Note: This post contains mild spoilers for the Netflix movie Don’t Look Up and has some political content. You have been warned. But it does get to some writing advice.
The newish Netflix movie Don’t Look Up has been generating a heady mix of enthusiastic praise and enthusiastic scorn. For the uninitiated: a massive extinction-level comet is headed straight toward earth, and two scientists try to sound the alarm to the government and media.
It does not go well.
I was eager to watch it because I have a massive amount of esteem for Adam McKay, who has had a hand in some of my very favorite movies and TV shows from the past twenty years. I had also heard it was a primal scream of a parable about our woefully inadequate response to the civilizational threat of climate change, and yeah… It’s definitely time for a good scream.
Don’t Look Up has its moments, and there are lots of people who loved it, but, well, you read the headline of this post. For me it’s a parable of the dangers of working too stridently from the starting message when crafting a fictional narrative.
The worst moment in Don’t Look Up
My reservations about the movie are encapsulated in a key moment about three quarters of the way in.
Once the threatening comet is visible in the night sky, the scientists settle on a really simple message to counter the people who are skeptical the comet is a real danger: Just look up. The Trump-lite president with a photo of Bill Clinton on her desk, played by Meryl Streep, has decided on a path of denialism and encourages her followers to not look up, hence the message “Don’t look up.”
At a campaign rally, a regular joe wearing the Don’t Look Up equivalent of a MAGA hat turns away from a crowd chanting “Don’t look up” and instead decides to look up. He sees the comet and finally realizes he had been lied to. He literally says, “They fucking lied to us!” and then the crowd immediately starts throwing bottles at the president’s son.
Woo! It was just that easy! They just had to look up! Too bad they looked up too late!
Five Thanksgivings after the 2016 election and one pandemic later, I would think people would grasp that this just isn’t how it works.
Satire needs to hit the mark
Getting a conservative to face facts and see the light is, of course, the ultimate liberal fantasy. Liberals, believing themselves to be in possession of the empirical truth, feel that they stand athwart a tide of disciples of lying charlatans, duped against their own best interests. If only average joe Republicans were just in possession of the right set of facts (if only they “looked up”), well, then they would think exactly what liberals think! But by the time conservatives see the light, liberals worry, it might be too late.
As Neal Stephenson points out in a fascinating recent interview, people use different methods to arrive at what they believe to be true. As a group, I would hypothesize that college-educated liberals are more likely to utilize a version of the scientific method, where competing evidence is weighed in order to arrive at a sense of what they believe to be true. When new, convincing evidence emerges, particularly from authoritative sources, what’s true evolves accordingly, just as Newton’s physics gave way to Einstein’s.
Some conservatives also use a version of the scientific method and just reach different conclusions. But many others use more faith-oriented belief systems where “truth” can’t be measured, and the ultimate arbiter of the truth (whether it’s a faith leader or business leader or politician) holds greater sway than equivalents in liberal circles. (Some liberals also put great stock in particular leaders and think in faith-based ways, I’m just pointing out relative prevalence within the two groups).
This is why presenting facts to your conservative uncle about immigration policy at Thanksgiving will often result in him just maddeningly shifting the goalposts or abruptly changing his reasoning. Facts are less important than a more faith-based sense of what’s true.
We should know by now that the “look up” moment just isn’t believable. That crowd would not look up and see one fact and immediately change its mind. Don’t Look Up isn’t taking its villains seriously. It doesn’t really succeed at skewering anyone because it’s not transcending a liberal fantasy about our current moment. And it’s not self-aware enough to point its satire in the mirror.
The best moments of Don’t Look Up
What’s interesting to me about this misfire is that Adam McKay has made much of his career featuring retrograde male characters (Ron Burgundy, Ricky Bobby, etc.) who still manage to be likable, and has shown himself more than capable of empathizing with people who think differently than he does. (I mean, he made a whole movie about Dick Cheney.)
In Don’t Look Up, we sort of have the inverse of a typical McKay character in the scientists played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, who, feeling immense and well-intentioned pressure to convince the world to save itself, succumb to the perils of celebrity and nihilism respectively, before clawing their way back to their more authentic selves.
The problem is that this complexity and range of positive and negative qualities do not extend to the villains. Streep’s president character is a distracted and flat opportunist, her son (Jonah Hill) is petty and malevolent, Mark Rylance’s Elon Musk/Jack Dorsey mashup is hollow and venal. The closest we have to a more complex villain is Cate Blanchett’s morning talk show host, a vapid ball of sunshine on the air and a razor sharp operator off the air, but the movie doesn’t end up doing much with her.
The best modern satire, whether it’s Get Out or Veep or Succession (which McKay is involved with) pulls off the trick of showing what is chillingly appealing about its villains and the systems they’re avatars for. Even as we hate the villains, we can see their power and sometimes even their appeal.
But Don’t Look Up isn’t really that kind of a satire. Instead, as McKay has been pretty honest about, it’s a primal scream. It’s a polemic.
Polemics flatten the villains
The danger of writing polemical fiction is that you risk not taking your villains seriously and representing them in a way that feels inauthentic. When you only demonize an opposing point of view and engage insufficiently with what’s appealing about the villains, you’ll often end up in a scenario where you’re not succeeding at either persuasion or realism. It’s not working as a good story, nor is it going to convince anyone either.
The best fiction bestows its villains with great and realistic power. In classic genre fiction, the villain is usually almost-but-not-quite as powerful as the protagonist. This means everything about the protagonist, from their beliefs to their abilities, are tested in the most intense ways possible. The protagonist has to grow and evolve in order to win.
In great satire, the villains often win because the dark systems are so entrenched and powerful (e.g. Dr. Strangelove), and yet we don’t entirely hate the villains either. And this implicates us. We could do more about the villains among us, but this is (so far) how we’ve allowed the world to exist.
When you don’t take your opponent seriously, your argument is easy to dismiss. You might find a sympathetic audience with the true believers on your side, but you’ll struggle to find audiences elsewhere (I suspect this is reflected in the critical reactions to Don’t Look Up).
There’s a lot that feels precarious about the world and many authors are grappling with how best to change perceptions about everything from attitudes toward race to climate change. Many of us want to do something, and since what we know how to do is write stories, that’s how we try to help.
My advice: Focus first on writing a good story with realistic characters, try to see what’s appealing about your villains, and make it a fair fight.
Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!
For my best advice, check out my online classes (NEW!), my guide to writing a novel and my guide to publishing a book.
And if you like this post: subscribe to my newsletter!
Art: Comet C/1858 L1 (Donati) by E. Weiß