure going to fucking die!” In the latest Netflix blockbuster film, Don’t Look Up (2021), astronomer Kate Dibiasky’s (Jennifer Lawrence) outburst on “The Daily Rip” – the film’s fictional chat show – creates a major public outcry. Exasperated, she leaves the studio, bewildered by the show’s insistence on maintaining such a light-hearted, jovial atmosphere when communicating the horrible truth that a meteor will destroy planet Earth in less than six months. Dibiasky herself quickly becomes reviled for her lack of grace.
Meanwhile, her supervisor and academic colleague, Doctor Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), toes the line, retorting, “Maybe I should’ve given her that extra Xanax I had,” to the amusement and relief of the audience. It’s this diplomacy that makes Mindy the much-adored face of the government’s scientific committee, becoming the public’s safe haven, instilling calm in the face of adversity.
Really, comedy is an indirect form of communication – and one that instils a degree of complacency through laughter.
Producer Adam McKay uses this pivotal scene to portray our culture’s susceptibility to information, however truthful, communicated delicately, illustrating the importance of how you say something rather than what you say. Using this understanding of human nature, McKay attempts to join the fight for climate justice by using satire as a medium for social commentary. He parodies society to expose our indifference and denial in the face of an existential crisis, using comedy to soften the blow.
We laugh at Meryl Streep’s depiction of a US President, scandalously prioritising her administration’s future over the fate of the planet. Humour masks the painful reality that many politicians do work harder to preserve their power than for the collective good, evident in former US President Donald Trump’s obsession with approval ratings and his controversial support for the Capitol riots last year. Or how about the insatiable greed of billionaire tech mogul Peter Isherwell’s (Mark Rylance) attempts to exploit and profit from the doomsday by mining minerals from the looming meteor? As big businesses continue to forego going green because of a lack of economic incentive, it’s entirely plausible that this could, in fact, happen when push comes to shove.
Although the Daily Rip’s decision to overshadow coverage of the Dibiasky Comet by devoting significant airtime to a celebrity break-up is mind-boggling, it speaks to the media’s preference for entertainment over substance; a preference substantiated by a recent study conducted by MediaMatters, in which it was found that corporate news coverage of climate change plummeted by 53% in 2020 compared to 2019. However, if Don’t Look Up is attempting to fashion itself as a form of activism, it hardly does enough. For all the laughs and gags, it needs to follow up on the discussions it seeks to establish and incentivise action.
Really, comedy is an indirect form of communication – and one that instils a degree of complacency through laughter. To give an example of comedy-as-activism’s shortcomings, comedian Ricky Gervais’s role as multiple-time emcee of the Golden Globes will live in infamy for his provocative jokes at the expense of Hollywood and, more importantly, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA), the journalists behind the awards ceremony. For years, Gervais used this platform to critique the HFPA for its corruption and institutionalised racism. While it would shock and elicit gasps from the audience, everything was business as usual behind-the-scenes. A-list celebrities would continue to attend the event despite its controversial history.
Not until direct, practical action was taken by a Norwegian entertainment journalist, who eventually sued the HFPA after being denied membership of the group, did the reality of the situation really sink in. The Los Angeles Times seized and subsequently told this story, and the ceremony quickly fell into rightful disrepute. As a result, the 2022 Golden Globes was a private affair held behind closed doors after being dropped by NBC and shunned by Hollywood.
The film also fails to adequately acknowledge that most young people do care about climate change.
For all of Gervais’s cheap barbs, he did little to instigate real change. It may have paved the way for action and raised awareness of persistent wrongdoing, but it was largely insufficient. And the same can be said for Don’t Look Up. The film’s more favourable reviews mainly centre around its ability to raise awareness of climate change and its desire to honour the thankless work done by climate activists. But when the initial buzz surrounding the film inevitably fades, what will be left to show for this? Individual accolades won by the cast and crew?
The film also fails to adequately acknowledge that most young people do care about climate change. Much work has been done by young individuals, as evidenced by Greta Thunberg and the many student-led protests and organisations in support of climate justice. Many young people – understanding that real improvement can only be brought about by systemic reform rather than individual action – feel powerless when tackling such a monumental issue without the support of powerful institutions such as the government, media and big business.
While credit is deserved in questioning these institutions’ roles within society, the film should also seek to incorporate them into the solution. Having captured the audience’s attention with a stellar cast, McKay’s project should have been geared towards taking advantage of the cast’s privileged status and the film’s momentum to take direct, concrete action and apply pressure to those with power. Fortunately, though, some involved already are. At the end of an interview with Jimmy Fallon advertising the film, Jonah Hill communicated an important message, encouraging people to “call or email your congressperson and ask them to support the HR794, the National Climate Change Emergency.”
This is the specific and practical advice that is precisely what is needed. Without it, the film in and of itself is unlikely to have any significant, lasting impact on climate reform.