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'Don't Look Up': A very American satire

Jingoism and neoliberalism win the argument in the face of a planet-destroying comet. But imagining an Iranian mission to save the Earth is beyond the Hollywood pale
Meryl Streep plays the US president in Don't Look Up (Screengrab/Hyperobject Industries and Bluegrass Films)

The Netflix movie Don’t Look Up is not about empire, yet has everything to do with it. (This piece includes minor spoilers.)

As the crisis posed by a comet heading towards earth escalates, a montage sequence comically depicting the building of global tension features an Indian YouTuber, who criticises the US for not including “India or any other country” in its effort to divert and/or benefit from the comet.

The comet, its threat and any potential benefits to be reaped from the crisis are presented as exclusive concerns of US policy

Although this is not the most central - or the funniest - of the movie’s scenes, it tells us, through its marginality, a lot about the kind of world that makes this film, and the fantasy behind it, possible.

The comet, its threat and any potential benefits to be reaped from the crisis are presented as exclusive concerns of US policy - exclusive concerns that the US milks for jingoist purposes. The exhibitionist and self-congratulatory display of American chauvinism unfolds in front of a passive global audience while the entire world is at stake.

Through the farcical depiction of how the US refuses to involve the rest of the world, the film does satirise this US jingoism - which extends to matters of science, nature and outer space - although it falls at times into the same US centrism and self-referentiality.

Destroy or exploit

The US political, military and financial establishment can only deal with the comet through military force or containment for capitalist exploitation. In the film, as in real life, the nuclear option and the neoliberal option present the two poles of the policy of empire.

The military option is clearly played up to provide a display of American saviourism - “Washington’s always got to have a hero”, as one of the characters cynically remarks. The mission to destroy the comet is thus led by a US war hero, who espouses and vocalises nationalistic, racist, misogynistic and homophobic views. The launch of the mission is accompanied by “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” against the backdrop of US flags and red-white-and-blue fireworks, while the president speaks about “Nasa and our great military” and the “preemptive strike” they will launch.

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The movie deals with the neoliberal option with similarly incisive wit. Faced, on the one side, by BASH, a tech company that promises to garner immense profits out of containing, rather than annihilating, the comet and, on the other, by astronomers questioning the science behind an operation that has not been “peer-reviewed”, the political establishment and the public at large put their faith in the former.

“If BASH’s stock is any indicator,” says a news presenter to one of the scientists, “then we don’t have to worry about peer review.”

This attitude satirises not only the apathy of the US establishment and a large section of the public, but also this stage of late capitalism, where the abstractions of “the economy” (graphs, stock market indicators etc) take precedence over any form of welfare. In the movie, this is taken to the extreme - stakeholders being more interested in the stock market than in their own chance of living.

Here too is the image of a US too involved with itself and its projected interests to see the dangers that threaten it, and a western civilisation that subdues the scientific method to capitalist contingencies. (It is ironic that, a few weeks after the release of the movie, one of the major English-language academic publishers announced that authors could pay to prioritise their submissions and expedite the peer-review process.)

Space and empire

The movie is intended not as a satire of imperialism but an allegory for climate change, with allusions to the Covid crisis, the rise of populism in the US and the failures of the US establishment to deal with domestic and global crises (or, if we insist on the language of empire, it is a satire of how the empire is run, rather than a critique of imperialism).

It is telling, however, that even when empire is not the subject, imperialism sets the parameters for the fantasy that informs the film. Nature, natural crises, outer space and a comet headed to destroy earth are imagined as (foreign) objects for US concern and intervention. This gives the US the exclusive right to destroy or mine this foreign terrain - and even the exclusive right to fail in facing this challenge - while the rest of the world watches in awe.

In Don't Look Up, Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio play a pair of astronomers who discover a devastating comet (Screengrab/Hyperobject Industries and Bluegrass Films)
In Don't Look Up, Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio play a pair of astronomers who discover a devastating comet (Screengrab/Hyperobject Industries and Bluegrass Films)

This movie comes as part of a long line of satirical movies that imagine outer space through the narrative and language of colonies, settlements and the reformulation of the terrain to suit the needs of the settlers.

 The "space race" was always tied up with political motivations: from the use of satellite technology for espionage and propaganda, to the propagandistic display of dominance and prestige.

When the mission to destroy the comet is turned into a 'God bless America' moment, the parody of US space jingoism is unmistakable

This may be true for any nation - and especially for America’s erstwhile space-race rival, the USSR. But it is telling that whereas the Soviets pushed the ideology of “technological utopianism”, where exploring space signified human mastery over nature and the universe - which was in turn understood within the paradigm of Soviet socialism as the gateway to human progress - the US viewed the space race through the imperialist paradigm of "manifest destiny".

"Many individuals involved in the making of US space policy assert that the exploration, exploitation and colonisation of space are inevitable," wrote US academic Karl Leib in an essay called "International Competition and Ideology in US Space Policy".

"The implication is that the US must be the leader in space and not allow any other state to 'dominate' space."

In practice, the US did turn the exploration of space into a flag-waving mission, and the moon landing into a mission to plant the US flag on foreign territory.

Marginalising the world

When the mission to destroy the comet is turned into a "God bless America" moment, the parody of US space jingoism is unmistakable.

Frustrated by their exclusion from the plans to divert and/or mine the comet, the rest of the world intends, but fails, to act. The UN announces that it is considering its own diversion mission, yet this amounts to nothing. China, Russia and India plan their own mission, but a mysterious launch-pad explosion ends their attempt.

The film, on some level, partakes in the same US centrism it satirises: the whole world looks at the US with hope at first, and then with frustration and desperation; in both cases the US is at the centre of the global gaze.

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The farce of a US that appoints itself as saviour but fails to play this role also becomes the farce of a world with no saviour - whereas Russia and China cannot go beyond one failed attempt.

Or, we can be more generous and say that the film depicts the aggressive US monopoly of the global arena and then its failure to manage it; indeed the mysterious explosion that aborted the rival mission may hint towards clandestine CIA action.

The movie, nevertheless, failed to consider the possibility of a rogue rescue mission - an operation not bound by the imperialist calculations of military display and/or neoliberal gain.

Perhaps this is because the only countries that may possess such technology and could shun this system of calculations - or may have a vested interest in subverting the entire system rather than rising as competitors within this system - are Iran and North Korea.

But a planet-saving mission by the axis of evil, though possible in reality, is something US cinema is incapable of considering.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Ahmed D Dardir holds a PhD in Middle Eastern Studies from Columbia University. His forthcoming book is tentatively titled Licentious Topographies: Global Counterrevolution and Bad Subjectivity in Modern Egypt. He is a regular contributor to a number of media outlets. His personal blog can be found at https://textualtrimmings.blogspot.com.