“Don’t Look Up”: Laughing Till It Hurts

Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) and Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DeCaprio) discover a comet in Don’t Look Up. (Niko Tavernise/Netflix)

Human narcissism and all that it has wrought, including the destruction of nature, will finally be our downfall. In the end, McKay isn’t doing much more in this movie than yelling at us, but then, we do deserve it.

— Manohla Dargis, “Tick, Tick, Kablooey!”[i]

God is our refuge and our strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, 
though the earth be moved,
and though the mountains be toppled 
Into the depths of the sea.

— Psalm 46:1-2

Spoiler alert: If you want to see Don’t Look Up with innocent eyes, watch the movie before reading this. It is currently streaming on Netflix.

Kierkegaard once told a parable about the human capacity for denial. A fire broke out backstage in a crowded theater before the performance. With the curtains still drawn, the audience was unaware of the danger, so one of the actors stepped out to warn them. But he was dressed as a clown, and the people thought his cries of alarm must be some kind of joke. The louder he shouted “YOU’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!”, the more they laughed and cheered. By the time they realized the peril for themselves, it was too late. 

“I think,” said the Danish philosopher, “that’s just how the world will end—to general applause.” [ii]

One of the most popular current films, Don’t Look Up, is a farce about the extinction of life on our planet. It dresses its message of disaster and death in a comic premise: most of humanity is either too witless, deluded, or self-absorbed to acknowledge the threat. The more ridiculously the characters behave, the more we laugh—at least until the (literally) bitter end.

Like Kierkegaard’s clown, director and co-writer Adam McKay has serious intentions. “I’ve been really terrified about the climate, the collapse of the livable atmosphere,” he told an interviewer. “It seems to be getting faster and faster. Yet for some reason, it’s not penetrating our culture.”[iii] Since climate change is a gradual process stretching far beyond our attention span, McKay has substituted a more instantaneous disaster for our consideration. In the movie, an immense comet is headed straight for planet Earth. In six months, all living things will be destroyed. 

An astronomy professor at Michigan State, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), and his protégé, Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), discover the comet and try to warn the White House and the world. But their pleas for action go largely unheeded, and things go merrily downhill from there. As Manohla Dargis writes, Don’t Look Up is “a very angry, deeply anguished comedy freakout about how we are blowing it, hurtling toward oblivion. He’s sweetened the bummer setup with plenty of yuks — good, bad, indifferent — but if you weep, it may not be from laughing.” [iv]

In the Oval Office, Randall and Kate try to get the attention of a distracted President, played by Meryl Streep. (Niko Tavernise/Netflix)

During preproduction, the world was struck by a different disaster—the pandemic. The mismanaged Trumpian response, followed by the deadly denialism of the anti-vaxxers, added fuel to the satirical fire. McKay’s parable became as much about COVID as it is about climate change. It was hard to keep the fictional script ahead of the times. McKay said they had to make the film “20% crazier, because reality had played out crazier than the script.” [v]

In most disaster movies, human ingenuity and determination win out in the end, and the world manages to survive. But Don’t Look Up is not so forgiving. Human folly and sin guarantee global extinction. And no matter how much we have been entertained by the stellar cast and amusing scenarios, we are meant to come away unsettled. Complacency is not an option. The theater of Nature is on fire. This is not a drill.

The film has been embraced by the viewing public as well as activists, but many critics have been not only dismissive but contemptuous: “… it’s one joke, told over and over and over again”[vi] … “the attempts at mockery are broad, puerile, and obvious, unintentionally trivializing the issues it seeks to highlight”[vii] … “drowns in its own smugness”[viii] … “its simplistic anger-stoking and pathos-wringing mask the movie’s fundamental position of getting itself talked about while utterly eliding any real sense of politics or political confrontation.”[ix]

David Fear of Rolling Stone is particularly brutal: “… a righteous two-hour lecture masquerading as a satire .…  So caught up in its own hysterical shrieking that it drowns out any laughs, or sense of poignancy, or points it might be trying to make … it’s never able to find a way to crawl out of the tarpit of its own bone-deep despair … it doesn’t mean that one man’s wake-up-sheeple howl into the abyss is funny, or insightful, or even watchable. It’s a disaster movie in more ways than one. Should you indeed look up, you may be surprised to find one A-list bomb of a movie, all inchoate rage and flailing limbs, falling right on top of you.”[x]

There have been more measured critiques. Some find Don’t Look Up heavy-handed and misanthropic. Most of the characters, they say, are too cartoonishly stupid or corrupt to make us care deeply about their fate. Some think the filmmaker is too cynical about our collective capacity to counteract moral blindness and systemic evil, leaving us discouraged rather than empowered. Others, weighing the effectiveness of the relentlessly over-the-top caricatures, ponder “the question of whether our culture has become too depressing, too absurd, too lamentable to satirize.” [xi]

In a lengthy and sober analysis, Eric Levitz judges the comet scenario to be a misleading metaphor for climate change:

“In the film’s populist, polemical account of the ecological crisis, there is … no need for Americans to tolerate significant disruptions to their existing way of life, no vexing question of global redistribution, no compelling benefits from ongoing carbon-intensive growth, and thus no rational or uncorrupted opponent of timely climate action. Don’t Look Up casts the conflict between minimizing climate risk and maximizing near-term economic growth as one pitting the interests of billionaires against those of everyone else.” [xii]

What I find missing in all this criticism is a sense of genre. The lack of political nuance, psychological depth, or aesthetic rigor is beside the point. This film embraces the method of the Italian Commedia dell’Arte, where stock characters “make sport of human foibles and universal complaints while burlesquing the most socially or politically prominent members of a given community.” [xiii]

In the early 20th century, the Commedia model was adapted by Russian “agitprop” theater, “noted for its cardboard characters of perfect virtue and complete evil, and its coarse ridicule.”[xiv]  Agitprop’s aim was not to create great art, but to inspire collective action. In the American 1960s, groups like the San Francisco Mime Troupe practiced a similar “guerilla theater,” whose purpose, as stated in a 1967 manifesto by R. G. Davis, was to criticize “prevailing conditions … expressing what you (as a community) all know but no one is saying … truth that may be shocking and honesty that is vulgar to the aesthete … There is a vision in this theater, and … it is to continue … presenting moral plays and to confront hypocrisy in the society.” [xv]

It’s a playful form of politics, using laughter to dethrone the powers of this world by undermining their pretensions to ultimacy. As the Psalmist says, “God is laughing at them; the Lord has them in derision” (Psalm 2:4). Prophetic mockery is the genesis of revolution. It’s liberating and cathartic. But if it remains merely a way to blow off steam, or a refreshing but temporary lightening of spirit, that is not enough. Action must follow. We must become the change we seek. 

Kate and Randall on a mission to warn the world. (Niko Tavernise/Netflix)

Millions of people have seen Don’t Look Up. Its content and aims are being widely and passionately discussed. Is it a good movie? How accurate is its central metaphor? Which actors stand out? Is it funny? Given the film’s vast global reach and the urgency of the crisis, these become secondary questions. What I want to know is: Does it make a difference? Can it provoke repentance? Will it produce change?

Every preacher and every liturgist wonders the same things. How do our sermons, images, rituals and stories contribute to the transformational mix? In a podcast conversation about the film, Atlantic writer Spencer Kornhaber addresses this issue:

“I think this quest for movies to deliver a message that changes people’s minds is maybe quixotic. There aren’t a ton of works in history like that. But what they do do is give you a set of images and characters and metaphors and clichés that, when they work, become absorbed into our language. They help us talk about the world in ways that are hopefully progressing our discourse and society.” [xvi]

Of course, a film about global annihilation is a hard sell (and released at Christmas, no less!). The prospect of unimaginable loss opens the door to nihilism and despair. Why bother? Why go on? The director himself describes his film as a place where “absurdist, ridiculous comedy lives right next to sadness … so the trickiest part of the movie was to ramp down that tone in the last 20 minutes.” During a script conference before shooting started, one of the producers asked McKay, “Where’s faith in this movie?” And the director, whose mother was a born-again evangelical, exclaimed, “Oh, you’re right. You’re right!” [xvii]  

The last supper in Michigan. (Niko Tavernise/Netflix)

As the comet nears its collision with earth, we see people facing extinction in various ways. Some are praying, some are partying, some are weeping, some are just staring at the sky in disbelief, fear, or hopeless resignation. But in a dining room in East Lansing, Michigan, a small group of friends and family have gathered around a table for a communal last supper. Among them are Randall and Kate. For six months they had tried and failed to awaken humanity to effective action. Now they are back home, choosing neither anger nor despair for their final moments on earth, but gratitude and communion. 

As the food is shared, each of them names something they are grateful for. Then Randall says, “Well, we’re not the most religious here in the Mindy household, but, um, maybe we should say ‘amen?’ Should we do that?”

Most of them are unpracticed in prayer, so this suggestion creates an awkward pause. But Yule, a young Christian skateboarder (Timothée Chalamet), speaks up. “I’ve got this,” he says. Everyone joins hands around the table, and Yule begins to pray:

“Dearest Father, Almighty Creator, we ask for your grace tonight, despite our pride; your forgiveness, despite our doubt. Most of all, Lord, we ask for your love, to soothe us through these dark times. May we face whatever is to come in your divine will with courage and open hearts of acceptance. Amen.” 

Somewhere across the globe, the comet strikes, and an immense tsunami begins to swallow planetary life like the biblical flood. Yes, there is a parodic ark, reserved for the billionaires, bearing them to a justly ironic fate in a galaxy far, far away. But the true ark of the righteous remnant is that Michigan dining room.

In their final minute on earth, the men and women around the table discuss small, ordinary blessings like the store-bought apple pie and the delicious home-brewed coffee. In an inspired ad-lib that had occurred to DiCaprio between takes, Dr. Mindy speaks his last words: 

“Thing of it is, we really did have everything, didn’t we? 
I mean, when you think about it.” 

The simple human beauty of this last supper, more than the script’s many earnest pleadings, makes the film’s best case for preserving the world. It seems no accident that the one who sets the spiritual tone is named Yule, an old word for Christmas. Even at history’s last moment, Love is being made flesh.

Then, as the walls around them begin to disintegrate, the screen goes suddenly dark. The circle of human love has vanished into the Divine Mystery. 

After watching Don’t Look Up, I came across a poem by John Hollander which articulates for me the feeling of this moving finale. “At the New Year” is about the new beginnings that emerge from all the endings—those moments when we feel “every door in the world shutting at once.” Then the poet prays, “let it come at a time like this, not at winter’s / Night,” but “at a golden / Moment just on the edge of harvesting, ‘Yes. Now.’ / … as we go / Quietly on with what we shall be doing, and sing / Thanks for being enabled, again, to begin this instant.” [xviii]

So the apocalypse ends not with a bang, but with a softly spoken thanks for everything. Even when the worst arrives, the answering word is Yes, and the circle of love goes “quietly on with what we shall be doing,” and singing our thanks. Every moment, even the last one, is a gift to be savored. May our own precious moments on this earth be hallowed with gratitude, acceptance, and trust, now and at the hour of our death.


[i] Manohla Dargis, New York Times review of Don’t Look Up (12/23/21): https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/23/movies/dont-look-up-review.html

[ii] Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, Part 1 (1843).

[iii] Adam McKay, quoted in Frederic and Mary Brussat, film review of Don’t Look Up in Spirituality and Practice (Dec. 21, 2021): https://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/films/reviews/view/29113/dont-look-up

[iv] Dargis, “Tick, Tick, Kablooey!” New York Times review (12/23/21).

[v] McKay, q. in David Sims, “Don’t Look Up is a Primal Scream of a Film,” The Atlantic (12/23/21): https://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2021/12/dont-look-up-adam-mckay-netflix-movie/621104/

[vi] Max Weiss, Baltimore Magazine (12/27/21): https://www.baltimoremagazine.com/section/artsentertainment/movie-review-dont-look-up/

[vii] James Berardinelli, Reel Reviews (12/23/21): https://www.reelviews.net/reelviews/don-t-look-up

[viii] Sameen Amer, The News International, Pakistan (1/16/22): https://www.thenews.com.pk/tns/detail/925421-in-the-picture

[ix] Richard Brody, “The Crude Demagogy of Don’t Look Up,” The New Yorker (1/6/22): https://www.newyorker.com/culture/the-front-row/the-crude-demagogy-of-dont-look-up

[x] David Fear, “‘Don’t Look Up…or You Might See One Bomb of a Movie Hurtling Right Toward You,” Rolling Stone (12/24/21): https://www.rollingstone.com/movies/movie-reviews/dont-look-up-review-leonardo-dicaprio-jennifer-lawrence-1268779/

[xi] “Why Are People So Mad About Don’t Look Up?,” The Atlantic podcast (1/14/22): https://www.theatlantic.com/podcasts/archive/2022/01/dont-look-up-satire/621256/

[xii] Eric Levitz, “Don’t Look Up Doesn’t Get the Climate Crisis,” New York Magazine (1/5/22):https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2022/01/dont-look-up-climate-metaphor-review.html

[xiii] Michael William Doyle, “Staging the Revolution: Guerilla Theater as a Countercultural Practice, 1965-1968”: https://www.diggers.org/guerrilla_theater.htm

[xiv] Richard Pipes, Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime, 303, cited in “Agitprop” (Wikipedia).

[xv] Doyle, “Staging the Revolution …”

[xvi] Spencer Kornhaber, “”Why Are People So Mad …?”

[xvii] Adam McKay, interview in Variety, “Adam McKay on the Ending(s) of Don’t Look Up” (Dec. 2021): https://variety.com/2021/film/news/adam-mckay-dont-look-up-ending-spoilers-1235142363/

[xviii] John Hollander (1929-2013), “At the New Year,” in American Religious Poems: An Anthology by Harold Bloom, eds. Harold Bloom & Jesse Zuba (New York: Library of America, 2006), 442-443.

“Don’t mess with our myths!” — Thoughts on Thanksgiving Eve

Ron Cobb’s troubling cartoon in the Los Angeles Free Press has been in my Thanksgiving file for 50 years.

This new Israel the Lord brought by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm over a greater than the Red Sea, and gave them these ends of the earth for their habitation. In a day, with a wonderful alteration such as was never heard of in the world, the remote, rocky, bushy, wild-woody wilderness became for fertileness the wonder of the world, a second Eden, rejoicing and blossoming as a Rose, Beautiful as Tizrah, Comely as Jerusalem.   

— A New England sermon, 17th century

Adam saw it in a brighter sunshine, but never knew the shade of pensive beauty which Eden won from his expulsion. 

— Nathanael Hawthorne, The Marble Faun

Forty years ago, traveling in an old school bus with four other humans and two dogs, I visited New England communes to engage in dialogue about the nature of community. The project, funded by the Episcopal Church, was conceived by the Rev. Bill Teska, a fellow priest who thought the Church had something to learn from grassroots experiments in the nurturing of a common life. 

It was November. Snow was beginning to blanket the land. Whenever we had to sleep in our chilly bus, I regretted that we were one animal short of a three-dog night. New England freezes will test the soul. At a newly-formed commune in Maine, we wondered how their experiment was going. “Ask us in the spring,” they told us. “We haven’t gone through our first winter yet. A commune hasn’t proved it can survive until it’s been through a winter.”

The United States of America has survived some pretty severe winters of discontent, but the storms brewing now have us all on edge in a way that feels unprecedented. We have begun to doubt our survival. 

In reading Colm Toíbín’s The Magician, a novel about the life of Thomas Mann, I was struck by a couple of paragraphs describing Germany in 1934. With a few word changes, they could have been ripped from the headlines of America today:

“Each morning, as they read the newspapers over breakfast, one of them would share an item, a fresh outrage committed by the Nazis, an arrest or confiscation of property, a threat to the peace of Europe, an outlandish claim against the Jewish population or against writers and artists or against Communists, and they would sigh or grow silent. On some days, while reading out an item of news, Katia would say that this was the worst, only to be corrected by Erika, who would have found something even more outrageous.” 

“The Nazis … were street fighters who had taken power without losing their sway over the streets. They managed to be both government and opposition. They thrived on the idea of enemies, including enemies within. They did not fear bad publicity—rather, they actually wanted the worst of their actions to become widely known, all the better to make everyone, even those loyal to them, afraid.” [i]

Sound familiar? What decent soul has not been worn down by the relentless succession of lies, madness, and evil acts over the past five years?  And who does not now tremble at the increasingly overt embrace of violence, fear and hatred as acceptable political tools by a major political party? 

I was born 6 weeks after D-Day. Although I have lived through some troubled times in America, I have never doubted my country’s ability to survive its sins—until this year. Suddenly the American experiment seems shockingly fragile and strangely impermanent. While the majority of Americans may still desire the greater good, the proliferation of bad actors, along with their enablers and dupes, has metastasized into the tens of millions. Our democracy managed to survive January 6th, but not by what anyone could call a comfortable margin. The party that enabled and even fomented insurrection not only refuses to show a shred of shame or remorse, it is actively working to undermine whatever defenses—like voting rights, or an impartial judiciary—remain against future coup attempts.

There is not yet a majority in Congress willing to overturn an election. Nor is a military takeover currently in the cards. But such scenarios are no longer utterly inconceivable. The smell of burning books is already in the air. Where do we go from here?

When the demons run wild in our common life, we cry, “This is not who we are!” The myth of American innocence has been a prevalent theme since the first colonists arrived in the “New World.” Freed of the dead weight of the past, armed with a sense of limitless possibility and buoyant resilience, we (i.e., white Americans) have preferred to think of ourselves as forever young. 

The American, according to the myth, is the new Adam (or Eve) in the new Eden, a “radically new personality, the hero of the new adventure: an individual emancipated from history, happily bereft of ancestry, untouched and undefiled by the usual inheritances of family and race; an individual standing alone, self-reliant and self-propelling, ready to confront whatever awaited him with the aid of his own unique and inherent resources.” [ii]   

However, the preservation of this myth requires an immense labor of forgetting. Slavery, racism, the Native American genocide, xenophobia, mob violence, misogyny, environmental destruction and countless other sins do not fit the narrative of innocence. If myth’s stabilizing power lies in both conscious and unconscious agreement about our collective memory (“This is who we are!”), stirring up the troubling ghosts of historical evidence poses a threat to our sense of cohesion and identity. Tradition loses its binding force if it is allowed to be put into question. 

“Don’t mess with our myths!” is the rallying cry of the far right, who have shown their willingness to destroy America in order to save their version of it. But the rest of us should not feel too secure within our own fictions of innocence. We have yet to resolve our legacy of racism. We seem incapable of addressing our propensity for violence. And our lifelong assumptions about American democracy have been plunged into doubt. When fascism infected Europe in the 1930s, Americans said, “It can’t happen here.” In these latter days, we know better. It can. 

Okay, this all seems a little grim for Thanksgiving Eve. But if our current crisis forces us to reexamine and reform the foundations of our common life, perhaps we can be thankful for that. For people of faith, the survival of life as we know it is never the highest good. As we reminded ourselves last Sunday on the Feast of Christ the King, we are not in charge of history, and don’t have to be in love with particular outcomes of transitory events. Empires rise, empires fall. The Kingdom of God—the reign of self-diffusive love—is the only thing that endures, because it knows the secret of dying and rising. Therefore, even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia! [iii]

Even as the mountains tumble into the sea, the holy Mystery whispers “Rise! Rise!” into every moment, even the most forlorn. For that, I give thanks.

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved, 
or the mountains tumble into the sea; 
though the waters of chaos rage and foam, 
though the mountains tremble at its tumult,
the Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold. 

— Psalm 46: 1-4

Mount Rainier dawn (March 4, 2015)

Previous Thanksgiving posts:

Utopian Dreams and Cold Realities: A Thanksgiving Homily

Trying to Get Home for Thanksgiving



[i] Colm Toíbín, The Magician (New York: Scribner, 2021), 229 & 231.

[ii] R. W. B. Lewis, The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955), 5.

[iii] The Burial Office, Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, 499.