What “Don’t Look Up” tried to do, and why it failed

A climate psychology perspective

Adam McKay’s recent feature film Don’t Look Up has just received four Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, and is currently Netflix’s second most-successful release to date. The film, for the three people reading who haven’t seen it yet, satirises the climate crisis by replacing a very real threat with a fictional Earth-destroying meteor, due to hit in just six months. The plot follows two scientists, Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) and Randall Mindy (Leonardo Di Caprio), as they try to convince a star-studded cast of idiots to take action before the Earth and everything on it is destroyed. Bleak. So bleak in fact, that many reviewers critiqued the film for its nihilistic endingbut what was McKay trying to achieve if not a sense of dread and doom? From a climate psychology perspective, it seems McKay attempted to decrease the psychological distance of the crisis for viewers. 

Two concepts that help us understand the issue of climate inaction are construal level theory and psychological distance. Construal level theory suggests that the way we plan for the distant future and consider hypothetical alternatives to reality is by forming mental constructs of distant objects. Psychological distance is an egocentric experience that something is close/distant in some form, either temporally (close to the present or in the distant future); spatially (physically close/distant); socially (happening to you or someone else); or hypothetically (certain/uncertain to happen). Informational distance has also been proposed, which takes into account how informed someone is about the event. The farther removed an idea is from us and our direct experience by psychological distance, the more abstractly we view it as construal level theory.

For people living in Ireland, and indeed most developed countries, the climate crisis is a future phenomenon that will affect other people before it affects us, and we must imagine its outcomes before we experience them. For most of us, the crisis is an imagined future event happening to people far awayit couldn’t get more psychologically distant. To be inspired to take action, we need a concrete mental representation of the crisis, that is, a low psychological distance between our idea of the climate crisis and our own psychology. 

One suggested means of lowering our psychological distance from the climate crisis is by localising the issue through simple, coherent, relatable stories about its effects on humans. Don’t Look Up, which outlines very clearly the frustrations of climate scientists trying to inspire climate action, has the ability to trump scientific jargon when trying to close that psychological distance gap. Don’t Look Up did an excellent job of making the story relatable and coherent; anyone watching who isn’t an all-out climate denier was sure to feel Dibiasky’s frustration and eventual exhaustion. McKay recreated our world to just the right extent, whereby people could recognise world figures (“Huh, Meryl Streep as Trump!”) without becoming disinterested in a story that was simply too close to home. 

“The ending evokes fatalism and nihilism, convincing viewers that they can’t do anything so they may as well not try at all.”

This mirroring and satirising of our culture allowed us, however, to adopt an “us versus them” attitude and feel accomplished without taking any real action. The vast majority of people watching, no matter the level of climate action they take in their day-to-day lives, would have agreed with and related to either Dibiasky or Mindy, patting themselves on the back for being on the right side of the film. This allowed viewers to write off climate inaction as something solely for comedic, power-hungry man-childrenI don’t expect many people to have finished watching and openly admitted to seeing themselves in Jonah Hill or Mark Rylance’s characters. While McKay made it easy for viewers to lessen the psychological distance of the climate crisis, he then unknowingly encouraged them to feel as though they had taken action just by agreeing with the sentiments of the film. 

And then there was the ending. While realistic (in that we will all die if we don’t take action against climate change), and initially a seemingly clever choice, the ending undoes the rest of the film’s work in inspiring climate action. The ending evokes fatalism and nihilism, convincing viewers that they can’t do anything so they may as well not try at all, and that even if they do, some rich white woman will buy their silence. Again, realistic, but it doesn’t inspire us to action. 

After localising the climate crisis, Don’t Look Up could have outlined meaningful actions people can take to minimise climate risk, with the proposed solutions being on par with what the audience is capable of, or given some sliver of hope to the viewer. Of course, at the end of the day it’s simply a film, and can only do so muchthe fate of the world doesn’t rest in Adam McKay’s ability to write and direct movies. However, with an all-star cast and the promotional backing to basically guarantee box-office success, Don’t Look Up would have been wise to end on a somewhat hopeful note, to avoid evoking more climate fatalism and to provide its millions of viewers with a sense of self-efficacy. 

If you would like to avoid fatalism and feel a sense of self-efficacy, you can find more info about overcoming the psychological distance of the crisis at: climateoutreach.org/media/climate-psychological-distance/.


Sarah Moran

Sarah Moran is the current Head Copyeditor of Trinity News. She is also a Senior Sophister English Literature student.