Is the world ending this weekend? Probably not, but you can always hope.
Earlier this month, NASA revealed that an asteroid roughly the size of the Eiffel Tower was going to be coming close to Earth around December 11th. The chances of catastrophe are beyond minuscule, but that didn’t keep plenty of people from crossing their fingers for an extinction event to eradicate every living thing on this planet.
Of course, film fans couldn’t help but see this news and also think, “Wow, nice timing for Don’t Look Up.” If you’re not aware, that’s the forthcoming comedy from filmmaker Adam McKay (The Big Short, Vice), which imagines a scenario in which scientists discover that a deadly comet is heading right toward Earth. Civilization has only six months to figure out a plan to avert certain doom! But in McKay’s movie, that news doesn’t inspire the nations of the world to work together. Mostly, the media downplays the worry, the White House tries to squash the news because it’s bad for the president’s poll numbers and individuals become asteroid-deniers. Don’t Look Up is a disaster movie, but it’s a sarcastic, enraged disaster movie.
While it’s not the only problem with Don’t Look Up, McKay’s movie fundamentally misunderstands something basic about disaster movies — and human nature — by being incensed that the population is unconcerned about saving life on Earth. There have been disaster movies for decades that have presented audiences with all types of harrowing ways we could be obliterated: massive asteroid, ferocious alien invasion, global calamity, the Titanic hitting that iceberg. On one level, I suppose we’re meant to be horrified by what might happen in those situations. But on some deeper, truer level, I think something else happens: I think we relish watching the carnage. Honestly, every disaster movie is about how much we want to see shit get wrecked, even if it’s the shit where we live.
McKay’s movie is an obvious metaphor for global warming — a real and present danger that even those of us who recycle and drive electric cars aren’t doing enough to combat. We’re as nonchalant about our planet’s peril as the vain, ignorant fools that the film’s astronomers Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) encounter as they try to whip up public support for doing anything to prevent the comet strike. Don’t Look Up eventually boils down to a tiresome, finger-wagging condemnation of the media, the politicians and the internet, but what McKay doesn’t entirely wrestle with is that those outside forces aren’t necessarily what make us so apathetic. And disaster movies are themselves a key to understanding that.
Of course, disaster movies come in all forms. In the 1970s, when they were especially popular, you had burning buildings (The Towering Inferno), faulty luxury liners (The Poseidon Adventure), natural disasters (Earthquake) and airplane malfunctions (Airport). Generally speaking, though, the idea tends to be “We have put our faith in something” — usually, technology — “but that thing has let us down.” Sometimes, a scientist would try to warn others of the looming threat, but the dummies won’t listen, and catastrophe happens — which is good, because otherwise you have no movie. But even before and after the 1970s, disaster movies were a thing, putting viewers in the position of watching civilization get upended by terror. Quite often, it was awfully exciting.
I have never forgotten seeing The Day After Tomorrow opening weekend here in Los Angeles. You remember, that’s the Roland Emmerich film about a superstorm (I think) that wreaks havoc after global warming becomes so severe (I think). What mattered was that lots of shit got messed up — including the historic Capitol Records Building in Hollywood. Now, in theory, seeing a regional landmark get pulverized in a storm — especially one caused by global warming — should be a chilling warning of what our future could be. But that response wasn’t what happened in my theater: People cheered. Hell yeah, the Capitol Records Building got trashed! I know that place! A similar thing happened in Emmerich’s previous disaster movie, Independence Day, when the aliens vaporize a building downtown. There were whoops of recognition — just like when the White House got blown to bits. Of course, popcorn movies like this are pure escapism, but our giddiness at watching destruction — especially destruction of stuff we know — speaks to something primal within us. Let the planet burn. Let it all burn.
We’re suckers for spectacle — comic book films feature lots of explosions and whole cities getting leveled — so it’s not like disaster movies are our only outlet for such kicks. But there’s something very specific about that genre that seems to appeal to our most fatalistic qualities. Especially during the pandemic, America has shown itself to be a “fuck it” culture, basically deciding not to expect too much and assume that stuff’s gonna just suck all the time. You could say that the endless string of post-apocalyptic movies and TV shows this century has only further exacerbated this tendency: We don’t perceive them to be a vision of some potentially terrible future but, in fact, a slightly amped-up representation of our shitty present.
And, weirdly, that’s fine with us. Daily life is filled with so many uncertainties and miseries, but post-apocalyptic films simplify our struggles. We don’t have to ponder the meaningless of existence or the crushing weight of our college debt — we can just fight zombies or the robot uprising or roving bands of marauders. And the scenery will be way more epic.
There’s a sneaky comfort to disaster movies and post-apocalyptic fiction, which present a worst-case scenario that’s surprisingly cathartic. We spend so much of our time putting our best foot forward in real life, trying to make the best out of unideal situations, that a disaster flick can feel like a relief: In those stories, shit’s already gone bad, and we’ve got to rely on our wits to stay alive. I used to have a roommate who, pre-Y2K, kept fantasizing about everything imploding after the grid collapsed. He figured he’d be able to survive easier than so many other people who weren’t prepared for doomsday. He genuinely hoped the end would come — it was something he seemed to be looking forward to. I’ve never stopped thinking about that.
Of course, in real life, people are actually pretty emotional about famous landmarks being destroyed. Two years ago when a fire devastated the Notre-Dame Cathedral, the world mourned. And who can forget the trauma of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center? Beyond the obscene loss of so many innocent lives, the fact that the terrorists struck such a well-known New York building only made the shock more intense. But in the abstract, in movies, we don’t have to face those real-world implications. We can just enjoy the mayhem. There are no consequences, there’s no tragedy. Let all those people on the Titanic slip into their watery graves, just so long as the effects look cool.
It’s a bold idea for McKay to bring a dose of reality to a genre that tends to embrace the outlandish. (There are exceptions, of course: Contagion is a stripped-down disaster movie that imagines how a deadly virus would actually affect humanity, intentionally avoiding the sort of “We’re all gonna die!” spectacle we’re used to seeing. Which might explain why it was so popular during the lockdown.) But, by and large, we don’t turn to movies like Don’t Look Up for realism — we want to live out our fantasies of impending disaster, getting a vicarious thrill from seeing some segment of society get theirs. We want to watch the world be destroyed but not die ourselves.
We’re nearly 25 years removed from the release of Deep Impact and Armageddon, two very different films about the planet’s demise. In the former, a comet is coming, while in the latter it’s an asteroid, but either way, it’s bad news for humanity. Those two movies are going to be compared to Don’t Look Up a lot because of their similar storylines. Deep Impact was more of a character-driven drama, examining a group of individuals as they prepared for the inevitable, while Michael Bay’s opus offered blockbuster excitement: We’re gonna kick that asteroid’s ass!
Bay’s movie was better, but if it came out now, I wonder if it would have had a different ending. Sure, Ben Affleck and the boys would have still saved the day, but to miss out on all that potential destruction seems like such a waste. Audiences want a happy ending, but when it comes to disaster movies, they also want their money’s worth — they want Earth to get trashed.
That craving plays into a resigned sense I think a lot of us have about the planet’s sustainability. We know we can’t do enough to reverse the decades of damage that global warming has wrought. We know nothing can save us. The hovering despair of that realization is too much to bear. So instead we run into the comforting arms of a disaster movie, which turns that anxiety into visually striking annihilation. The end is nigh, and we’re impatient for it to get here. At least at the movies it’ll be exhilarating to watch.