Barring a few exceptions, Americans have been the saviours of the world in Hollywood flicks until now, until Don’t Look Up. Spoiler Alert: if you don’t like spoilers, read no further.
Two astronomers — Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) — discover that a comet between five and ten kilometers wide is hurtling towards the earth with a 99.78% probability of hitting the planet full and square, causing a certain extinction of life on the planet in about six months from the date of the discovery. The astronomers, understandably alarmed, bring the bad news to the notice of everybody in a position to do something about it, including the President of the United States. And what does the President do after making the scientists wait for many hours despite knowing fully well the kind of literally end-of-the-world news they were carrying? “Sit tight and assess,” the President says. The son of the Trump-like President rejoices in the fact that the probability of 99.78% was 0.22% short of absolute certainty, meaning a near-certainty, not being a certainty, somehow was good enough news for him.
The film is meant to be a satire, and it hardly feels like one except in short snatches, and even there, things don’t seem all that implausible, given that so many things we thought impossible have actually happened and with surprising (or startling) ease, both there in America and here in India. So we are left with the feeling that if those many impossible things could come to happen, why couldn’t a few more such?
The President chooses to sit tight and asses in the face of the doomsday news because it’s politically inexpedient to act at that point of time, and when she finds herself in a tough political spot, she decides to offer a “presidential apology” to the astronomers and decides to throw everything they have at the problem because, in the changed circumstances, it is politically useful to divert the attention of the public to a bigger crisis than the muck-storm that suddenly hits the presidency.
But the President wants to make a grand show of it to convince the American people of their own greatness, and the greatness of the “political leadership” that made American Great Again, or — in a different country — wake an ancient civilization to make the world take note of its greatness, past and present. All because of the towering leader — the bold, strong mover of things, shaker and destroyer of evil like some mythical god.
At one point, a frustrated Dr. Randall Mindy goes ballistic, asking if we couldn’t even agree on the simple fact that a giant comet “the size of Mount Everest” was hurtling towards the earth, even after having seen the comet through a telescope and having taken pictures of it, “how do we even talk to each other?!” “What the hell happened to us?!” He screams. Exactly. What happened to us? How did we get to a point where indubitable truth could be convincingly denied, and a majority of people (or at least a majority of the general majority) would find it believable, a large bunch of them well-educated and otherwise reasonably intelligent, which is not only way more surprising than anything else, but is also the most baffling problem because if education and ready availability of information at one’s fingertips fail to engender critical thinking and people continue to be led by propagandist conspiracy theories, where can one find hope?
And that’s the point of the movie. If we make the truth subject to political convenience, it is bound to result in our spiraling uncontrollably into the vortex of unmitigated disaster, which might literally bring about the end of the world in a certain political climate with a certain kind of people holding the reins, and such people, as shown in the film, look so much like the people who currently control the political apex, and the popular tendencies, as we see in the film, seem disturbingly similar to those we see around us these days. The only saving grace is the absence of a comet headed for impact. But if there was one, would we respond any differently from the apathetic fashion in which the political and corporate leadership responds in the film. Maybe, maybe not. But I shudder to think that there is an undeniably “maybe”.
American media, both print and electronic, certainly doesn’t appear to be as docile and flippant as shown in the film, and the other nations — particularly Russia, China and India — would not completely fail to present a viable solution in a crisis like that, even if American leadership finds itself hamstrung by such “compelling” political considerations that could only be described as selfish, shallow and callous. The problem is, while India has the same mindless polarization weakening its democratic framework that plagues the American polity, the other two — Russia and China — may not be completely free of some form of the same or similar rot.
But if they are not, and we end up looking towards them for the protection of the planet, what would it say about the world’s largest democracy on the one hand, and the world’s most successful and powerful democracy on the other? That, left in the hands of the advocates of rational, collective choices and champions of human freedoms, the world is doomed? That democracies of the world need to be saved from themselves just because people are incapable of reason and are a little too prone to fall for political manipulation and conspiracy theories?
And, yes, there is a Planetary Defence Coordination Office, and there indeed is the Interagency Working Group (IWG) for Detecting and Mitigating the Impact of Earth-bound Near-Earth Objects (DAMIEN), but would they matter if TV anchors casually question scientific evidence like they were talking of another celebrity fling?
Don’t Look Up thrashes climate change deniers, the flat-earthers, the anti-vaxxers, and other such fantastical conspiracy theorists, the planet-killer comet being a metaphor for any disaster brought about by irrational, bias-driven denial of facts. The film sounds a warning not just against the random and baseless questioning of hard scientific evidence, but also against turning away from the facts when they do not conform to one’s preconceived notions, for it can only result in a complete disaster? That’s what happens in the film. The planet gets destroyed because the political leadership manages to hoodwink people into questioning the very existence of an in-coming comet until it’s too late. The slogan is “Don’t Look Up!”, like not looking up could make the comet disappear magically, but that’s what we are being told to do — don’t ask questions; just sit tight and let the supreme leader lead you to collective nirvana. That’s not happening, of course, but shhh… don’t ask; speak for the leader, if speak you must, else it might be found in the national interest to silence you.
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