REALITY'S LAST WORD: Review of "Don't Look Up"
Comedic film director Adam McKay's new film Don't Look Up is a study in cultural nihilism. It is an effort in comedic social satire, in a culture where satire has difficulty in getting cognitive traction. McKay has set out to warn us that cultural nihilism is a significant social problem. This is for him a difficult task in that it demands getting people to "give a shit" when the problem being analyzed is "not giving a shit." One must excuse the crass language, but this is how these views are commonly expressed by normal people. And here, self-righteous religious linguistic virtue signaling is to miss the point of the larger cultural crisis.
Nihilism is the belief that life is meaningless. Cultural nihilism is a society-wide low-grade sense of restlessness, depression, and hopelessness. It is evidenced in random urban violence, smash-and-grab robberies, homelessness, suicide, lower rates of marriage, and declining fertility. It is not caused by liberal elite professors or coastal mainstream media. Its sources are not found between the covers of a book of philosophy. Its sources are much more likely found on our iPhone. They are much more ubiquitous and unavoidable. And it is a reality that effects everyone regardless of their religious orientation or political loyalties.
The problem has a genealogy. The Medieval Age of Faith was replaced by the Enlightenment's Age of Reason. More recently people have realized that the Enlightenment's social influence was based largely on borrowed intellectual capital from earlier Christian sources. Today these wells are running dry. Christian and Enlightenment beliefs no longer have a cultural binding address—they have lost their cultural traction. American democracy was built on a hybrid merger of these two sources often summarized as liberalism. Today fewer and fewer people believe in an unquestioning manner the assumptions on which liberalism is based. Democracy having exhausted its intellectual and moral resources is increasingly devolving into partisan power paralysis.
There are those conservative populist critics who want to blame our current cultural nihilism on the ideas of academic elites. Church historian Carl Trueman makes such an attempt in The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, implicating the likes of Nietzsche, Marx, Darwin, and Freud. He claims that "these effectively strip away the metaphysical foundations for both human identity and for morality, leaving the latter, as Nietzsche is happy to point out, a matter of mere taste and manipulative power games." These prevalent ideas certainly do play a role in our current demise and it is not surprising that Trueman as an intellectual historian would make this his focus. But the sources of our cultural nihilism are much less intellectual and much more about the underlying assumptions made about everyday life by everyday people. McKay paints these assumptions with a broader brush than Trueman. It turns out that the picture here reveals a reality that is much closer to home. The nihilism he decries is reinforced, if not caused, by consumerism, social media, technology, and politics. The mix of these four factors serve as the catalytic accelerant of pop nihilism among the masses. He unfolds their influence in the story he tells.
The foil for McKay's analysis of cultural nihilism is an impending apocalyptic extinction of the planet by an incoming comet. This "planet killer" event is met initially with uniform disinterest and skepticism. When this is no longer possible, the event is then reframed as an economic opportunity. In a high stakes version of cancel culture, the scientists who first warn the public of the event are marginalized as political enemies, written off as conspiracy extremists, and labelled as psychologically unstable. There is nothing that they do that can get through the uniform social disregard and trivialization of the impending disaster. All their efforts are met with a collective "Meh." In the facing of impending doom, one news anchor says, "I just want to drink and talk trash about other people." Nothing can pull the Nietzschean herd out of the distortions of their own self-centered, denial-oriented, pleasure-seeking, techno-optimistic, reality-denying hall of mirrors. Their nihilism digs their own graves and seals their fate.
In the end, the scientists who first sounded the alarm, give up trying to warn others. Instead, they come to a place of acceptance of death that reorients them back to family, hospitality, shared memories, and prayer. Off the grid, they reconnect with deeper priorities of forgiveness, connection, and gratitude.
McKay's social satire is not subtle because the depths of the problem are not subtle. Like his character his warning screams in disbelief. His story is one of absurd comedic satire that is barely satire. It's more like the evening news. For McKay the problem can't be minimized. He doesn't leave that option. To try to make partisan defensive political points or to rationalize the techno-utopianism is to undercut his analysis and miss his assessment:
We're in a lot of cultural trouble and we don't have any meaningful ways to address these troubles within the time frame that reality demands or with the social imaginaries to which we normally appeal. We are screwed.
Social life—unlike its daily superficial appearance—is inherently fragile. Chaos and anarchy reside just around the corner. McKay's fictitious comet might well be replaced in our next news cycle with several obvious candidates: a more lethal global pandemic, a world war with China, an incursion of Israel by Iran, a Russian military incursion of Ukraine, an irrational act by an unstable dictator in North Korea, a tipping point in the climate crisis, a terror attack at the winter Olympics, another global financial collapse, a missile attack on a key satellite, or a successful cyber hack of our electrical grid. None of these scenarios are far-fetched. They are all more likely than a planet killing comet. We recall that World War I began after the assassination of a second-rate political figure in a second-rate country. Within weeks the world was at war. It only takes a spark to ignite our world and we are far more interconnected now than in 1914. When the alarm sounds, and the crisis presents itself will we be able to respond with more than "Meh." This is the question that "Don't Look Up" asks.
We are ill prepared to face such an eventuality as we cannot even agree on the nature of reality. We can't even agree when a crisis is a crisis. We call geopolitical failure and military incompetence an "extraordinary success." What we see with our own eyes, the media denies or deflects. We are well into the double-speak of George Orwell, the denial of empirical reality, the politicization of science, and the uniform media erasure of countervailing views. McKay's satire rings true because it is true. We attempt to use such comedic cinematic satire as a lighthearted effort to make us laugh as though it were merely a skit on Saturday Night Live. In fact, it should make us weep and keep us up at night. Film critics question whether McKay adequately gets his audience to care despite throwing a huge amount of cinematic star power at the effort. The problem is not with the director. The story is ultimately about us, the viewer. Our intellectual sloth, emotional numbness, skepticism, dismissive partisanship makes it hard for us to take civilizational crisis seriously. The third act of this story is that reality has the last word. We have been warned.