Thinking about Don't Look Up
This started as a Facebook comment on a friend's post. He wrote a blogpost called 'In Defense of Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up: A Metamodern Reading' and I just HAD to respond. I kept writing and writing and then got a bit embarrassed about how much I'd written, but didn't want to throw any of it out, so decided to post it here, adding in a few bits of explanation. I'll just link to it in his comments (Hi, Greg!).
I saw Don't Look Up in October or November (Brian had been contacted by Netflix and asked if he'd watch it to see if he had anything to say about it. He did*.) - without any knowledge other than “It's got a star-studded cast and it's about a meteor strike..." to which I rolled my eyes “... directed by Adam McKay." Uhm. OK...? That's... weird...? We put off watching it until the night before the link expired and started it up with some reluctance – it was a duty, not a desire. Basically, I'm trying to let you know just how much I was not at all interested in watching it!
But... I loved it!!
The first thing I said to Brian when it finished was 'It's so Metamodern!' There's the reality and the violence of Nature, and the absurdity of politics and the media, and the small moments of meaning, but those things aren't simply juxtaposed with each other, they are also coupled together. Both/Neither The small meaningful moments are made MORE meaningful because the main characters see the entirety of their existence. The running gag 'Why would he charge us for the snacks?' becomes a significantly deeper question when preceded by 'The universe is going to kill us...'
I've worked with writer/director Alex Garland before on a few films. When we first met in the early 2000s, he came up with a sentence that perfectly describes our situation: "In an entirely meaningless universe, our lives are entirely meaningful." If you grasp hold of only one half of that sentence - either one - it can lead you to some dangerous places. If you try to come up with a logical, overarching 'theory of everything' to explain them both, you end up either spouting nonsense or in deep existential angst. Instead, you can - sometimes, admittedly with a lot of work - accept them both. It all means everything and nothing. (Look at how I described this newsletter…)
This links to the idea of 'secular spirituality'- the knowing, accepting and understanding the primacy of scientific knowledge and eschewing ‘the supernatural’, while also being affected deeply by just how endlessly remarkable and literally awesome it is that we are here at all.
"There is meaning in the universe. My children mean something to me. My husband means something to me. The roses blooming in my garden mean something to me. So, there is meaning in the universe, but it is localised: It perhaps only exists here on Earth.
When you start to think in universal time spans, your perception of humanity must necessarily change. Differences of opinion seem pathetic. National borders become ridiculous. The only thing that starts to be important to me is material reality and understanding how it operates and how matter itself came into being in the first place.
Accepting that not only will I die, but so will everyone I know and everyone I don't know – and humanity, and the universe itself – brought me a very deep and profound peace. I don't have to run away from the fear of oblivion. I am not afraid. I celebrate reality. I don't have to pretend that there will be some magic deus ex machina in the third act of my life which will make it all OK and give me a happy ending. It is enough that I exist, that I am here now, albeit briefly, with all of you. And it's an amazing, astonishing, remarkable, totally mind-blowing fucking miracle."
I've been thinking a lot about Metamodernism these past couple years. I found something in my notes that I wrote that I think explains a bit how it differs from modernist and postmodernist thinking...
Modernism: 'Always moving forward'
Postmodernism: 'Always watching passively as the future ends'
Metamodernism: 'Always connected, always alone'
I think some negative responses to the film have come from people viewing the film via a postmodern lens (a detached/cynical/ironic viewpoint). That's understandable, most current films are made that way, most people think that way. Some maybe watched it through a modernist lens (a 'science is everything and more important than really very unamusing, ill-informed beliefs' viewpoint). Maybe a few people watched it through an anti-modernist lens (a kind of anti-science or anti-progress viewpoint). What all of those viewpoints are missing is the positive affect the film creates when watched through a metamodern lens.
Another way of saying it is that on the surface (modern) it's a 'disaster movie complete with scientists discovering the earth is going to be destroyed and then trying to save the day', one step back from the surface (postmodern) it's 'an allegory about climate change/Covid/blahblahblah and the irony and absurdity of humanity's response to it', one step into it (metamodern) it's about 'the meaning of it all'. In order to extract that 'meaning' from it, you need to incorporate both the modern and postmodern readings of the film. You need to recognise and accept the reality of the dangers we face (both in the film and in reality), you need to recognise and accept our ironic and absurd responses to those dangers and finally you need to sincerely reflect on how it all makes you *feel*. Frightened, small, powerless, alone, but also moved, hopeful, reverent, connected to everyone else on the planet. I think this is the ‘post-tragic consciousness’ Greg mentioned in his piece.
“Not everything needs to sound so goddamned clever or charming or likeable all the time. Sometimes, we need to be able to just say things to one another.” — Randall (Leonardo DiCaprio)
I think the film says something to us and it's OK for us to listen.
* Here’s what Brian had to say: