“Don’t Look Up”: Ripe Satire with Christian Notes

January 7, 2022

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“It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.” 
—Michael Stipe, REM

Adam McKay’s satire Don’t Look Up relies on the premise that our culture is rife with false prophets. We want truth, yes. But experts compete for our allegiance, and in our relativistic paradigm, believing a big claim—like, say, the world is going to end—is not a question of trusting “the science,” but choosing a side. And since the end of the world is a bummer of a subject, most of us would rather think about something else and cast our lot with someone else instead. 

Don’t Look Up is an on-the-nose Netflix comedy about a planet-killing comet discovered by Professor Randall Mindy, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, and his graduate student Kate Dibiasky, played by Jennifer Lawrence. Together, the two struggle to articulate the certain, imminent danger headed towards the Earth. The president of the United States, played by Meryl Streep, is more interested in poll numbers and mid-terms than astronomical calculations. The media, represented by Brie Evantee (Cate Blanchett) and Jack Bremmer (Tyler Perry) have no ability to tell a sober story of a cold, hard catastrophe. In an age where no message is more important than the messenger, Mindy quickly transforms into “America’s sexiest scientist” and Dibiasky becomes a meme of hysterical alarmism.

Amid various (and darkly humorous) scenarios, Don’t Look Up implicitly interrogates us about our opinions on all sorts of serious, real-world issues, from climate change to the pandemic. Some viewers may immediately identify with the idea that if we just trust the experts, everything will always be ok. The same group may also be likely to see in Streep’s character (along with Jonah Hill as her son and Chief of Staff), American idiots endangering the survival of our species by refusing to get with the correct program. Many people of various political persuasions may find something poignant about the competing groups in the film, one of which sloganizes “looking up” and seeing what is plainly true. The other group campaigns on looking down out of fear of once again being duped by the ruling elites. We all laugh and cringe at the character of Peter Isherwell, a billionaire tech mogul played by Mark Rylance. Isherwell is a ruthless opportunist in a gentle guise, and his disregard for a humane vision of life is summed up by the quip, “He’s the one who bought the Gutenberg Bible, and then lost it.”

With a host of contemporary critiques accounted for, Don’t Look Up cannot ultimately avoid Christian eschatology. Even among the most hardened so-called secular people, discussing the end of the world can never be confined to this-world policies, philosophies, motivations, or decisions. Regardless of what you may have heard or read, Don’t Look Up is not, finally, another invitation to vote differently before it is too late.

“. . . I feel like, if God wanted to destroy the earth, he would destroy the earth.”

Here, Christians—and perhaps Christians alone—have something hopeful to say in the space McKay’s film creates. And the character who steps up to say it is a young burn-out from flyover land named Yule, played by Timothée Chalamet. As grad-student Dibiasky languishes in exile in her Illinois hometown, she continues to lament the public’s willful ignorance of their impending demise. Yule casually says, “I’m starting to think all this end of the world stuff’s just bull——.” Dibiasky rebukes him, leading him to follow up casually, “Yeah, I don’t know. I feel like, if God wanted to destroy the earth, he would destroy the earth.” Yule then admits to being an Evangelical (albeit one who rejected his parents’ version of Christianity before finding his own).

The final act of Don’t Look Up allows Yule’s facile presentation of Christian eschatology to take better shape. As the worst-case scenario appears to be happening, Professor Mindy, along with Dibiasky and Yule, stocks up on some of the few remaining delicacies in a local grocery store and returns home for a last supper. It is a snapshot of life in the Kingdom of Heaven, populated here by a group of mostly non-Christians. Mindy admits that his house is not a place of prayer, but he wonders aloud whether it would be appropriate to say “Amen.” Yule steps up and sanctifies the moment of crisis, praying, “Dearest Father and Almighty Creator, we ask for your grace tonight . . .” Everyone in the room knows, somehow, that the best thing to do at the end of all things is simply to acknowledge their source of life in God, to enjoy each other’s gifts, and most of all, give thanks. Afterward, Mindy delivers the startling realization, “We really did have everything, didn’t we?”

At the end of life, there is only gratitude because, in life, there should only be gratitude too. And this gratitude finds its true meaning on this side of Christ’s return in the Eucharist. In the grace of the sacraments of the Church, we give back to God all that is his, and as we do so, we joyfully await the consummation of the new beginning for creation that Christ announced in the empty tomb. The world as we know it is going to end. Thank God. 

Don’t Look Up may make too much fun of all-too plausible and scary scenarios for some viewers. It is certainly heavy-handed at times, and almost every character is a borderline caricature. But the film also provides an excellent invitation to ponder the important questions about preparing for eternity. While we do not wish for anything that accelerates the world’s demise, we look forward to an eventual end, which means “the definitive triumph of good over evil” (CCC 681). Accordingly, at the very end of Don’t Look Up, McKay depicts one last hilarious attempt at a godless escape from the world’s present brokenness. We remember, as always, we can’t save ourselves.

Watch Don’t Look Up . . . and look up! Then point beyond the comets and stars and planets to their source and destiny. If the end comes, we’ll be ready.

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