Don't Look Up (Film Review)

Originally published on 27th Dec. 2021 on LessWrong. Discuss it there!

On my uni group’s Discord, we have a running joke: “If the world ended tomorrow, it’d be out of the news cycle in a week”. Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up takes this joke completely literally, and the results are actually pretty funny.

The really quick version

The guy who directed The Big Short and Vice has just released a big-budget, star-studded Netflix movie about extinction risk, and it’s a good movie, probably. Go watch it. Unless you hated The Big Short / Adam McKay’s filmmaking style, then just substitute by reading this post.

Jennifer Lawrence plays an astronomer who discovers an asteroid comet headed for Earth. Everyone will die in about 6 months, unless somebody nukes the comet to make it go away.

Hilarity ensues because all the people in charge are clueless, narcissistic, frivolous, or all three. Literally “the world’s ending, quick gotta take a selfie”, the movie.

Much of this post will focus on ideas about extinction risk and how DLU introduces them. If you’re concerned about spoilers, stop reading here, go watch the movie, and come back. DLU is kind of a “gateway drug” for understanding some of the key problems and concepts in real-life extinction-stopping.

Spoilers for Don't Look Up ahead!

Ideas DLU uses, explained

Extinction Risks (and handling them poorly)

That big idea of the movie, that of course humanity could bungle extinction-level threats, is relatable to those of us interested in preventing those threats. The movie especially comments on the U.S. government’s shitty response to COVID-19.

Many steps in the COVID response are paralleled in the movie1:

For some reason or other, our society has gotten really bad at responding to crises. Instead, humans (especially leaders and decision makers) get bogged down in politics, power games, status signals, and poor incentives. Another LessWrong review of Don’t Look Up goes into more detail about this.

Almost every big threat facing life on Earth, is like this. The comet could be analogized to catastrophic climate change, or the danger of AI superintelligence, or global nuclear war. The only unrealistic part of the movie is where, eventually, the comet is close enough to see, and everyone finally agrees it’s a threat…

Corona was x-risk on easy mode: a risk (global influenza pandemic) warned of for many decades in advance, in highly specific detail, by respected & high-status people like Bill Gates, which was easy to understand with well-known historical precedents, fitting into standard human conceptions of risk, which could be planned & prepared for effectively at small expense, and whose absolute progress human by human could be recorded in real-time happening rather slowly over almost half a year while highly effective yet cheap countermeasures like travel bans & contact-tracing & hand-made masks could—and in some places did!—halt it.

Yet, most of the world failed badly this test; and many entities like the CDC or FDA in the USA perversely exacerbated it, interpreted it through an identity politics lenses in willful denial of reality, obstructed responses to preserve their fief or eek out trivial economic benefits, prioritized maintaining the status quo & respectability, lied to the public “don’t worry, it can’t happen! go back to sleep” when there was still time to do something, and so on.

If the worst-case AI x-risk happened, it would be hard for every reason that corona was easy. When we speak of “fast takeoffs”, I increasingly think we should clarify that apparently, a “fast takeoff” in terms of human coordination means any takeoff faster than ‘several decades’ will get inside our decision loops.

Don’t count on our institutions to save anyone: they can’t even save themselves.

(quote by Gwern, paragraphed here for clarity.)

Simulacra Levels

I don’t know if Adam McKay’s read Zvi’s posts on simulacra levels, but the movie’s probably one of the best at portraying them intuitively.

For those who don’t know, “simulacra levels” are a quick gauge of how connected-to-real-life somebody is. One comment explains it like this:

Level 1: “There’s a lion across the river.” = There’s a lion across the river.

Level 2: “There’s a lion across the river.” = I don’t want to go (or have other people go) across the river.

Level 3: “There’s a lion across the river.” = I’m with the popular kids who are too cool to go across the river.

Level 4: “There’s a lion across the river.” = A firm stance against trans-river expansionism focus grouped well with undecided voters in my constituency.

Level 1 is represented by the scientists, Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) and Dr. Mindy (DiCaprio) and Dr. Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan). They just want humanity to know of the comet’s true danger, and are shocked when the elite politicians and media don’t give the issue respect.

Level 3 is represented by the media, including talk show hosts and Hollywood actors and the InfoWars conspiracy theorists that must show up in every movie’s news montages. They don’t care a lot about what’s happening in the real world, but they do want to show how on-the-team and clever they are. So some people believe the approaching comet is real, some think it’s a government hoax, and some think it will create jobs due to asteroid mining. It doesn’t matter what’s true, what matters is how people talk about it.

Level 4 is represented by the political elites, especially President Orlean (Meryl Streep), who’s basically a female Donald Trump2. On Level 4, you’re not looking at reality or trying to fit in with a tribe of like-minded people. You are basically a political animal, a robot doing stuff to get power and social status, with no care for morality or other people. Think “high-functioning sociopaths climb the ladder, so now the world’s run mostly by sociopaths”, and you get the gist.

Elite Culture and Complacency

The movie definitely echoes some familiar writings about soulless politicians and unrelatable elites. The elite-consensus-culture thing is best exemplified in a scene where DiCaprio’s scientist character is dating a talk show host.

The host was born into a wealthy family, has multiple liberal arts degrees from elite universities, speaks multiple languages, and despises most of the common people. DiCaprio the scientist hails from a midwestern state, with a STEM degree from a different(?) midwestern state. This kinda parallels the “two cultures” and “elites all go to the same schools and think the same” ideas that’ve bounced around here lately.

The entire upper class of society is portrayed as a moral maze, where sociopathic schmoozers win and facts lose. Compare most university or office workplaces, contrast 1960s-era NASA or a Google datacenter. Without incentives tying a politician’s poll numbers to the fate of humanity, the politician ignores the fate of humanity.

As a movie…

This part’s more word-dumpy and opinionated.

I’ve watched Adam McKay’s only two other movies, The Big Short and Vice, multiple times each. Don’t Look Up is a progression of McKay’s filmmaking on at least some axes. The serious and beautiful parts are more legitimately serious and beautiful. The fast-cut parts are faster and more elegant. Someday I will write a full review of Vice, and go into McKay’s style in more depth, but DLU still has Le Funni McKay Wacky Moments (yes, even a freeze-frame on someone’s face looking dumb, which happened several times in Big Short and only like 1-2 times in Vice). DLU is more comedic than Vice, but more dramatic than McKay’s earlier movies.

The things I look for in movies tend to be ideas I find interesting (because they’re good), characters I relate to (usually for bad reasons), and interesting visual things happening (I have ADHD). So I like Requiem for a Dream and Vice for the characters, and The LEGO Movie and The Holy Mountain for the visuals. DLU was basically a retreading of ideas I’ve already heard of (see above), but had not seen in a full movie before. It’s basically obligatory viewing if your Effective Altruist / X-risk movie night has too many factory farming documentaries and you want to show something lighter.

If President Orlean is on Simulacra Level 4, and Kate is on Level 1, Dr. Mindy is a character oscillating between levels. Just as Vice’s Dick Cheney went from normal guy to power-hungry adaptation executor, Dr. Mindy goes from Level 1 scientist to Level 3 team player, back to hopeless Level 1 normal person.

The movie was pretty funny, but I must add three caveats. First, I read a lot of Mad Magazine from a compilation book as a kid. Secondly, I watched the movie with my parents, who are both Boomers. Third, the movie makes fun of social media a lot (though not as poorly as that one scene in Vice). What I’m saying is, the movie might actually secretly be unfunny.

(Also Adam McKay’s humor is very… polarizing. Some people just really dislike his style, and that’s not really something DLU can work around. If your friends hated The Big Short, don’t show them DLU.)

An aspect of the movie that was self-defeating, was the mismatch between style and message.

What I mean is… look, there’s a part where DiCaprio scientist is fed up with the talk show making light of everything. The host discusses the impending extinction of humanity with the same snarky tone as a celebrity breakup. DiCaprio scolds her, and society at large, for losing sight of the facts and retreating into social status games.

And yet the movie is… clever and smarmy and socialiteish. It has a cast of stars, it has Adam McKay’s one-liners, it was produced by the film industry, it will probably get lots of Oscar nominations while polarizing audiences.

One of the morals of COVID, of extinction risks, of Don’t Look Up, is that we need to listen more to abrasive unpopular nerds who don’t “read the room”, and less to clever journalists and public speakers, or else we will all die. And yet, the movie is clever and Adam McKay does not have a STEM degree. Curious.

As another review of the movie notes, even DLU’s portrayal of extinction risks was flawed. Real-life risks are usually caused by “coordination failures”, those points where the elites’ paycheck is disconnected from the world ending. To tell a story with clear villain characters, DLU blames the failure of the comet-destroying mission on a few key people, rather than the incentives/social structures that made them behave that way.

Weirdly, The Big Short handled this sort of thing well, when it explained the Wall Street bankers’ incentives to sell risky mortgages. So McKay can do this well, he just… didn’t?

One thing the movie did uniquely well: it didn’t just cut away from Earth’s destruction. It looked directly at it, showed all the impacts and ripples, all the stuff tearing apart, in a non-2012 no-escape way. Most disaster movies have escape, most final-end movies barely show the end destruction, this movie subverted both.

A couple more things I noticed

  1. H/t Devin for laying out the stages better. ↩︎

  2. With a dash of one or two Clintons, maybe. ↩︎

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