With the Academy Awards coming up on March 27, one film in particular is worth revisiting: “Don’t Look Up,” which was nominated for four Oscars, including best picture.
When Virgil wrote the “Aeneid,” he did not establish a case-by-case argument for why the Romans were superior to the Greeks. Instead, he created an artful parallel narrative that led the reader to that conclusion themselves. The film “Don’t Look Up” uses narrative to convince viewers of its themes with a similar artifice.
It is well known that rational argument is rarely an effective way to convince someone, especially in a culture as polarized and shifty as modern-day America. Those presented with evidence contrary to their worldview may ignore it because of confirmation bias, or, paradoxically, their original view may become even stronger through what is known as the “Backfire Effect.” This is why a narrative like “Don’t Look Up” is such a powerful tool of persuasion: its characters are relatable enough for the audience to understand, but unique enough to give viewers a different perspective. As a result, the audience feels that they have accomplished something by the end of the story, even when they have really been hand-fed information. “Don’t Look Up” accomplishes this so well due to strong character arcs, an impending sense of mortal dread and the use of satirical perspective.
“Don’t Look Up” follows two astronomers: Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his student and Ph.D. candidate Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence). Mindy and Dibiasky discover that an enormous comet is dead set on hitting earth—and yet, no one seems to care.. Dibiasky relates to the world’s willing ignorance in the way any viewer would—she loses her temper. The public construes this as a sign of her being “crazy,” even though extreme emotion is a rational response to such an irrational situation.
We see a similar trend in the political polarization of today. A common trope pushed by people of many political persuasions is the idea of a liberal or millennial “snowflake”—a hypersensitive, perpetually angry person who is unwilling to actually fight for their beliefs. While a caricature of human behavior, there is a kernel of truth in Dibiasky’s and Mindy’s emotional outbursts. “Don’t Look Up” portrays the snowflake trope from the inside—all Dibiasky and Mindy’s efforts turn to vain as their understandably escalating panic goes unnoticed. Suddenly, the other side’s “overreaction” becomes less of an enigma.
The narrative power of “Don’t Look Up” is aided by its strong, believable character arcs. As I mentioned earlier, these arcs are designed to play with the viewer’s emotions, and the contrast between the two protagonists ensures that their story appeals to a variety of personalities. While at the beginning, Dibiasky comes across as quite confident and media competent, her temper quickly leads to instability. She continues to lash out in frustration, ending up shunned, helpless and hopeless. On the other hand, the audience’s first impression of Dr. Mindy, blubbering as he chokes down a Xanax for his crippling anxiety, is that he is socially awkward. However, with the excitement of fame and a new romantic affair, Mindy sells out and gains a great deal of confidence. This leads to his own breakdown as he loses his family and realizes just how vapid his new life is.
If I’m being honest, I found it extremely difficult to sit through the entirety of “Don’t Look Up” precisely because of how effective its narrative is. The mounting tension and absurdity, even in a satirical light, genuinely shook me; I was disturbed by America’s dogged ignorance despite a clear existential threat to humanity. Throughout the nearly two and half hour run time and the rest of the night, my heart was pounding, and I felt a palpable sense of dread. We’ve seen this same science denial a million times. Measles is making a comeback for the first time in decades because parents refuse to inoculate their children against all evidence. Hundreds of thousands of people have died from COVID-19, many of whom likely could have survived save a distaste for a certain small strip of cloth. And, finally, though climate change is already having deadly impacts on the world, the American government is content to allow top polluting industries and inefficient urban planning to spew emissions into the air.
The rhetoric of “Don’t Look Up” is so incredibly effective because, once you realize its meaning, you are stunned by the magnitude of the issues facing our nation: it’s no wonder the film is so critically acclaimed. The clear message of “Don’t Look Up” is that that palpable dread is exactly how you should feel every second of the day, knowing it is our nature to ignorantly march our way toward destruction. And there is seemingly nothing we can do to stop it. Dibiasky puts this idea perfectly in one of her public outbursts, reminding us that, yes, we should be scared.
“Well maybe, the destruction of the entire planet isn’t supposed to be fun,” she says. “Maybe, it’s supposed to be terrifying and unsettling, and you should stay up all night every night crying when we’re all one hundred percent for sure gonna fucking die!”