Don't Look Up has been celebrated as an influential piece of environmental cinema. But what if it encourages us to actually think less about the urgency of mobilising to address climate change?
Stanley Kubrick's famous 1964 film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is viewed as one of the greatest pieces of political satire in 20th-century cinema. It parodies the Cold War and the growing anxiety around nuclear destruction directly after the Cuban missile crisis, poking fun at the absurdities of the United States government's "mutually assured destruction" policy. At the time many reviewers commented on the film's effectiveness as anti-nuclear propaganda, saying that now the truth of nuclear proliferation had been laid bare on celluloid for all to see, its end was surely in sight.
However, Thomas Disch's 1998 book, The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World, which examines the impact of science fiction on popular culture, suggests that Dr. Strangelove had almost entirely the opposite effect. Instead of mobilising effective action against nuclear proliferation, the film normalised the idea of nuclear disaster, rendering it a less urgent political issue in subsequent years. As he writes: "The stored-up anxieties of almost two decades of nuclear anxiety were released in a Saturnalia of laughter that for many of us actually made good on the promise of the subtitle: we learned to stop worrying and to live with (if not to love) the bomb."
Counterintuitive as this may seem, "even the strangest love of all, the death wish", writes Disch, "can be taught to sing enchantingly". This phenomenon – whereby popular depictions of our anxieties don't address their underlying causes as intended, but instead release us from feeling their effects as profoundly – is described by philosopher Robert Pfaller as "interpassivity".
And it is perhaps the idea of interpassivity, which cultural theorists such as Slavoj Žižek and Mark Fisher have further popularised in recent years, that provides the best lens for examining what is undoubtedly the most discussed film of 2021, Don't Look Up.
Written, produced and directed by Adam McKay, who is best known for his collaborations with comedian Will Ferrell on box office fodder such as Anchorman and Talladega Nights, Don't Look Up adopts the satirical tone of Dr. Strangelove as it turns its attention to climate change, social indifference, denial, and the ineptitude and distorted priorities of the US government.
Long-time environmental activists and climate scientists have lauded the film for speaking the truth about our horrifying collective reaction – or lack thereof – to continuing climate collapse. There is a widely shared sense, as there was with Dr. Strangelove, that it will have a positive impact on societal views and political action around climate change (although it has also been panned by several critics). Like that earlier piece of political satire, however, it may be that Don't Look Up is a textbook case of interpassivity.
The delegation of consumption
Perhaps the clearest description of this phenomenon is in Pfaller's book, Interpassivity: The Aesthetics Of Delegated Enjoyment, in which he describes "an actor who, while playing the role of a dead person, suddenly gets a tickle in the nose from the dust of the stage and sneezes". The spectators burst into laughter, but Pfaller asks us to consider what exactly is so funny. He writes that as the audience knows "quite well that the actor was not dead, it seems that they are laughing at the imagined astonishment of somebody who did not know what they knew".
Further examples of interpassivity include the 1980s practice of obsessively recording television programmes on video cassettes, which Pfaller says serves the strange function of allowing the video recorder to "watch" the programmes on our behalf, sparing us the labour of watching them ourselves. He also provides the example of museums, which "do not fulfil their main function by being visited"; instead "their greater usefulness consists in knowing that the art in them is in good hands and that one does not need to constantly visit them in order to see it".
We can also consider the role of canned laughter in sitcoms, where the aim is not so much to notify us of the right time to laugh as to perform the function of laughing for us. As Žižek says, interpassivity operates through a kind of delegation of consumption. "Even if, tired from a hard day's stupid work, all evening we did nothing but gaze drowsily into the television screen," he says, "we can say afterwards that objectively, through the medium of the other, we had a really good time."
In general, Pfaller says, "if one act (for example, reading a book) is for some reason not possible, then another one (for example, copying the book) can assume the same function". Photocopying provides "partial relief from the tension that had originally been connected with the wish to read the book".
"Precisely there," writes Pfaller, "where it is suggested that they become self-conscious subjects people seize interpassive means to flee into self-forgetfulness."
There is a sense in which Don't Look Up performs this function of interpassivity. Those favourably, and occasionally smugly, discussing the film as a positive intervention in climate activism are almost like the audience laughing at the actor who accidentally sneezes. They all know the reality of the climate crisis, but have to imagine some other viewer – a hypothetical persona or even a video recorder or Netflix viewing suggestion, similar to what Žižek calls the Big Other – who has had the truth revealed to them in order to view the film as effective in this way.
The potential power of film
More broadly, it may be that interpassivity in contemporary culture allows us to delegate our hopes, fears and desires for change to popular media, disempowering us and producing a fleeting feeling of empowerment in a single stroke. Pixar's Wall-E, for example, as Fisher writes in his seminal book Capitalist Realism, makes use of a similar ironic tone to Don't Look Up. But it is a tone that "feeds rather than challenges capitalist realism … the film performs our anti-capitalism for us, allowing us to continue to consume with impunity". The same may even be true for some popular forms of contemporary activism.
Sticking with film, however, the issue is not that popular cinema cannot ever serve as a call to collective action, catharsis or acceptance of fate. Darren Aronofsky's Mother! and Lars von Trier's Melancholia, for instance, films that cover similar ground to Don't Look Up, are at least partially successful in this regard. Instead, the problem is that all too often we allow the enactment of our shared anxieties and aspirations to be outsourced to forms of entertainment that serve as a kind of collective scapegoating. We absolve ourselves of concerns around neocolonialism and the plight of indigenous people by cheering for the blue people in Avatar when they employ militant direct action to save their planet from extractive capitalism, just as we assuage our complicity in animal agriculture by watching Chicken Run.
Anthropogenic climate change may yet receive the film it deserves. If it does, although this is far from certain or, indeed, necessary, it will perhaps be a film far closer to Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Memoria, a slow-moving, oneiric meditation about a flower seller whose sense of normality is disrupted by the repeated incursion of a loud sonic boom that only she can hear, the source of which she spends the latter half of the film seeking. Memoria is not explicitly about the climate crisis, but it perturbs our senses and shocks our everyday sensibilities in the way any effective cinema should, leaving more questions than answers and refusing to comfort us in the face of the ending of a world by distracting us with the mundane.
Don't Look Up ends with several of the lead characters gathering around a table, holding hands and resigned to their fate. Instead of this fatalist, depoliticised acquiescence to the present, and even though it's difficult to keep looking up when the late capitalist superhighway is speeding up in front of us, we should at least start looking around to find each other – because Netflix and chill will never be the basis for an effective environmentalist politics.