I’m a sucker for disaster movies. They indulge my fantasy that good and evil are easily distinguishable and that good always wins. The hero is usually a misfit, and the winning comes, of course, only after someone I’ve become emotionally attached to dies. The music swells, people come together in unusual unity and cooperation, and all is right with the world.
Enter the recent Netflix film Don’t Look Up, which is not your standard disaster movie. (There are spoilers ahead, so if you haven’t seen it, stop now, watch the movie, and come back.) There have been swift and strong reactions to the film—environmentalists and ecological scientists seem to finally feel seen while professional critics and media seem offended. Critics of Don’t Look Up complain about the lack of nuance and say that the script is too on-the-nose. But this is an Adam McKay film. This is the man who brought us Step Brothers and Talladega Nights and Anchorman. If you get nuance and subtlety out of a McKay film, it’s the exception, not the norm.
Everyone and every occupation is skewered in this film. There are no traditional heroes here. There is no one righteous. No not one. The film is irreverent, funny, and heartbreaking. Theories abound about its deeper meaning: it’s a contemporary parable about climate change or COVID or the Trump Administration or our obsession with celebrity or polarization. There is probably some truth to all of that, and there is so very much I’d like to talk about with this film, but I only have space to focus only on a couple of things here. If you ever want to talk more about it, look me up. I’m game.
Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Dr. Randall Mindy, is an earnest, honest, and unassuming Michigan State University professor with a wife who loves him, and two grown sons living at home. Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), a graduate student under his care, has discovered a global extinction-sized comet heading toward earth. Dr. Mindy and Kate are intent on bringing news of the destructive comet to the attention of the people with the power to do something about it. Much of the film centers on their varying degrees of success doing that.
Along the way, Dr. Mindy becomes a social media darling: he’s sexy Dr. Mindy, the good-looking astronomer. He begins an affair with a media personality (Cate Blanchett) and feels a sense of responsibility because the masses are listening to him. He’s taken in by his sudden celebrity. When his wife asks him to take a walk with her because he’s been at his computer all day, he says, “I have a quarter million subscribers. I gotta use my voice to get the truth out there.” Both the gifts and the destructive capabilities of social media are presented with a sledge hammer. Even in the midst of the bumbling presidential administration’s response plan that he knows will fail, Mindy wants to be in the room where the decisions are made, telling himself that he may still have some sway, still be able to change things or fix things. He cannot let go of the power (and access to power) his fame has given him. When he finally comes to his senses, he delivers the lines that are the primary lessons of the film: “How do we even talk to each other? What’ve we done to ourselves? How do we fix it?” This is the moment of the beginning of his redemption, and these are, of course, important questions for us as well.
The final scenes are quite profound. Mindy knows nothing more can be done and the end of life is near, so he heads for home. He buys groceries, marveling in small things like the difference in color between farm raised salmon and wild salmon, or the Duke Ellington song on the radio. He receives forgiveness from his wife, who makes a confession of her own. He gathers the people that have become his family during this ordeal. Along with his two sons and wife are Teddy (Rob Morgan) from NASA; Kate, the grad student; and Yule (Timothee Chalamet), a young man Kate has befriended.
The seven of them prepare and cook a meal together, the table is set in china and linens. They eat and talk about what they are grateful for. There is laughter. All of this is intercut with scenes of the chaos outside as the comet approaches, offering a contrast to the calm and love within the home. Mindy struggles to know how to put a punctuation on the meal. Yule, a person of genuine faith carved out of his evangelical upbringing, steps in and prays this prayer as they hold hands around the table: “Dearest Father and 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.” It is the loveliest of moments.
This scene, to me, is the church. Or maybe what I long for the church to be. Simple and uncomplicated. Confession. Forgiveness. Gratitude. Feeding one another. Family created with those we’ve run into along the way. A safe place in the midst of chaos and uncertainty.
I hope you watch Don’t Look Up. I hope you like it as much as I did. I hope you see God there.