Don’t look up | Number 151

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Dylan Skurka marvels at the human ability to ignore existential threats.

One morning in the market square, as the townspeople are enjoying what they think is the start of a day like any other, a disheveled man holding a lantern appears out of nowhere. “I seek God! I seek God! he starts shouting indiscriminately at anyone and everyone. Soon, a crowd forms around this one-person sight, and once they figure out what’s going on, the townspeople can’t help but burst out laughing at the ridiculous sight of someone pretty crazy to seek God with a lantern. The madman, more and more impatient not to be taken seriously, ends up replying curtly to his audience: “Where is God? I’ll tell you. We killed him, you and me!

Stunned, the townspeople stop laughing and now stand there in a daze. Fed up with his vain efforts to make himself heard, the madman ends up smashing his lantern on the ground in a final fit of rage, and leaves, issuing a final enigmatic warning to the inhabitants:

“I came too early; my time has not yet come. This tremendous event is always on the way, always wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder take time; starlight takes time; acts, even accomplished, still require time to be seen and heard. This act is even further from them than most distant stars – and yet they did it themselves.
(gay scienceFrederic Nietzsche, 1882)

Nietzsche’s parable of the madman, written at the end of the 19th century, turned out to be strangely relevant. The Western world was for the most part blissfully unaware of the fact that at this time science and atheistic criticism were busy replacing (or to use Nietzsche’s terminology, killing) God as the primary source of truth, let alone aware of the disastrous death of God would turn out to be (see the nihilistic desperation that would soon propel the rise of National Socialism, Communism and catalyze World Wars I and II). Calling such a big philosophical cat a cat at the time, however, proved too incomprehensible for most people to understand, and so the Nietzschean prophets were gleefully dismissed as berserk. They had come too soon; their time had not yet come.

Fast forward to today. Imagine waking up one morning and checking out the digital marketplace called “Twitter” as you got out of bed. You see a video dominate your feed – a man shouting that a comet is six months away from hitting Earth and that “We’re all going to die!” Certain this is some kind of bad joke, you do some research and learn that the screaming man is actually a well-respected astronomer and his findings are backed up by a number of peer-reviewed journals. .

How would you react to that? Besides, how the world react?

These are some of the questions that Adam McKay’s hugely ambitious film Don’t look up (2021) tackles, and if you tend to see the good in humanity and are optimistic that we will always prevail no matter what disaster comes our way, you might feel a bit downcast once the end credits are over. Ok, maybe very beaten down.

Don't look up
Film Images © Netflix 2021

Comet? No comment

The film begins with a discovery made by Michigan State astronomy doctoral student Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) and her supervisor, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), who learn to their surprise and horror that a comet the size of Everest is six months away from hitting. Earth and causing a mass extinction.

You might think that this kind of information would be easy to get across to people, and that everyone’s top priority once they got the message would be to do everything in their power to stop the comet from hitting the Earth, and that the gravity of the situation would take away all those mindless, inconsequential worries or fixations that consume everyone’s life. But have you seen humanity lately? Unlike the sudden threat posed by a collision with a massive object from outer space in the film, the world we live in faces the existential threat of a rapidly changing climate. Climate change, of course, is a much less sexy apocalypse, since it’s gradual rather than instantaneous, but both paths lead to the same result: if we don’t act soon, we’re screwed. Kate and Randall realize this immediately after making their discovery.

The first part of the film explores the nausea-inducing anxiety the two share as they bear the brunt of having to break this colossal bad news to the public. Their first order of business is to tell the President of the United States (the Trump-like Janie Orlean, played by Meryl Streep) what’s going on, so they can be given the green light to execute a plan to protect the Earth. of the comet. The following round trips ensue:

Orleans: What will it cost me? What is the demand here?

Mindy: There are government plans in place, actions we can take through NASA, drones that can be fitted with nukes to deflect and hopefully change the orbit of this comet. We must act now.

Orleans : (slightly irritated) Alright, alright, alright, alright. When are the mid-terms? Three weeks? So if it breaks before that, we lose Congress, and we can’t do anything anyway. The timing is just…excruciating. Right now, I say we sit back and assess.

Dibiasky: Am I to understand correctly that after all the information you have received today, the decision you are making is sit and evaluate?

Orleans: I have a job to do.

The so-called “worthy leader” of their country, Kate and Randall quickly learn, is completely useless in the face of a looming global crisis.

To make matters worse, apparently everyone else the two turn to for help — or at the very least, for some validation — is just as aggressively oblivious. For example, after appearing on the popular talk show The daily tearand once again revealing their horrifying discovery to his hosts, all they get in return are tasteless banter and bad jokes: “Okay, well, like [the comet is] damaging, will it affect this particular house that is right on the Jersey Shore? This is my ex-wife’s house! To make matters worse, the show’s audience barely reacts to the revelation of the impending doomsday event – but reacts to Kate’s meltdown after getting fed up with not being taken seriously by people who make fun of her with memes! Randall, on the other hand, maintains his composure and is greeted by the audience as a sympathetic scientist; but, again, the obvious point is missed: that a comet is six months away from a catastrophic impact on Earth and action must be taken immediately.

Even Randall and Kate prove to be not immune to their own distraction, as Randall gets caught up in his newfound stardom as a public figure, and nothing seems to bother Kate more than the fact that she’s being ripped off for paying fees. free snacks while she waits for the President to arrive at the White House.

At the end [spoiler alert]after the president momentarily agrees to go through with a plan to destroy the comet, in a desperate attempt to win back public support after being embroiled in a scandal, she eventually backs down when a billionaire tech guru convinces that the comet can be mined for valuable resources.

Don't look up
Randall and Kate look up

incredible truths

As I watched these scenes unfold, partially broken, partially amused, I couldn’t fathom what was craziest: the fact that the majority of the characters in this movie didn’t understand that things like job security , financial gain, and public image are meaningless if no one is alive to benefit from it; or the fact that the film reflected real life so much that it didn’t even feel like satire. To top it all off, put yourself in the shoes of the characters: are you sure you wouldn’t be so absurdly short-sighted yourself? I can’t say for sure that I wouldn’t.

Needless to say, by the time the gravity of the situation finally begins to sink in (pun intended), it’s too late. The world can no longer be saved. Once Randall comes to his senses after being drunk on his own stardom, he shatters his own proverbial lantern on live television and delivers a feverish monologue of Nietzschean proportions:

“Would you please stop being so nice?” I’m sorry, but not everything has to sound so smart or charming or likeable all the time. Sometimes we just need to be able to tell each other things – we need to hear things… If we can’t all agree at the bare minimum that a giant comet the size of Mount Everest heading towards planet Earth is not af * ** It’s a good thing, so what happened to us? I mean, my God, how do we talk to each other? What have we done to each other?”

What finally makes Don’t look up so disturbing is that it’s hard to see how the real world would behave any differently compared to satire. Do politicians ever not Prioritize the success of their campaigns over the principles their campaigns are supposed to uphold? Will the media ever not prioritize flashy new titles over very familiar but still pressing issues? Will the rest of us as a group not prioritize our own immediate interests and distractions over the long-term interests of the human species as a whole?

You could say that to do otherwise — to face the darkness of our times head-on — would be enough to drive someone crazy. But in the end, what’s crazier: being so in touch with a dark reality that everyone doesn’t know you’re losing your mind in the process? Or being so caught up in the mundane things in your own life that you don’t even notice you’re in danger in the first place?

When the townspeople laughed at the madman who warned them that God was being killed, they failed to see that the joke, in the end, was on them.

© Dylan Skurka 2022

Dylan Skurka is a PhD candidate in philosophy at York University in Canada. His research focuses on the philosophy of psychology, existentialism and environmental ethics.

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