A Marxist Analysis and Critique of “Don’t Look Up”

dont look up
Capitalism is a form of life riddled with social antagonisms. Every Marxist knows this well. Most have been using the effects these antagonisms produce to predict the fall of capitalism for the last century and a half. However, like the weebles wobble toys from the early 2000s, these contradictions have wobbled capitalism, but have yet (in the West at least), made it fall. There are many causes which one could point at as the source of capitalism’s ability to pull its head out when its internal contradictions have sunk it the deepest. In the West, one of the central reasons one must point to is the efficiency with which the ideological apparatuses have been able to consistently reproduce mass acquiescence, even in the times when crisis have been the most intensified.

The film industry has been one of the key modes through which this acquiescence has been perpetuated. Throughout the last century Hollywood has been at the forefront of perpetuating the ideals, values, and beliefs of bourgeois society to the working masses. However, the form through which this ideological containment takes place isn’t always the same – not all movies are in-your-face about their support for imperialism, capitalism, consumerism, etc. Some take up the role of perpetuating bourgeois ideology through a critique of the blatant irrationalities encountered in our current form of life. These deceptive ones, which through criticism perpetuate in subtle and implicit ways the ideology of capital, play the most important role in the moments where capitalism is in crisis and discontent is assured to spread amongst the working masses.

In an age when American capitalism is facing an unprecedented crisis which combines the contradictions of capitalism at home (workers strikes and en masse quitting, barbaric income inequality, homelessness, child hunger, a large chunk of the population drowning in debts of various forms – medical, school, etc.), with an empire in decline (rising global influence of China, rise of new Latin American socialist wave, etc.), and a global pandemic (whose fumble has led to 900 thousand deaths in our country); it is not surprising that we now encounter numerous ‘anti-capitalist’ movies and shows. In light of this, we wish to discuss the limits of this emerging ‘anti-capitalist’ media and how they may, in various implicit and perhaps unconscious ways, perpetuate mass acquiescence to a moribund capitalism. To do this, we will focus on the Christmas Eve released film “Don’t Look Up”.

Synopsis of the Film

​“Don’t Look Up”, a film co-written by the Bernie Sanders senior advisor and speech writer, David Sirota, brings together numerous household name A-listers like Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Cate Blanchett, Meryl Streep, Jonah Hill, Matthew Perry, Ariana Grande and Tyler Perry to depict an existential comet crisis facing humanity within six months of its discovery. An astronomy professor (DiCaprio) and one of his PhD candidates (Lawrence) find a comet twice the size of the one that made the dinosaurs extinct heading right towards earth. Its impact, calculated on finding to be within six months and 14 days, is suggested to have the capacity to end all life on earth.

Upon taking this information to the president (Streep), the pair finds an administration skeptical and indifferent to their findings and concludes their day-delayed meeting by telling them they will “sit tight and assess.” The administration’s inactivity leads them to leak the finding to the media, an action which culminates in a TV appearance for a cable news network. The story, however, did not get any traction. The media pundits (Tyler Perry and Blanchett) leave the story for last and mock the seriousness with which the story is depicted; this leads Lawrence to blow up and quickly turn into a meme.

After the failed leak, which culminated in the Lawrence meme and the general public’s appreciation of DiCaprio as an AILF (Astronomer I’d Like to F), the crisis finally receives some attention by the administration when it becomes politically favorable for them to distract from a recent scandal which had been dropping the president’s polling numbers. In this apparently optimistic moment, the administration devices a plan to deviate the direction of the comet and save the planet.

As the plan was in play, and the shuttles en route, the whole thing gets shut down when the third richest man in the world (Mark Rylance), tech capitalist and prime funder for the president’s campaign, finds the comet contains hundreds of trillions of dollars in resources which are becoming limited on earth.

Under the banner of ending hunger and other noble claims, the focus shifts from rerouting the comet to mining it for profit. DiCaprio, who was the only one of the original discoverers who was allowed in the meeting concerning the change in strategy, is offered a position in the president’s administration to legitimize and promote the new plan as safe and beneficial for the public good. This leads to a splinter between Lawrence, who wanted to fight against this, and DiCaprio, who felt that him being inside could assure the necessary overwatch so that things wouldn’t get out of control. This splinter is removed when DiCaprio notices none of the plans are peer-reviewed and that every scientist who has questioned this has been removed from their position.

After privatizing decisions over the comet to include only the American tech capitalist and the American government, we find out that China, Russia, and India collaborated on their own project to deviate the route of the comet. This project, to the detriment of humanity, was sabotaged by a bombing of their station. Although not explicitly said, it is implied that this bombing was an action from the US to protect its risky, but profitable plans for dealing with the comet.

After a mass “Just Look Up” movement to counter comet skepticism and the profit-driven concerns of dealing with this planet-killing force ultimately fails, the mining options comes forth as the only plan available for dealing with the comet. As scientifically expected, this plan fails to control the comet in the ways it predicted doing so, and ultimately, all life on earth is lost. This excludes 2000 of the tech capitalist’s friends (including the president) who had a plan B of leaving the planet until a humanly habitable one was found. This quest took over 20 thousand years in which the passengers’ lives were artificially sustained until, as the movies’ epilogue shows, they were able to find a new planet and exit the shuttle, in an Adam and Eve manner, into their new garden.

The Film’s Anti-Capitalism

​“Don’t Look Up” does a great job at depicting how a profit driven system is incapable of dealing with existential crisis threatening human and planetary life. The movie, originally conceived as a metaphor for the incoming intensification of the climate crisis, depicts how politicians are bound to political games and scandal maneuvering to keep their poll numbers high and their donors happy. It depicts, further, how the media works as a sheer lapdog to those in power, whose central role is to keep the masses entertained in celebrity gossip and ignorant of the non-fun issues which concern human life. Additionally, it depicts how these conditions (which arise when the state and its institutions are merely the tools of the owners of capital) create fertile grounds for erroneous and dangerous forms of anti-science skepticism – such as the Don’t Look Up crowd in the movie, or the climate change (or covid) deniers in real life.

Besides its critique of the influence of money in politics and the media, “Don’t Look Up” also does a great job at depicting how actions which are profitable but endanger life (such as the mining of the comet), require an ethical gloss to conceal the real reasons for which the actions are taken. The public must be blinded from the profit-driven and capitalist-controlled reasons for the new plan to mine the comet. These actions are masked by the seemingly benevolent aims of curing hunger, poverty, and providing jobs, all which supposedly would come with the mining of the comet. The fact that all of these could be done with the existing resources, while preventing the highly risky (and ultimately failed) strategy of the comet mining plan, is also concealed.

This is an important critique of how profit driven policies are legitimized in the US, both at home and abroad. The public can never know the real reasons for the US’s involvement in the Middle East, Latin America, Africa, China, etc. The capitalist, corporate-profit driven nature of these expeditions must be concealed by a benevolent veil of ‘spreading democracy’ or ‘fighting human rights abuses’. Whatever fabrications and atrocity propaganda is needed to help manufacture consent for these actions will be duly provided. Actions which benefit a small percentage of people, namely – major capitalists, their media pundits, and political puppets, are necessarily sold as serving the ‘common good’. Those who would have benefited from the mining of the comet were not those (poor and working people) tokenized to formally justify a policy which led to the death of life on the planet.

The movie also shows how attempts to work within the existing structures of power are usually futile. DiCaprio’s position in the president’s administration gave him no power to change the course of events and the life-threating route of the administration’s plans. Ultimately, DiCaprio, along with Lawrence, find a beyond-institutional form of resisting as the best route to fight back. Instead of focusing on infiltrating individuals into the ruling circles, they realize only a mass movement (Just Look Up), can bring about change. This, ultimately, shifts the agent of progressive change from high profiled benevolent individuals, towards active masses as the protagonists of their own future.

Although this ultimate failure of the mass movement might lead socialists to claim that the movie, although critical of capitalism, in depicting the end of the world before the end of capitalism, ultimately enforces what Mark Fisher called ‘capitalist realism’, this examination would be superficial. It is true that the movie depicts an apocalyptic end of planetary life and not an end to the forms of social intercourse whose mismanagement of the crisis led to the dreadful apocalyptic end. However, in comparison to a movie like “The Platform” or a show like “Squid Game” – both of which are critical of capitalism while enforcing a form of ‘capitalist realism’ – “Don’t Look Up” is much closer to envisioning an alternative than either of the former two. This is not because it is able to draw up a post-capitalist world, but because it depicts a form of struggle which is aimed at a world in which the irrationalities of the existing order are eliminated.

It is in collective struggle in which a new world begins to be crafted. In “The Platform” and “Squid Game”, the struggles of the protagonists are not directed against the existing order, but against people who, like them, are just trying to survive. In “Don’t Look Up”, on the other hand, survival is not a matter of individuals sinking others to stay alive, but of individuals coming together to collectively struggle for a form of life which prioritizes people and planet over profit. In “Don’t Look Up” capitalist realism is transcended in a mass struggle which, although ultimately failing, aims at a world which resolves the antagonisms which allow the existing form of life to risk planetary death if it means the enrichment of a few. The film is not just critical, in the various scenes of the Just Look Up movement, shallow as some of them may be, the seeds of envisioning a new form of life are present. If anything, the film suggests that we ought not to delay these collective efforts by convincing ourselves that those in power will ‘fix’ or ‘manage’ things according to the common good. To survive we must take things into our own hands, and like the comet in the film, with climate change the clock is also ticking.

Limitations in the Film’s Anti-Capitalism

​However, there are certain limitations in the film’s anti-capitalism that ought to be noted. These center primarily around the usage of the comet as a metaphor for climate change. Although metaphors are not meant to be direct comparisons, the comparison effective in a metaphor should share the essence (nature or central characteristics) of that which it is a metaphor of. When we compare the comet crisis in the film to the climate crisis we face in the real world, we find the two crisis have fundamentally different natures – one is a result of an inevitable cosmic event humans had no control over (the comet), and the other is the result of the last 70 years of fossil capitalism (climate change).

The gap between the metaphor and a systematic understanding of climate change is far too wide; either 1) the comet is not a metaphor for climate change, 2) the movie writers do not have a systematic understanding of climate change, 3) the movie writers do have a systematic understanding of climate change but wish to limit their blame of capitalism to a question of management, and not blame it as the source of the climate crisis itself.

Option number 1) fails because the writers have been very explicit about the fact that the comet is a metaphor for climate change. The covid crisis and its effects, although much more aligned to the comet metaphor (in the sense that unlike climate change, there is a greater level of arbitrariness with covid’s emergence in relation to human activity), arises a year or so after the original planning for the movie. Therefore, it would be more honest to consider climate change the counterpart of the comet metaphor, and to thereby judge it on its ability to metaphorically express the depth and complexity of climate change as its counterpart.

Having established climate change as the comet metaphor’s counterpart, we must now ask the critical question – what is the condition for the possibility of the current climate crisis? That is, what does the climate crisis presuppose? The answer is simple, a system which prioritizes the expansion of capital, and specifically since WW2 fossil fuel-based capital, over human and non-human planetary life.

The capitalist form of life is at the root of the climate crisis; the climate crisis is not the consequence of a contingent cosmic event, but of the social relations the mass of humanity has been coerced and/or convinced to participate in over the last century. In the posing of the crisis there is a fundamental discrepancy between the film’s comet and climate change; the missing piece corresponding to the gulf between the comet metaphor and its counterpart is a critical and systematic understanding of capitalism as the source of climate change.

But is the movie not successful in critiquing capitalism and it’s failed management of the crisis? Yes, but when it fails to understand that the crisis capitalism fails to manage is a self-created crisis, the understanding of the issue, and subsequently, the critique of capitalism, is castrated – the root is ignored, the focus is limited to the stem and leaves.

We must not forget the social democratic positioning of the writers behind the film, for the shortcomings of the film are but the cinematic reflection of the shortcomings of social democracy. In both case the root is always ignored. In the movie, the comet metaphor necessarily limits the critique of the existing order to one of management, and in so doing, leaves the role the existing order played in creating the problem unexamined. In the case of social democrats, the focus is always on the realm of distribution, the relations of production which lay at the root of the problem of distribution (observed by them as a problem of income inequality) is also left unobserved. Therefore, it seems like option (2), grounded on an ignorance of the systematic nature of the issue at hand, applies more fittingly to the limitation in the comet metaphor since ignorance of the systemic root of issues is a staple of social democracy’s ‘anti-capitalism’.

However, the result of this is that the adjustment, the ‘fix’, always stems out of a realm whose ground is left unexamined. For instance, the social democrats’ solutions to the problems posed by the antagonisms in capitalism usually revolve around taxation and creating more equitable institutions for distributing the taxed loot accumulated by Western capitalists through their imperialist expropriation of foreign lands and their exploitation of foreign and national working masses.

The limitations of the movie’s anti-capitalism, then, are simply the reflected limitations of social democracy. The failure of the comet metaphor in accurately depicting the nature of its counterpart crisis (climate change), stems from the lack of a critical, dialectical materialist approach to examining the world. In this failure, the movie, like social democracy, leaves itself open to being the sort of anti-capitalism that is friendly to capitalism; an anti-capitalism which poses the problem of capitalism as one of management, and not as a problem grounded in the asymmetric and exploitative social relations at the core of the system.

The film is, in terms of critique, a step forward from the capitalist ‘realist’ anti-capitalist media we have seen over the last few years. However, it fails to go down deep enough to grasp the root of the issue, and this failure leaves it open to playing the historical role of social democracy – that is, a role which ultimately sides with, and serves in moments of crisis, capital and imperialism.

Under certain historical and geographical circumstances this ‘anti-capitalist’ limitation found in social democracy (and in the film), does not represent an antagonistic contradiction to those striving for socialism. Under these circumstances, alliances and coalitions can be made. At other times these limitations cut the legs of the socialist movement and breed factionalism and unhealthy forms of class collaborationism. In these circumstances, where an irreconcilable antagonism between the two exists, socialists should refrain from alliances and coalitions.

Today the socialist movement in the US finds itself somewhere in between. The film, as the cinematic expression of the ambiguity of social democracy, ought to be appreciated in its progressive and anti-capitalist aspects, but also critiqued in the limitations present in these.

Carlos L. Garrido is a Cuban American graduate student and instructor in philosophy at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. His research focuses include Marxism, Hegel, and early 19th century American socialism. His academic work has appeared in Critical Sociology, The Journal of American Socialist Studies, and Peace, Land, and Bread. Along with various editors from The Journal of American Socialist Studies, Carlos is currently working on a serial anthology of American socialism. His popular theoretical and political work has appeared in Monthly Review OnlineCovertAction MagazineThe International Magazine, The Marx-Engels Institute of PeruCountercurrentsJanata WeeklyHampton Institute, Orinoco TribuneWorkers TodayDelinkingElectronic AnarchyFriends of Socialist China, and in Midwestern Marx, which he co-founded and where he serves as an editorial board member. As a political analyst with a focus on Latin America (esp. Cuba) he has been interviewed by Russia Today and has appeared in dozens of radio interviews in the US and around the world.

Originally published in Mid Western Marx

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