The Racial Bias and Scientism of Don't Look Up
‘A righteous two-hour lecture masquerading as a satire’ wrote David Fear for Rolling Stone. ‘An on-target political cartoon expanded to [...] a grandiose mural’ ripe with political ambivalence, said Richard Brody at The New Yorker. Failed climate propaganda to ‘evangelize [...] the most apolitical’ added MUBI's Ryan Meehan. There has been no dearth of negative reviews about Adam McKay's Don't Look Up (2021), yet climate activists and scientists alike have been quick in celebrating the film.
At The Guardian, climate experts weighed in on the ‘polarising disaster film,’ while Peter Kalmus saw himself in it. George Monbiot did too, jumping on the ‘they don't get it’ bandwagon by saying journalists disliked the movie because it was partially ‘about them.’ However, most critics aren't really part of the profit-driven mass media satirised by the film. Adding fuel to the fire moat between detractors and fans, in my view, is Don't Look Up's intended defence of science, as purported by co-writer David Sirota – delivered in the form of a self-referential argument.
Eric Levitz described it as ‘a transparent product of its authors’ immersion in social media echo chambers.’ That is, content specially catered to followers and their accepted values. Levitz also laid down the story's inadequacy as an allegory of our climate crisis, from the lack of hard deadlines for action, to current technological shortcomings, disruptions of living standards, and the nuanced roles played by billionaire donors and vapid news.
It is this very defence of ‘the science’ – as echoed throughout the film from our own parlance – that is profoundly problematic, since it enables ideological assumptions to flow unchecked through the screen and into its fandom. One such assumption is the racial bias and lack of diversity intrinsic to ‘the science,’ which has been discussed for years, but only came to the global spotlight after the George Floyd protests of 2020.
While Don't Look Up's A-list cast of Hollywood millionaires checks the diversity box, all its characters of colour play secondary or supportive roles to our two blue-eyed white heroes, Dr Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and PhD candidate Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence). Furthermore, they are all portrayed as either corrupt, usurping, superficial, inept, or a combination of these.
First is Dibiaski’s boyfriend Phillip (Himesh Patel), a banal and immature social media bro who couldn't stomach the news of the comet. Next, we come across Dr. Calder (Hettiene Park), a dilettante heading NASA by sole virtue of being a campaign donor to the president. Then there is news anchor Jack Bremmer (Tyler Perry), who also lacks depth or a personal story, contrary to his white old-rich co-anchor, Brie Evantee (Kate Blanchett). These are followed by airheaded celebrities of colour Riley Bina and DJ Chello (Ariana Grande and Kid Cudi), who embody the film’s disdain for pop culture’s superficiality in the face of ‘the science.’ This moral high ground is claimed by juxtaposing their gossipy love story with our white heroes' discovery of the comet.
The only exception that proves the rule could be Obama-styled bureaucrat Dr Teddy Oglethorpe. But, he too is flat and devoid of a background story, just a token at the table of the Mindys’ dinner near the ending. Worse still, his flatness coexists with his support of our white heroes, which brings him close to Hollywood's Magical Negro trope. That is, a bias akin to the noble savage of olden whereas a Black character appears solely to help white protagonists along their way before disappearing again, usually with some sort of supernatural powers, transcendental insights, or in Teddy’s case, inside access to the state apparatus.
There are also white characters who are negatively represented, but decency, morality and innocence are reserved for Mindy's family members and Dibiasky's find-his-own-path Evangelical romance, Yule (Timothée Chalamet), all of them white characters. While white scientists and activists evidently reaped the benefits of ‘feeling seen’ in Don't Look Up's heroes, it would be hard for people of colour or colonised subjects to feel uplifted the same way.
Indigenous peoples are displayed as faceless extras unknowingly going about their business or awaiting catastrophe.
A more woke cast of heroes and villains could have lessened the film’s racial bias, but would not have undermined the ideological assumptions that render these biases invisible to its fans. In other words, it would only reflect the very same performative diversity that brings people of colour to the table while keeping underlying power relations intact.
In line with the long involvement of ‘the science’ with colonialism and empire building, Don't Look Up also portrays indigenous people and developing nations as helpless and at the mercy of the United States. Vignettes throughout the movie use people of the Global South as serious counterpoints to the comedy. In these, indigenous peoples are faceless extras unknowingly going about their business or awaiting catastrophe. They are also explicitly derided by the film's military characters, as when General Themes (Paul Guilfoyle) heads off ‘to quell the natives’ and Benedict Drask (Ron Pearlman) mocks ‘Indians of both kinds, you know, the ones with the elephants and the ones with the bows and arrows.’
Blinded by ‘the science’
For all the coolness of Lawrence's character and her tools in the film's intro, this too is oblivious to astronomy's own relationship with colonialism, of which the intended construction of the TMT on Hawaiian sacred land is just one recent example. While this is not what the movie is about, the assumption throughout Don't Look Up is that ‘the science’ is a de-facto force of good, that it speaks (‘the science tells us’), and is cared for like a person (‘check the science’).
When ‘the science’ is fetishised and adopted as our only way of understanding the world, it becomes the ideology known as scientism. Of course, you can be pro-science and anti-scientism at the same time, but like all ideology, scientism is blinding, and that is the most dangerous aspect of it – one cannot see it while immersed in it.
This blindness also enables the film’s validation of technology and the predictive power of algorithms, as represented by the corporation of tech baron Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance). While his failed attempt at mining the comet is an obvious critique of our overreliance on quick technological fixes, in the end Isherwell's spaceship does escape Earth successfully, full of wealthy colonisers. Whether they are eaten by extraterrestrial reptiles is irrelevant, as ‘the science’ did get them there after all.
Isherwell's algorithm also predicts the president’s death, while Mindy acts on his own predicted lonely demise by opting to reconnect with Dibiasky and reuniting with his family, and lest we forget, with their one Black friend. This validation of algorithmic predictions is problematic, as it imbues big data with the power or premonition, something humans typically attribute to deities or ‘higher powers.’
Here too is another pitfall of scientism, its failing to recognise that there is science on ‘both sides.’ There is science behind Isherwell's corporation, just as there is science and scientists at the core of the fossil fuel industry. The same was true of the Axis and Allies in World War II, but we know who got to the bomb first. Scientism is incapable of understanding ‘the science’ as a strictly human endeavour, subject to emotions, interests, desires, and all of the things that make us human.
More tragedy than farce in the end, Don't Look Up reaffirms the limits of our scientific worldview.
While it’s been easy for the climate community to identify with Mindy's desperate plight, this also embodies a longing of ‘the science’ to once again be the right-hand of policy makers or kings. Nowadays however, as the Covid anti-vaxxer phenomena has shown, ‘the science’ has a severe public relations problem and no amount of shouting or name calling will fix it.
Fetishising ‘the science’ also ignores that ‘the data’ or being ‘data driven’ on its own is meaningless. Assuming the contrary is just another ideological handicap of the film, that just because Mindy knows, people have to listen. As our white heroes soon discover, human societies are highly complex and subjective realms. And so, they return to their domestic comfort to wait for the comet.
Backdoor to white supremacy
For all its pro-science intentions, religion is given a free pass in the closing scene, with Yule leading a prayer and a round of ‘being thankful for’ in what resembles a quintessential Thanksgiving dinner. The last lines uttered at the table are given to our white male hero, Mindy. ‘We really did have everything, didn’t we?’ he reflects to everyone’s assenting silence, just before their suburban house explodes behind their one Black friend Teddy. But who is ‘we’ and what is ‘having all’ here?
The film's ideology is laid bare at this point. What Don't Look Up actually defends is the fairytale meritocracy of white suburban America. Under this light, Mindy's screaming meltdown can be easily reread as a plight to make (white) America great again (by listening to ‘the science’). This hidden backdoor to conservatism is the most unsettling part of the story.
Don't Look Up inadvertently reproduces the very same white supremacist nostalgia of the anti-science conservatism it intends to satirise, but through the nearsighted gaze of white liberalism. Instead of carrying the ‘march for science’ forward, McKay has dug its trench into a two-hour insider joke where the laughingstock is our very own predicament as insiders.
More tragedy than farce in the end, Don't Look Up reaffirms the limits of our scientific worldview with laughter as our only consolation and people of colour as props for white saviorism. Instead of looking up, maybe we should look more humbly at the limits of ‘the science’ and recognise that, for once, the solutions to our problems may lie just outside its reach.
Javier A. Román-Nieves is a Puerto Rican artist, writer and naturalist currently based in Oakland, California. He obtained a first master’s degree in architecture from the University of Puerto Rico, and a second one in environmental management from the Yale School of the Environment in 2019. Javier combines skills from human ecology, ecosystem conservation, and design into a practice located somewhere between land management and environmental communications. He thrives at the intersection of humans and nature, and is currently a co-director at Minnow, a nascent nonprofit working with land justice for farmers of colour while advancing indigenous sovereignty.
Image credit: Niko Tavernise/Netflix.