Can satire save us? Don’t Look Up and the climate crisis
Livia Cockerell discusses Netflix’s satirical film Don’t Look Up in relation to the ongoing climate crisis, asking if satire has historically made a difference and if it can now.
Within the next century, climate change could destroy the Earth as we know it. It’s a hard pill to swallow. Thus, it is frequently sugar coated, diluted, or simply left un-swallowed. Don’t Look Up perfectly depicts world leaders’ terrifying lack of response to the current climate crisis. The film tells the story of astronomy PhD student Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) and her professor Dr Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) as they make the earth-shattering discovery of a deadly comet heading directly towards Earth. Despite the indisputable evidence — with a 99.7 per cent chance of the comet contacting the Earth, to be precise — the movie presents US President Orlean (Meryl Streep) repeatedly ignore and neglect the science until it is too late.
The film’s overall message is put succinctly by Ariana Grande in Just Look Up (a song she performs alongside Kid Cudi): “Listen to the goddamn qualified scientists/ […] ‘Cause you’re about to die soon everybody.” Don’t Look Up makes no attempt to tiptoe around the climate crisis, but sardonically confronts it head on. “Robust satire is often a sign of a crisis and the ability to share and consume it is the sign of a free society,” states Professor Sophia McClennen for Penn State. It is an age-old tool used to confront societal emergencies during times of tyranny, misinformation and inequality. Will this simultaneously comical and terrifying lyric of Ariana Grande’s save us from the effects of climate change? Of course not. But boy is it a relief to hear it said so directly.
It is an age-old tool used to confront societal emergencies during times of tyranny, misinformation and inequality
Following the past few years of political turmoil, a global pandemic, a looming economic crisis and the threat of the climate disaster (to list just a few major incidents), we have seen satire manifest into a different form — memes. Over the past couple of weeks alone, we need only scroll on Instagram or Twitter for seconds before seeing memes scorning Boris and the alleged Downing Street parties, or scrutinising the Prince Andrew scandal. This modern rebirth of satire unites us in our collective rage. If we don’t laugh, we cry.
Satire is much more than simply jesting and poking fun at politicians and those in positions of power. It can be empowering, controversial and, at times, toe-curling. In 2017, the Shakespeare in the Park production of Shakespeare’s tragedy Julius Caesar styled the title character to resemble Donald Trump and presented him being “assassinated in Act III beneath an American flag, by a cast that contains women and minorities”, according to Vox. The performance raised eyebrows, it stimulated debate; it depicted the collective rage of injustices felt in the United States at the time, a time in which certain voices felt politically silenced. However, the production also caused much controversy with sponsors “pulling their financial support for the production” and protestors interrupting performances.
The power that satire holds cannot be underestimated. It is powerful and, at times, threatening. In 2015, the left-wing satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, known particularly for its content on religion and politics, was the target of a terror attack. Twelve lives were tragically lost, demonstrating the risk that satire can entail, in addition to the fearful backlash that its influence can provoke. The satirical publication’s headquarters had been attacked before as the “newspaper’s offices were firebombed in 2011 after they published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed”, as told by Vox.
Despite the comedic nature of Don’t Look Up, the realities of the devastating threats posed by climate change truly pack a punch. Can satirical depictions such as these save us? They may not offer us a solution, but they can plant a seed in viewers’ minds that stimulates thought and conversation. Like all art, its power can be noted in the reactions of its spectators. Satire can make an otherwise complex and uncomfortable topic digestible; it can voice opinions and ideas that are frequently shut down. Satire may not save us, but it creates noise, and if that noise is loud enough, it cannot be ignored.