By Michael Brennan
Adam McKay and David Sirota’s new film Don’t Look Up is an exercise in what Mark Fisher has called “capitalist realism,” literalizing the provocation that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” In the film, McKay and Sirota imagine the discovery of an approaching large comet that will destroy all life on Earth in six months and the futile attempts to convince the public to act to avert extinction. Leonardo DiCaprio describes the film as “an analogy of modern day culture and our inability to hear and listen to scientific truth,” particularly regarding climate change and COVID. Here, the media are positioned as the primary obstacle to an effective public response, the title Don’t Look Up referring to the tendency cultivated by neoliberal media to deny scientific truth (e.g. climate or COVID deniers). The film’s call to action is for the audience to reject this death drive by “just looking up:” to face the scientific truth of our crises directly in order to take action.
The trouble with the film’s central critique is that it reinforces a problematic liberal theory of media as a private “marketplace of ideas” led by influencers. This prevents viewers from critically analyzing media as contestable public infrastructure. Sirota, an investigative journalist who worked as Senator Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign speechwriter and surrogate, considers the film a “success” for dominating Twitter and Netflix trends and spreading awareness about the need for public action on climate change. But this alleged success is in tension with the liberal “Just Look Up” approach that the film shows to be ineffective. Proponents are assumed to be using media to drive people toward “climate action” whereas critics are reduced to symptoms of the media problem diagnosed in the film. This logic ends in a doom spiral. Having ourselves “looked up” at truth by watching the film, we are driven toward despair at our own lack of agency in the face of neoliberal media. We are led to accept capitalist realism’s fatalistic view of the impending end of the world. Media is wholly captured and alternatives are unimaginable.
This essay explores a way out of this trap by flipping McKay and Sirota’s critique on its head. The film’s disavowal of mediation, I suggest, is the imaginative barrier to saving the world from capitalism.
Don’t Look Up’s initial pacing is frenetic. Astronomy grad student Kate Dibiasky and her professor Dr. Randall Mindy discover the comet and straightaway send the data upstream to U.S. President Janie Orlean. This setup induces an immediate suspicion of media in the audience since the bureaucracy is reflexively against scientific facts that would disrupt neoliberalism’s automatic churning. The plot unfolds from this negative institutional premise, flattening media to the propaganda model proposed in Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent (1988). On this model, the dominant mass media system consists of financialized corporate conglomerates driven by advertising revenue and stock value appreciation. With austere budgets and management, journalists and analysts are structurally reliant on elite access and get institutional flak if they dissent. Similarly in the film, President Orlean and her Chief of Staff son Jason Orlean cover up the comet ahead of the midterms until they realize they can boost their polling by projecting nationalist strength. The talking heads of the primetime cable news show “The Daily Rip” disregard the doomsday message, preferring pop stars Riley Bina and DJ Chello’s relationship drama for its trending value in the information economy. When the corporate media does eventually become concerned with the comet, it is as an accessory in a profitable culture war between the “Just Look Up” liberals and “Don’t Look Up” comet deniers.
Bash Cellular founder/CEO Peter Isherwell, an Elon Musk/Jeffrey Epstein-derived billionaire and President-whisperer, is the political system’s puppet master and the film’s personification of Capital. He is introduced at a Silicon Valley presentation of his new Artificial Intelligence (AI), BashLiif. This AI is designed to be “fully integrated into your every feeling and desire without needing to say one single word” in order to generate exact micro-targeted content. As part of the film’s anxious world-building, Isherwell is immediately associated with our own impending “metaverse,” the web3/cryptocurrency promise to “disintermediate” the Internet as a totally immersive digital space. His emphasis on direct feelings and the technology literally “touching” the user (personified in his implied pedophilia) is symptomatic of what Scott Ferguson identifies as an unconscious tendency of neoliberal aesthetics: to make the world “real” to the audience by compulsively reinforcing sensory immersion. While McKay and Sirota rightly draw out this frightening tendency, their approach—for the audience to “look up” at scientific truth to take action on climate change—still plays into such fantasies of immediacy and immersion. Overcoming this reduction of truth to sensuous immediacy requires deeper reflection about our philosophical priors than the film allows. In particular, we need to attend to the liberal understandings of media and politics that underlie the film.
Doomsday First, Media Second
Liberal political philosophy relies on the idea of a “state of nature,” where humans first encounter the world and each other at a sensuous and immediate level, before agreeing to enter into relations of social interdependence. Absolute freedom is inherent to this private human condition, with public governance emerging as a secondary phenomenon. This is analogous to the “barter myth” underpinning the liberal theory of money, where the direct exchange of commodities precedes money as a second-order medium. For a liberal theory of media, speech is also considered first as a pre-political practice of private individuals, before it is regulated by law as individuals become citizens. Media is thus naturalized as a “marketplace of ideas”—a private sphere of free individuals communicating with government intervention occurring after the fact. In the liberal frame, the individual or collective subject knows empirical truth through the immediacy of the senses; any social meaning or interpretation is considered superfluous “spin” to base reality.
Each of these liberal premises rest on the same ahistorical flaw: sequencing individuals to be metaphysically prior to the public. Contrary to the liberal story, it is in truth impossible to give a full account of who we are and what we do without reference to the symbolic media that organize our circumstances in the first place. As Maxximilian Seijo argues, Christine Desan’s constitutional theory of money provides the basis for an alternative theory of media. Desan describes money as a “governance project” and a “mode for mobilizing resources,” an inescapable problem of social accounting that persists throughout history (for better and worse). Just as with money, communications are an inescapable governance project that shapes and names all that is caught in it. Understanding the nature of mediation—as the boundless site of public coordination—is key to opening the imaginative space for capacious public action.
With this frame in mind, Don’t Look Up’s reductive decision framework comes into critical focus. Because media is presented as totally enclosed by capital, the theory of change is narrowed to a binary choice: to lean in or drop out. Dr. Mindy leans in to play the role of sexy scientist spokesman for the White House, a figure reminiscent of Carl Sagan teaching about the cosmos or Dr. Fauci soothing the public by personifying the aesthetics of a confident bureaucratic state. Despite disagreeing with the profit-seeking turn of the mission, his justification for taking up this role is to secure his inclusion in the decision-making room with the President. Dibiasky, meanwhile, at first leans in as the public critic. She gives voice to the film audience’s own frustration with the media, reinforcing our view of her as a protagonist. Once Isherwell’s plot to mine the comet is revealed, however, Dibiasky drops out and is disciplined by the police-state for stirring up dissent. When Dibiasky tells the crowd at the bar that “they are going to let it hit the planet to make a bunch of rich people even more disgustingly rich”—one of the film’s few moments that gestures towards sites of politics beyond the main characters—we cut to a spontaneous mob destroying private property. Emblematizing the film’s broader rejection of media, McKay and Sirota depict the trope of riots as violent outbursts by masses of individuals, located outside of a coherent theory of change, rather than as mediated collective tactics. Later, when Dr. Mindy tries to lobby Isherwell on the flaws of his plan to mine the comet for its resources, Isherwell shuts him down, articulating his view of himself as not a businessman but a God overseeing the techno-evolution of humankind. With no alternative, Dr. Mindy melts down on TV and drops out, leaving no one and nowhere left to make change.
Money as Media
Two seemingly incidental instances in which the film overtly thematizes money lay bare the impasses of its approach to media. The first comes at the beginning as Dibiasky and Dr. Mindy wait outside the Oval Office with Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe and General Themes to brief President Orlean about the comet. Themes asks the other three for cash to pay for the White House-provisioned snacks, only for them to discover later that the snacks were free. Dibiasky is continually perplexed by this absurd petty theft, eventually concluding the military official did it because “he gets off on the power.” At one level, this instance laments the supposedly selfish part of our nature that wants power for its own sake. Yet this scene also registers an intuitive disbelief that money could be reduced to such a petty end in-itself when sitting in the heart of American power, implying a yearning for a more convincing account.
The second instance occurs at the White House Cabinet meeting after the first attempt to nuke the comet is mysteriously aborted. Isherwell presents Bash Cellular’s internal research that the comet “contains almost $140 trillion worth of assets,” including a supposed $32 trillion of critical rare-Earth materials for Bash’s technologies. (This critique ironically ends up undermining itself by naturalizing an accelerationist resource war with China as an inherent impulse of personified capital.) Isherwell and President Orlean’s new proposal is to break the comet into small enough pieces to not be an existential threat but to allow it to still impact the Earth so the materials can be recovered for profit. According to Isherwell, this money will supposedly be used to end “poverty as we know it, social injustice, loss of biodiversity.” The plan gets its popular support for the supposed “job creation” it will provide in the perennially scarce US economy. Yet the public-private partnership ultimately ends in apocalyptic failure, with Bash’s explosive robots malfunctioning mid-mission, not sufficiently breaking apart the comet, and the world ending. “What do these trillions of dollars even matter if we are all going to die from the impact of this comet?” asks a flustered Dr. Mindy.
The protagonists’ perplexity at the micro and macro greed of Themes and Isherwell, respectively, indicates that Just Look Up desires an alternative to a cataclysmic profit motive that the film itself cannot envision. This is precisely what a Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) reading of the film provides. The film’s claim that the comet’s resources are worth $140 trillion implies economic value is intrinsic to an inert external source, which logically trickles down into the justification of “job creation.” But this is absurd on its face since money is not the second-order medium for a commodity’s inherent value. It is a public utility that names what is valuable in the first place.
President Orlean has the legal authority to direct the Treasury to create $140 trillion at any moment. Simply marking up the government’s bank account at the Federal Reserve, the disbursement would only go into the economy to finance spending that has been authorized by Congress. (Indeed, this is the point of recurring proposals to mint $1 trillion coins). The true political question is: What ought to be named as valuable in a public budget, which public money then accounts for and coordinates? Such operations are proven tacitly earlier in the film, when President Orlean mobilizes the seemingly unlimited capacity of the military to nuke the comet. Thus the film actually resolves the money question from the outset, despite stumbling back upon it for the tragic remainder of the film. In this way, Don’t Look Up proceeds like its protagonist Dr. Mindy, knowing intuitively to contest Isherwell’s claim that the comet is worth $140 trillion but lacking the language to destabilize the liberal premise of private money.
Looking Up’s Contradiction
Strangely, the strategy that follows from the film’s contradictory liberal theory of media is explicitly shown to be ineffective late in the film. The comet approaches and becomes directly visible, rendering the threat no longer “abstract,” but rather an empirical fact. This leads to the viral “Just Look Up” trend, a last ditch effort to overcome comet denialism and mobilize the public to act. People had been initially reliant on media to communicate to them the relevant scientific information. The comet becoming visible, however, occasions an event of “disintermediation,” where people can instead rely on their senses to directly know reality. At President Orlean’s “Don’t Look Up” rally, this seemingly proves successful when the MAGA crowd turns on Orleans after looking up to see they were tricked.
In the end, however, temporary success gives way to disaster. True disintermediation is not possible. When one uses their senses to interpret the external world’s representations, including when viewing a comet with the naked eye, those inputs are still mediated as knowledge via language, culture, ecology, etc. They do not constitute a higher form of “direct” relationship to reality. This is the liberal theory’s contradiction. We see this again in “Just Look Up’s” plea for other countries to defy the US and launch their own comet interception mission. Such appeals still depend on the attention economy trending power of Riley Bina’s immersive pop music experience at “The For Real Last Concert To Save The World.” She calls on the audience to “listen to the goddamn qualified scientists” but offers no further strategy other than to continue passively participating in media.
McKay and Sirota seem to acknowledge the Just Look Up strategy’s contradiction, since it ultimately ends in apocalypse. But the film intentionally makes the very same move, encouraging the audience to have a direct relationship with the scientific facts of climate change while itself still participating in media. Sirota consistently highlights the “success” of the film based on its trending power, while simultaneously calling out “shitlibs” for lacking a coherent theory of change. Just as Dr. Mindy failed to destabilize Isherwell’s premise of private money, McKay and Sirota do not destabilize a liberal theory of media. Instead, they reinforce the assumed binary option to either lean in or drop out of the corrupt marketplace of ideas. This implicates everyone in the sin of participating in media, including the filmmakers as well as their critics. But whereas they participate knowingly and for the right cause, critics are interfering with the activist message to “look up” at the truth and take action, which functions as an effective bludgeon against supposedly “superfluous” and “distracting” posting detached from the “real world.” Thus Riley Bina’s concert functions as a synecdoche for the film as a whole: an absurd and ineffective spectacle that treats the audience as passive consumers of external media.
Affirming Public Media
What would a genuinely public media strategy look like? Media, properly understood, plays constitutive roles in organizing popular support for public action. The film gestures toward this with Dr. Mindy’s role as public intellectual. He is practicing a Carl Sagan-esque mode of media participation (implied directly in the first scene with his bobblehead on Dibiasky’s desk). He promotes a hotline (set up as a public-private partnership between FEMA and Bash Cellular) for people experiencing anxiety to discuss the comet with scientists “for peace of mind.” Yet the depth of Sagan’s style of popular engagement with schools, member organizations, research and academic institutions, etc., is not explored here. While promising, such solutions are insufficient for the task of shaping the world.
To begin to answer this question, a public media strategy can borrow frames from previous public actions. This is the basic approach of the Green New Deal (GND), which uses the familiar New Deal framing to open imaginative space for a similar policy regime today. The demand for a Third Reconstruction from Rev. William Barber II and the Poor People’s Campaign (itself drawing on the familiar narrative of Dr. King’s later organizing) returns to the public task of the incomplete Black Reconstruction following the Civil War to create new space to imagine its completion.
But to be a fully public media strategy, we must go a step further by holistically designing the media of the programs themselves. Seijo gestures in this direction by drawing from the experience of the 1930s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Here, Seijo critically assesses how the New Deal’s economic programs are shaped by and possess their own media texture:
“From its inception, the CCC was more than simply an employment or conservation programme. Rather, like much of the New Deal, the CCC was both a political and a communications project. From the political creation of the money needed to fund the programme, to the strategic placement of the laborers’ camps, to its architects’ rhetorical emphasis on the ‘wilderness’ or ‘frontier’ over the perceived artificiality of urban environments, to the robust media apparatus that bolstered the popularity of the programme – the CCC reveals the propagandistic nature of public policy development in the New Deal. It is for this reason that its intertextual web of informational activism was of such profound importance to its achievements.”
On Seijo’s analysis, the CCC was a holistic media project, an explicitly normative attempt to shape the material and aesthetic world, the success of which lives on today. GND advocates are currently pursuing a modern CCC as part of Congress’ pending Build Back Better Act, demonstrating the staying power of designing public jobs programs as media. Seijo goes on to outline the media lessons from the past for a GND today:
“With such a history in mind, the GND could foster broader support among the public at large, through both the material and aesthetic experience of its effects. For example, the GND must consider its public relations effort not simply as a campaign that aims to influence individuals in a so-called marketplace of ideas. Rather, the GND needs to incorporate its public media governance within the material manifestations of such projects – in signs, artwork, screen media content, localized and scaled public addresses, etc.”
In contrast to Seijo, McKay and Sirota deny this imaginative space by relegating media to so-called “culture wars” and reducing said culture wars to superfluous media distractions. They fail to represent actually-existing contested public media spaces—workplaces, neighborhoods, universities, community meetings, protests, mutual aid, etc.—thus obscuring those strategic media terrains. What is more, crises such as climate change, the pandemic, nuclear war have more uneven time horizons than the binary “doomsdate” of the comet, allowing a pluralism of media strategies to develop and flourish. It is, of course, urgent that we act quickly since we also don’t have long.
There are ample opportunities for shaping public media in the response to the type of disasters allegorized by Don’t Look Up comet. These do not necessarily need to be government-run programs to be “public media” in the broader sense intended. But they should be nested within political struggles for re-orienting public money for public purposes, including full employment. For media to address such crises, however, we must first open up our ability to imagine new possibilities.