Acton Institute Powerblog

Don’t Look Up looks down on you

(Image credit: Niko Tavernise/Netflix)

The most popular film on Netflix right now is either a successor to Dr. Strangelove or a self-righteous and overly obvious attempt to shame the average American. But it does have a lot more of Leonardo DiCaprio than you’ve seen before. […]

Read More… from Don’t Look Up looks down on you

The techno-gossip that passes for objective knowledge these days assures us that the Netflix movie Don’t Look Up was watched extensively—more than 321.5 million hours streamed. Does that mean about 150 million people around the world watched it? Or maybe 100 million watched it to the end, but another hundred watched only a third to a half of the way through? As usual, Netflix releases on this score read like propaganda; we cannot know how popular the movie really is, but it seems to be the only popular thing in America except Spider-Man.

What is it about and why is it popular? The movie is a satire about the apocalypse: Two astrophysicists discover an earthbound asteroid sure to end life on earth, but nobody in Washington, neither politician nor journalist, cares. So we get to experience the sarcasm and earnestness of a professor—Leonardo DiCaprio, acting the part of a somewhat fat, aging do-gooder—and his bizarre emo grad student—Jennifer Lawrence, in yet another role of a crazy young woman whose problems we have to take seriously, but now uglier than in previous movies, to suggest some kind of rebellion against glamour or some kind of seriousness.

Everyone commenting on the movie from the liberal side that dominates our media, following the earnest interviews of writer-producer-director Adam McKay, assures us that this is a metaphor or an allegory for climate change, a death sentence for mankind we prefer not to acknowledge out of our endless foolish selfishness. The good news is that this suicidal tendency is instantly curable, by obedience to Progressive liberal elites, who have no admixture of foolish selfishness themselves—they are our exasperated saviors-in-waiting, as soon as we learn to obey them unquestioningly as they revolutionize our way of life.

Don’t Look Up seems intended to effect this transformation from foolishness to obedience. How? Apparently, the big idea in Hollywood is to enlist every star available. The oldest, Meryl Streep, plays a president so corrupt that she hires her son as chief of staff, ­ Hill, playing an arrogant loser, and only listens to science briefly on­ce she’s involved in a sex scandal, but soon aborts the humanity-saving mission because of corporate capitalism’s suicidal desire for commercial exploitation. The youngest, Timothée Chalamet, a recent Hollywood and media darling, plays a shoplifter love interest for Lawrence and poster boy for the spinelessness of the young generation, not previously something to brag about. Apparently, America can finally wake up to moral reality by dreaming about these actors. We need some real leadership, and it’s going to be celebrities! The stuff of satire like Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s 2004 Team America World Police is now offered without any guile as our deliverance. I recommend that satire on American moralism and elite hyper-moralism instead, because it is much less self-indulgent; if you want another visionary satire on the shallowness of American celebrity culture and its mind-bending madness, just watch Zoolander. I promise you, if you watch these movies, you will understand why our celebrities are the way they are and why they line up for nonsense like Don’t Look Up and even brag about it.

All told, Don’t Look Up reminds one of the mad, silly video celebrities made in March 2020, just as America was experiencing house arrest, singing John Lennon’s Imagine from the bottom of their luxury, to remind ordinary Americans how much they need celebrities. Of course, Imagine is a song worse than worthless, since it has encouraged vapid people to become holier than the rest of us for more than a generation, but at least Lennon had musical talent. Don’t Look Up is equally moralistic, earnest, and vapid, which signals a new era in American celebrity. You will spend much less time laughing at jokes than popeyed at the dumb arrogance that passes for superior knowledge about the inner workings of American elites, slavish piety about scientific elites in particular, and studied contempt about the dumb masses.

Let us recapitulate: Don’t Look Up tells the story of how Americans, personally and institutionally, just won’t listen to the science, even if it kills them, along with everyone else on earth. It does so apparently to great popular approval, which suggests that at least the “Netflix class” is listening with some enthusiasm. There is a contradiction in there. Further, this is a movie filmed November 2020–February 2021, which apparently had no interest in the cult of personality liberals created around the now-disgraced and former governor Andrew Cuomo and the still-sacrosanct embodiment of science Dr. Anthony Fauci.

I don’t believe, therefore, that Hollywood liberals have either the intellectual or the moral authority to heap contempt on the rest of America. Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence seem like very mediocre people no one would want to listen to on matters of personal or national importance, but they might be interesting, in a way, since they also seem to have the arrogance of Greek gods. The pieties of the atheistic elite—the kind of people who say they “believe in science” and that the politicians must “follow the science”—are not just ruining our politics, but they are destroying art and especially comedy, satire. Since these people have no self-awareness, they portray themselves as our saviors. It’s a good question, and anyone’s guess, really, how much of the catastrophe they claim to fear they would inflict on us if they had the chance. Certainly, 2021 was not a year anyone would brag about, despite liberal control of our national politics.

McKay is famous for winning the Oscar for writing The Big Short, a movie I cannot recommend, but which proposed to explain in sketch-comedy form the 2008 financial crisis. If you’ve never heard of him, it’s all right—he’s not America’s next Mark Twain; not even a next Mencken. But he does demonstrate what our liberal elites believe to be intelligent, funny, and perhaps even popular liberalism. He is the poet of the kind of arrogance with intellectual pretensions that keeps a class of Americans busy despising the rest, especially the majority of poor, religious, working class or conservative Americans who just aren’t sophisticated enough. McKay also made an even worse movie about former vice president Dick Cheney, which got him Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Producer, and Best Director. Inasmuch as Hollywood can show us the prejudices of the liberal elite, McKay embodies them.

So what is his big idea? Don’t Look Up suggests we don’t listen to the science because we are too distracted by celebrity culture, clickbait, and social media. The four horsemen of the liberal apocalypse are mostly Kardashians. Talk show celebrities (played by Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry) and social media music celebrities (played by Ariana Grande and Kid Cudi) overact to show you the aggressive stupidity that corrupts the public mind. Also, this opium of the masses is something we all instantly rise above the moment Don’t Look Up makes it into sketch comedy! It’s hard to imagine anything more infantile than this attitude to the American drama, but then McKay came up when SNL was descending into liberal arrogance—uninspired and instantly forgotten—during the Bush years. Again, McKay seems unable to reckon with the fact that liberal elites adore and fawn over him even more than he flatters them, very publicly, and celebrities compete in a slavish but frivolous way to star in his humorless movies. If social media is ruining America, the popularity of his movie is certainly the best example of it.

This is what I meant about a new era in American celebrity—a sickness of the soul, a psychopathy, has overtaken some of the liberal elite, to the point where they wish to ground comedy in absolute lack of self-awareness and claim that they are unheard when they most claim popularity. I fear that success as much as failure—the way Hollywood is being swallowed up by a few tech giants plus Disney—is leading our liberal elites further into madness; mad elites are something America hasn’t really reckoned with since the beginning of the Cold War or, indeed, the Civil War. If I’m right, call this an early warning. If I’m wrong, you’ll have the pleasure of laughing at my silly worries.

The movie’s popularity, however hard to gauge, is something more important to reckon with than McKay, whom I expect will disappear the way of all celebrities soon enough, despite having directed some genuinely amusing early comedies (Anchorman, Stepbrothers, Talladega Nights). There is a Netflix class, not just in America, but more obviously in other countries—people who think they are more modern, more intelligent, more Progressive, and who feel defensive about their lack of influence or power. The majority of Netflix viewers are of course not of this kind, but they aspire to the prestige of the liberal elite and are guided to a significant extent in their taste by these offerings. Both groups are very important for understanding how liberalism is killing cinema, not just comedy, by their arrogance.

This movie, this director, and these accolades are a sad, sordid business. If the liberal imagination has come around to the idea that if America disagrees with them, if they lose control of social media, if they have to deal with a democracy, then that’s the apocalypse and we deserve it, we’re in trouble. Satire is a form of art, it implies premeditation, cold reasoning, and a certain humorous detachment. Subtlety, even. This movie reminds us every minute that liberals are not capable of subtlety anymore—they are busy imitating the earnest, insistent, and loud propaganda of 20th-century tyrannies. What if our elites come to identify Progress with annihilation?

Titus Techera

Titus Techera is the executive director of the American Cinema Foundation.