“Don’t Look Up” rises in my estimation every time I re-watch it. It’s a surprising thing for a film so utterly goofy, and since the film is so controversial, I thought to write a little note on it.
So let me get straight in. The problem with the “on-the-nose” critique – the most widespread critique of this film – is that it seems to suggest that’s all that need be said. “On-the-nose”, it is understood, is an error by default. But what if the merit of a film lies in how precisely, exactly, directly on-the-nose it is?
“Watch out for him, he’ll charge you for free snacks,” Kate says of Themes – a general, who charges the American taxpayer for the very air that emanates around any item fit for military purchase. It’s perhaps the third or fourth time Kate has mentioned it. The only person who truly validates her pre-occupation with this detail is a dorky skater boy, and the higher up the chain of accreditation, the more normal this ridiculous truth appears. Among ordinary people, though, the detail has unshakeable significance; it’s an absurdity worthy of obsession. How telling. And almost everything that happens in this movie, from the backdrop of a smoking President (“highly flammable”) to Jonah Hill’s brutally precise rendition of the frat boy politician (“I’m sorry – you just – look so bad when you cry”), has this on-the-noseness worthy of applause.
Yet my favourite scene by far remains Peter Isherwell’s monologue to Professor Minsky. Faced with criticism, the Bash CEO invokes the sinister, twisted power-play of the data-keeper:
“You think I’m just a businessman? Do you think you know me, Doctor? Business? This is evolution. This is evolution of the human species. Did you know that BASH has over 40 million data points on you and every decision you’ve made since 1994, Doctor? I know when you have colon polyps months before your doctor does. You’ve got four or five at the moment, actually. You know, they’re not of concern, but I’d have a checkup as soon as you can. But more importantly than that, much more importantly, I know what you are. I know who you are. My algorithms have determined eight fundamental consumer profile types. You are a Lifestyle Idealist. You think you are motivated by beliefs, high ethical beliefs, but you just run towards pleasure and away from pain. Like a field mouse.”
When Professor Minsky tries to interrupt, the CEO intensifies his tirade.
“Our algorithms can even predict how you’ll die with up to 96% accuracy. I looked you up after we first met. Your death was so unremarkable and boring… I can’t even remember what it said. Apart from one thing. You’re going to die alone.”
By the time Isherwell coils demonically into this damning foretelling of Minsky’s boring, lonely death, the Professor has gone pale. But the most brutal, most extraordinary feature of Isherwell’s sociopathy is also the simplest one: he’s utterly, utterly wrong.
Minsky will not die a boring death. Minsky will die in a comet strike – an unprecedented, extraordinary, improbable death. Minsky will not die alone – no. He will die with everyone. He will not die a death foretold by the imperious lord of data, but a death foretold by the very man he interrupts. A death heralded by the failure of the very technology that forms the backdrop of his speech – a technology he calls his son.
Isherwell is not Minsky’s prophet. He is the crumbling custodian of broken 1s and 0s; an infinite wealth of knowledge that knows nothing at all. Isherwell is, in the very moment he speaks, Minsky’s murderer. And he knows not even that.
When Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for literature, the piece performed at his ceremony was “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”. In it, Dylan wrote plainly:
“Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.”
In the end, a nose is a very small thing, and hitting it so precisely in the centre is feat that evades many. It is in fact, the work of the prophet. And prophets, like the Trojan Princess Cassandra, are not riddle-writers. They are doomed to speak truths that glare too disquietingly with accuracy, and for this crime are never heard.
This is the point of Don’t Look Up. It reads like a gag. It accosts us with its brazenness. Like Kate’s hysterical warning, it is “too much”.
But it’s devastatingly true.
And… it didn’t change anything at all.