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If you want to depress yourself going into the new year, go ahead and check out the movie Don't Look Up on Netflix. It is categorized as a "dark comedy" -- a parody of modern politics and plutocracy -- but it rings so true, and is so frustratingly believable given the events of the past 5 years, that I have trouble labeling it as a "comedy". It induced facepalms and fury rather than laughs, and its pervasive bleakness offers no hope for our future. It feels less like a warning, and more like a eulogy for the human race. And I recommend it so completely.

It's worth watching almost for Mark Rylance's performance of Bash Cellular CEO Peter Isherwell. His send-up of an eccentric tech billionaire (think Steve Jobs meets Jeff Bezos meets Elon Musk) is one of the few outright funny things about the movie that isn't also depressing.

I've read some people online suggesting that Don't Look Up might be this generation's Idiocracy. I'm not sure if I agree with the comparison. Idiocracy has a sort of naïve optimism that makes it charming. It is a stark warning of a possible dystopian future brought on by corporate greed, public ignorance, and the out of control birth rate of stupid people. But while the characters are all idiots, they are at least well-meaning idiots. They could and (more importantly) would do right by everyone else if they only knew better and hadn't been brainwashed by corporate propaganda all their lives ("Brawndo has the electrolytes plants crave"). It's a world run by, and completely populated by, Homer Simpsons: dumb, but well-meaning buffoons.

In Idiocracy, the average-intelligence time-traveler from the present gets a high score on an intelligence test, and is immediately sworn in as a high-ranking member of the president's cabinet. After demonstrating that watering crops with water instead of Gatorade will cause them to grow, he is promoted to vice president, and eventually elected president. The people of Idiocracy may be the dumbest humans to ever live, but they still value intelligence, competency, and demonstrable truth. There's a hopeful optimism there that things will get better if they can only be shown the error of their ways.

Don't Look Up - presidential administration
Copyright: 20th Century Fox, 2006.
Idiocracy - president
Copyright: Netflix, 2020.
Don't Look Up is being compared to Idiocracy. I'm not sure the comparison is apt.
Idiocracy is far less cynical and more hopefully optimistic.

Don't Look Up is far more cynical. It isn't just that the political and corporate leadership are stupid; they are outright maliciously evil. The world of Don't Look Up isn't populated with well-meaning Homer Simpsons; it's all narcissistic, self-serving Mr. Burnses. They are only stupid when it comes to thinking about the welfare of the general public, because they don't actually care about the general public. But when it comes to self-serving action, they are diabolically calculating, clever, and manipulative. Nobody in power in Don't Look Up means well by the general public. If it doesn't make them richer or more powerful, or preserves their quality of life at the expense of everyone else's, they simply don't care.

I don't think that Mike Judge imagined such a world, even in his worst nightmares.

Don't Look Up starts with a graduate student astronomer discovering a comet at the edges of the solar system that is on a direct collision course with Earth. The comet is big enough to trigger an extinction-level event, and it is due in a matter of months. She and her mentor attempt to warn the President -- a satire of the nepotistic Trump administration. What follows is a "comedy" of politicians and the general public failing to heed the warnings of experts because the truth is so inconvenient. Politically inconvenient. Economically inconvenient. Personally inconvenient.

Call it an allegory for anthropogenic climate change, or call it an allegory for the COVID pandemic. Either way, we see a political party and its constituents completely unwilling to take any meaningful mitigation steps because they see the potential for the comet to make them richer, even at the risk of destroying the world. A large portion of the general public is willing to go along with it, adopting the motto "don't look up", as the comet becomes plainly visible to the naked eye, and getting bigger and closer every day: an undeniable, inconvenient truth, heading straight for us.

Don't Look Up - Rally Copyright: Netflix, 2020.
It has become politically convenient to deny demonstrable reality.

But this is kind of where the metaphor of Don't Look Up fails miserably -- whether you see it as a metaphor for climate change or for COVID. The real problems that we face are not an un-stoppable celestial force on a collision course. And for this, we are actually lucky.

The science-denying viewers of Fox News and so forth are not denying the existence of a planet-cracking comet on a direct collision course. Our actual real-world problems are much more manageable from a public policy standpoint, assuming our leaders would just have the decency to admit the truth to the population, and the political will to preserve the future, even if it is costly at the present. But already, climate change is costing almost a trillion dollars annually in infrastructure damage and lost economic activity. It is estimated to cause over 150,000 deaths annually from heat exposure, drought, famine, and extreme weather associated with climate change. Those numbers are only expected to multiply in the coming decades. If we don't bite the bullet and spend the money now, it will only become more expensive later, and will only kill millions more people.

Better yet, unlike with a comet, we don't have to wait for politicians. There are actual things that each and every one of us can do in our personal lives to help mitigate the problem. You or I could not, no matter how hard we tried or wanted to, change the course of a comet. But we, each of us, can take small actions to fight climate change, pandemics, and socio-political inequality, even if our political and economic leaders refuse to take meaningful action.

Pandemics, including the current COVID pandemic, do similar damage to both lives and economies compared to climate change. Again, our policy-makers are slow at responding from a policy standpoint, but we, as individuals can mitigate the spread of disease.

Consume less, and conserve more to reduce your carbon footprint. Get vaccinated. And even if you are vaccinated, don't use it as a free pass to go back to life as usual. Continue to wear a mask in public and practice social distancing whenever and wherever it is practical. Call out bigotry, hate, and authoritarianism whenever you see it. And also vote. There just so happens to be a mid-term election this year, and an opportunity to elect (or re-elect) politicians who just might do something about these problems from a policy standpoint, and an opportunity to remove from office those who stand in the way of progress.

And for the love of all that is good and meaningful, please do look up!

P.S. I really hate the pop culture cliche of the atheists praying to God just before they die. Atheists praying on their death beds is something that just does not happen, unless they are also senile or demented. Or at least, I've never known it to happen. Please, Hollywood, cut that shit out. It almost single-handedly ruined an otherwise believable movie.

Don't Look Up - prayer Copyright: Netflix, 2020.
I really hate this trope in fiction of atheists praying just before they die.

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