During the holidays, with New Stuff Sucks on hiatus, I watched a documentary on Netflix. (Terry put me on his account. The free library service, Kanopy, would have been enough for me—but I’m not complaining.) The documentary was short, and I don’t remember what it was about. But when it was over, before I could get back to the “controls,” I found myself at the beginning of another movie.
Normally I don’t like to fall in line according to what some algorithm has picked for me to watch next. I like to think I still have free will to choose how I spend my leisure time. In this case, though, the movie I’d fallen into was the new Don’t Look Up. I’d already decided I wanted to watch it. Terry had mentioned it, explaining that it was about a comet headed straight toward Earth.
“Huh?” I scoffed. “That’s been done, remember?” I was thinking of Melancholia, which came out just over a decade ago, about the exact same thing.
It’s rare that I retain more than one percent of the details in a movie—even if only a few months have passed. But I remember what hits me emotionally. And the last scenes of Melancholia had —well, quite an impact on me.
The ending was frightening, and it probably would have affected me even without my childhood dream. When I was very little, I dreamed something so scary that I’ll never forget it. Though my emotional response was fear, the dream had overtones that went beyond that: wonder, disbelief, amazement, puzzlement. All that in a short dream! I was looking up at the night sky, at the full moon. It had begun to take on the rusty-yellow color it usually has when it’s at the horizon, rising or setting. But it was high in the sky, and it should have been bright white. Instead, slowly, it started to turn orange—a deep, rich orange, almost shadowy. At last it was red—and started to get bigger. Was the moon itself growing, or was it coming closer? Clearly, now, I could see it was coming closer, straight toward Earth. It was the end of the world. The end of me.
That’s when I woke up, of course. I was in my little bed in my little bedroom. I can still feel myself sitting there, and the terror, with all its nuances, still gripped me for a while as I sat at the edge of the bed. It had felt so real . . . then gradually it faded in the early morning light. It was time to eat breakfast and get ready for school.
It’s no wonder I still remember those last scenes of Melancholia, with the beautiful comet growing ever larger in the sky. My dream was extraordinarily similar. It felt the same.
But Don’t Look Up was different, Terry said. It was supposed to be a comedy, a metaphor or allegory about climate change.
That interested me. So I let it play.
I’m no film critic. My childhood was almost devoid of movies, so I never really understood how they “worked.” I paid no attention to the names of actors, certainly not directors, and I rarely even remembered the titles of the films I saw. Subtle twists of plot—even some not so subtle—eluded me. So, watching this one, I wasn’t quite sure at first what to make of it. It was billed as a comedy—albeit a dark one—but it didn’t seem like a comedy to me. Weren’t the situations and characters in a comedy supposed to be absurd, ridiculous, over the top? I think of I Love Lucy, or Carol Burnett descending the staircase wearing curtains, complete with rod. Whereas this movie seemed based in the real—maybe the outer edges of real, but not the ridiculous. I didn’t laugh out loud more than a few times. Some of the characters did seem hard to believe—the super-flirty, completely narcissistic U.S. president, the crawlingly- slimy CEO, and the slick-as-powder newscaster. But they didn’t make me laugh. Would this make the movie a satire? A parody? A farce? A spoof?
Oh, who knows. I do know there were at least three minor characters I really hadn’t paid any attention to until the end. Obviously, I ought to have identified them earlier. (Did I miss anything important?) One thing I didn’t miss were the brief snippets of what seemed like serious nature documentaries that came in flashes within the ongoing narrative. They stood out like random thoughts, outside of the rest of the movie’s flow. Was that even allowed in a popular film?
I tried unsuccessfully to form some coherent opinion of it, in case someone asked me how I liked it. But my head was like the jumble of clothes and towels and cleanable rags I’d dumped into the washing machine that morning. I’d forgotten to hang them on the chairs. I went out in the post-movie dark and took care of it, numbing my objecting hands.
The next day, despite having nothing smart to say about the movie, I bragged to Terry that I’d found my own way to it. He wasn’t impressed, just sad that I hadn’t waited to watch it with him.
“But I’m happy to watch it again!” I insisted. I seriously needed to. I believed that now.
It was different the second time. I already knew all the characters. I knew how it ended, and all the basic plot elements leading up to that. So I could pay attention to less prominent details. And I decided to start with the belief that this was going to be a realistic film, paying attention to any places where I thought it departed from reality.
These new parameters made all the difference. First off, it was a long, long time before anything truly diverged from the real world. It used its media tools, of course—comedic timing, visual feasts, and body-amplified lines that could get extra mileage out of everyday dialog. But these were expected.
At first I thought the president was exaggerated. But when she’s in front of a large crowd, wearing a Trump-shaped ball cap, spouting Trumplike rhetoric, her words and narcissism are certainly not beyond what this country has experienced. The greed and selfish decision-making of both the president’s son and the cellphone CEO are absolutely true to life, I think. And the occasional ads that are thrown in are spot-on realistic. I’m thinking especially of the house-wifey woman getting solace and guidance from science, and the endearing (exploited) young Black girl who cites comforting words from Psalm 23. Second time around I’m finding all of modern societal structure represented pretty accurately—the greed, the obsession with job creation, the two extremes of our politics today, the names of things (“The Rip” is a talk show, “BASH” is a cell phone company), the disregard for science, and the use of social media. (The diverse real-time comments shown scrolling up the screen during the big concert might have been lifted from a real event, and the frightful, manipulated images generated by Kate’s talk-show appearance are all too plausible.) There was only one fictitious note that I could discern, and that was that everything, across the board, was represented in its extreme. Thankfully, we don’t see those extremes in every aspect of life. Not yet, anyway.
Two scenes in particular made me appreciate the genius of cultural insight behind this work of art. One featured a young man speaking out about trying to unite the two far ends of comet response—whether or not it existed—in a single movement. It put the last touches on my view that that our two political camps cannot come together without some difficult, if not impossible, changes in opposing belief systems. No kumbaya hand-holding or speeches are going to unite people. Unfortunately.
The other illuminating scene is maybe my favorite—aimed directly at me and at you, my New Stuff Sucks readers. Here I laughed the hardest, at both the performance and the words. The president’s asshole son is joining the public prayers for all the anxious people listening. Haltingly, he prays: “I wanna give a prayer for stuff. Like, material stuff. Like sick apartments and watches and cars and clothes and shit that could all go away, and I don’t wanna see that stuff go away. So I’m gonna say a prayer for that stuff. Ah-men.”
A movie that makes fun of a hateful character’s need for stuff! Ah-men and hallelujah.
Watch Don’t Look Up for the rest of the brilliant cultural portrayals it offers. Or watch it a second time for less obvious details. If you’re on the edge of your seat, watching to find out what happens in the end, you might want to skip the rest of this post—which could spoil the final tensions—until you’ve finished the movie.
What happens at the end of this movie parallels both my dream and Melancholia. I’m once again looking up at a celestial body headed straight for me. For all of Earth. The feeling of horror and finality was, for me, the same all three times. But beyond the emotional hit, the events, implications, and cinematic statements of Don’t Look Up were especially thought-provoking and extensive. So, although the feeling of being about to lose myself was the same, indescribable, my thinking became part of that fear, making it more complex.
The second time through I cared more about the demise of the good-guy characters and what they had to say: the way they called a tragically late romance “sweet,” and visited mundane subjects—now precious—during the Last Supper of their newly formed family. The nature excerpts absolutely belonged now, and they became even more heartbreaking: a bear loose in a store, seals climbing a green hill. For some reason the glimpse of a honeybee in slow motion moved me the most—it was so fragile, so innocent and unsuspecting. Bits showing colorful, diverse humans joined the nature clips toward the end and were just as awful to think of as about-to-be-obliterated life forms. This nature stuff at least points to the movie as being an allegory about climate change. It’s what a lot of people think. Who knows.
I think the most important clue as to meanings comes at that last communal meal. The plates and glasses on the table have begun to shake. Dr. Mindy abandons all small talk and offers a simple thought: “Thing of it is, we really did have it all, didn’t we?”
This happens to be the last human utterance in the film. So it might be the main point, or at least something meant to be pondered. But we, the audience, didn’t die from a comet’s strike, so the quote should be changed to present tense: “We really do have it all, don’t we?” This may not be what the sick and poor of our planet would say, but in the comfortable Western world, people might often agree.
That black feeling of doomsday from dreams and movies always passes in the daylight of everyday life. But ideas and words don’t have to. I want to keep Dr. Mindy’s realization on the front burner of my brain for as long as I can. It carries thankfulness within it—”I have it all!”—and thankfulness has been scientifically proven to boost mood. It can liberate us from having to search, spend, roam, and give up our time.
Obviously Hollywood movies always have problems, including this one. But I like the way the very popular Don’t Look Up—at least when it comes to our attitude toward “stuff”—seems to have aligned itself with this blog.