by Lance Daley
Adam McKay, director of many widely popular movies such as The Big Short and Step Brothers, recently produced a new film, Don’t Look Up, detailing a contemporary society’s response to impending disaster with a comedic and satirical tone. In the film, two astronomers from Michigan State University (played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) discover a comet rapidly hurtling towards Earth and realize they have only months until it inevitably strikes and destroys Earth. The horrified astronomers communicate this information to the president of the United States (played by Meryl Streep) expecting appropriate action to be taken to redirect its course, but the president carelessly states that they will re-evaluate in a few months, much to the astronomers’ chagrin. Over the ensuing months, the astronomers and other scientists feverishly attempt to prove the planet-killing comet’s existence to a skeptical media, disinterested society, and greedy, tyrannical government.
The controversy in redirecting this apocalyptic, cataclysmic comet draws many parallels to the current tension of the COVID-19 pandemic between scientists, the government, and the common public. Although the first case of SARS-CoV-2 occurred over 2 years ago in December 2019 in Wuhan, China, there is an ongoing dialogue today questioning the existence of the virus, the most effective individual treatment method, and appropriate population-level methods to reduce spread. In the film, there is a clear partisan split between those who support the peer-reviewed data and research behind the comet’s deadly potential and those who are either skeptical or ignorant towards its effects. Similarly, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed a gross partisan divide in our own society. A Gallup survey from September 2021 indicated that 90% of people identifying as Democrats were vaccinated, while just 56% of Republicans were vaccinated in comparison.1 Additionally, a study conducted by Harvard University cited that the top reasons people are unwilling to get vaccinated are because the vaccine is too new, concerns about side effects, distrust of the government and medicine, and questioning the true benefits of vaccination versus gaining natural immunity from exposure.2 The rise of the Internet has made all kinds of information readily accessible for the first time in history, which has made research, learning, and doing simple daily tasks much easier than ever before. Unfortunately, technology’s prominence in society has also introduced an outlet for the spread of fake news, particularly on social media sites like Facebook (where there is little fact-checking on the information people post). Our rapid technological advancement has presented us with situations never before encountered in human history. While scientists around the globe have published thousands of studies detailing the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines in preventing serious infection, many still cling to personal opinion regardless of what the facts conclude. Peoples’ personal incentives, affiliations, and opinions are ultimately overshadowing the issue at hand, which is the fact that nearly 6 million people globally have died as a result of COVID-19 infection.3 The realm of truthful, honest information, which has reached heights in accessibility never seen before, is currently being hijacked by bias and misinformation in ways also never encountered before.
Towards the end of the film, the existence of the comet starts to become more generally accepted by society, although there are still those who denounce its existence and those who choose to simply ignore it. Meanwhile, the government and corporate leaders devise a plan to destroy the comet to enable extraction of valuable metals and minerals, along with a backup plan to escape to a new planet via a rocket if the mineral extraction fails. The selfish, opportunistic attitude of the government’s method ultimately ends in failure, as the technology malfunctions without the help of the non-government affiliated scientists. Since the scientists were alienated by the government, there was no funding available to them for an attempt to stop the comet. The dysfunctional, uncoordinated societal response to this crisis resulted in their own tragic downfall, as the comet violently crashes into Earth, killing everyone but a few elite politicians and government leaders (who likely ended up dying soon after on a planet inhospitable for human life).
Don’t Look Up serves as a cautionary tale for our own societal responses to issues and pandemics, like the COVID-19 pandemic. Much like the movie, many of our own scientists work tirelessly to convey information about COVID-19, climate change, and other important societal issues necessitating action to politicians and the public who ignore their efforts out of greed and stubbornness. The apocalyptic, satirical film effectively hits home on its point that humanity is most effective at solving problems and helping all when united by empathy and compassion. When our thoughts and perceptions become clouded by ignorance and greed, there can be horrifyingly dire consequences. Ultimately, our societal response to the COVID-19 pandemic and other crises can only ever be as effective as the willingness of government, scientists, and the general public to unite in support of a common goal to reduce the spread of the virus to save lives rather than selfishly focusing on personal gain and opportunity.
1) Saad, Lydia. “More in U.S. Vaccinated after Delta Surge, FDA Decision.” Gallup.com, Gallup, 11 Jan. 2022, https://news.gallup.com/poll/355073/vaccinated-delta-surge-fda-decision.aspx.
2) Shmerling, Robert H. “Unvaccinated and Misunderstood? Let’s Talk.” Harvard Health, Harvard Medical School, 25 Aug. 2021, https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/unvaccinated-and-misunderstood-lets-talk-202108252580.
3) “Cumulative Confirmed Covid-19 Deaths by World Region.” Our World in Data, Global Change Data Lab, 24 Feb. 2022, https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/cumulative-covid-deaths-region.