A colossal comet is hurtling towards the earth with a 99.78% chance of causing an “extinction-style event” in approximately six months. What would you do?
As a Muslim, watching director Adam McKay’s Netflix release Don’t Look Up was an unexpected call for introspection into the current state of my faith. I hit ‘watch’ with the assumption that I was getting into a refreshing take on the climate conversation, expecting melting glaciers and emaciated wildlife to feature heavily in the film. What I did not expect was a cinematic lampooning of our distracted society, seemingly almost in deference to morality and faith.
The Plot of Bizarre Proportions
Don’t Look Up opens with astronomers Randall Mindy (Leonardo di Caprio) and Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) making an apocalyptic discovery, and then deciding that the most prudent thing to do would be to alert the White House.
Only, leading the ranks of the most powerful nation on earth is a narcissistic head of state (Meryl Streep) currently running for mid-terms, flanked by an overly-smug chief-of-staff (Jonah Hill) – who also happens to be her son. Sound familiar?Unfortunately, to ratings-obsessed President Orlean, the optics of a doomsday’esque announcement doesn’t look good for polling amidst the current back-and-forthery with her political rival. In spite of indisputable evidence, the two scientists are advised to just “sit-tight and assess.”
Mindy and Dibiasky then decide to take their findings to daytime TV, in the hope that the warning will be heeded with the seriousness an impending crisis deserves. They’re offered a quickie science segment, only to be completely eclipsed by the news that an empty celebrity musician (Ariana Grande) is getting back together with her equally famous beau.
From there the film pretty much follows the duo’s ill-fated attempts to spare the world from a catastrophic end, facing plenty of hubristic personalities and exposing human fallibility along the way.
A Film of Many, Many Themes
At the forefront of Don’t Look Up is helplessness: making us starkly aware of our fragility as mortals and our lack of metaphysical control, represented by the various failed attempts to alter the course/limit the impact of the comet.
The comet is a metaphor for the climate emergency of course, but though the stage is set, the men and women certainly are not merely players. While the actors play their exaggerated roles with allegorical largesse, in between appreciative ‘heh’s, we’re forced to confront the familiarity of it all: that ‘the objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.’ Depraved Pentagon officials, willfully blind talk show hosts, and an eerie tech billionaire looking to monetize off an earth-decimating event, makes for a depressing collage of real life as it stands.
Don’t Look Up is a bleak parable of our times. It’s slapstick criticism of all of contemporary society’s failings: consumer culture, climate/science denialism, government beaurocracy, media biases, celebrity obsession, gender and race prejudices, campaign politics, hedonism, and the sinister machinations of big-tech. That’s a LOT for a single film to take on.
The Religion ConversationBut just as you’ve managed to catch up with the tempo, enter Yule (Timothée Chalamet): an unassuming street-punk, not bearing the onus of many expectations for being introduced so late into the film.
“My parents raised me Evangelical. I hate them, but I found my own way to it. My own relationship,” he says when first professing his stance on the end of times in the film’s first outward conversation on faith.
And while that could have been the close of the ‘religion conversation’ for the film, pleasantly enough, it isn’t.
Yule’s character progresses with a quiet force – far greater in my opinion, than a giant destructive ball of cosmic gas – pinnacling at the movie’s tragic close. In fact, in the midst of the despondency shrouding the film’s climax sequence, it is Yule who plays the most crucial role, literally holding everyone together – with a prayer.
“Dearest Father and Almighty Creator, we ask you for your grace tonight, despite our pride. Your forgiveness despite our doubt. Most of all Lord, we ask you for Your Love to soothe us through these dark times. May we face whatever it is to come in Your Divine Will with courage and open hearts of acceptance. Amen.”
Critical reception to Don’t Look Up has been polarizing, with some of the most popular media outlets slamming the film for either being downright unfunny, or not achieving what it had set out to –i.e. bring the conversation on planetary heating to the fore. However, even the most scathing of critiques have hailed Chalamet’s character as the movie’s saving grace – one that is representative of a gentle, anchored faith; assured in one’s own beliefs and the mercy of his Creator, and at the same time unflinching at the choices of those around him.
This comes as a surprising elevation of monotheism in a largely secular and rationalist society, where the consumerist quest to achieve utopia on earth – through technological progress and material accumulation- acts as the biggest roadblock to worship.
While Don’t Look Up is largely loud, fast-paced, and militant-almost in getting its many themes across, it also noticeably posits religion as a non-dividing force among the progressive dislocation of faith.
The movie addresses infidelity and relationships too. Professor Mindy –a faithful husband and father- is lured by his newfound fame and influence into a self-gratifying tryst with Brie (Cate Blanchett). Once more, the wholesome family unit is uplifted as he eventually chooses to return to the stability of home and family.
What is interesting is that while the entire film feels like it’s smothered with sardonicism, it slows down to make space for introspection. It feels as though the movie is sending the message that there are some things you just don’t laugh about. Political motivations, social media fanaticism, and misogyny, sure; but hands off faith, family, and well, transience of life.
Arguably, the most powerful takeaway from Don’t Look Up for me, was the emphasis on our priorities in relation to the end of times (read: Day of Judgement). Are they self-serving, or revolving around our belief system as they should? If we know that our time on earth is coming to a close (which we do, really), are we ready? Are we heeding the warning signs as seriously as we should, or allowing ourselves to be distracted by a market-driven culture that likens neoliberalism to religion?
“I’m grateful that we tried,” says a tearful Dibiasky as the explosion theatrically ravages its way towards their intimate gathering. Will we be able to say that we did too?
Related article: Film reviews on MuslimMatters
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Source: Muslim Matters