Life is full of questions: Chicken or egg? What is deja vu, really? Did Han shoot first? Does that tree in an empty forest make noise, after all? Or there’s this one, which I haven’t quite been able to solve: What explains our collective impulse to come home from work, change into cozy PJs, pour a big glass of Chardonnay, and flick on Ye Olde Netflix so we can watch elaborate fantasies about our own species’ extermination?
I find myself asking that question constantly these days. Comics blockbusters from the MCU — The Eternals, say, or Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings — or a great big franchise blockbuster (Godzilla vs. Kong, anyone?) are always imagining how we might end. Those stories are all over my TV, too, from network dramas to sci-fi prestige. Or, lately, when star-studded, satirical comedies like Don’t Look Back and Silent Night make their way to streaming services.
The impulse seems to be in our DNA. Indeed, apocalyptic stories have been part of human culture from the dawn of time; one of the first pieces of literature in history is The Epic of Gilgamesh, which tells the story of a world-ending flood.
Studying apocalyptic literature, you see a gradual shift in the focus of those tales. They start with stories about the gods ending humans as a way to clear the slate or punish the mortals. But over time, our end progressively becomes more of our own fault. As modernity crept in, our inventions and scientific advances could accomplish things that made us feel like gods — heal diseases, perform tasks rapidly, talk to someone on the other side of the world, extend our lifespans, fly to the moon.
And so, in our stories, we started imagining a world where human life ends because we build murderous robots or inadvertently create a zombie plague instead of a cure or usher in a nuclear winter. From Walter Miller’s classic 1960 novel A Canticle for Leibowitz to the 1971 film The Omega Man to Stephen King’s much-adapted 1978 book The Stand, we were beginning to cause our own destruction. By the middle of the 20th century, human-on-human extermination was the dominant mode of apocalypse. The goal was prophetic, and the tales often allegorical; this is what could happen if we and our descendants don’t turn things around.
Now, though, it kind of feels like we’ve given up. For one thing, almost every big-budget movie is an apocalyptic movie in one way or another. Literally every superhero film has, as its stakes, the continuation of humanity — and usually an implicit argument for why humanity should keep on going, which boils down to some mumbo-jumbo about how we’re a flawed species but that’s what makes us cute or interesting or something. Every big sci-fi or action reboot sets the stakes absurdly high: It can’t just be that the town is threatened; the entire planet must be in danger. The pattern is so obvious that one of 2021’s most off-the-wall films, Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, turns itself into a parody of that cinematic impulse.
Apocalypses are popping up in other genres, too, with little in the way of the shreds of hope for renewal that such stories might have offered in the past. It seems as though Hollywood is jonesing to be the destroyer of worlds, and getting less subtle about it. But when you’re living in the middle of events that come a bit too close to “extinction-level” — pandemics, encroaching climate change, perhaps you’ve heard of them — maybe subtlety has to drop away.
In any case, there’s no subtlety to Don’t Look Up, directed by Adam McKay, whose recent work (like Vice and The Big Short) has certainly leaned polemical. Don’t Look Up is technically metaphorical; an all-life-extinguishing comet is headed for earth, and the residents of Earth would rather ignore the clear implications of that fact than doing anything about it. To my knowledge, we are not in imminent danger of comet death.
Warning: Some moderate spoilers for Don’t Look Up and Silent Night follow.
But the rest of Don’t Look Up is very obviously ripped from the headlines. Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence play scientists who discover the comet and travel to the White House to alert the president, a sort of Trumpian figure (except with great hair) played by Meryl Streep. There’s a clear, inexorable time table for action; in about nine months, all life on Earth will be wiped out unless they act.
Once convinced this is a genuine problem — no small feat on the part of the scientific community — government officials concoct a plan to explode the comet and save humanity. But at the last moment, they throw the plan out the window because of a discovery that could benefit a giant corporation on earth. The fact that all life will die out is of little interest to them; by the time the comet appears in the sky, a political movement has been born to convince people not to look at the sky. If we don’t look at it, it can’t hurt us, right? (The don’t-look-up-ers are quite clearly coded as MAGA types.)
The movie boasts a massive cast of A-listers — in addition to DiCaprio, Lawrence, and Streep, there’s Jonah Hill, Mark Rylance, Timothee Chalamet, Ariana Grande, Chris Evans, Kid Cudi, Cate Blanchett, Himesh Patel, Matthew Perry, Tyler Perry, Ron Perlman, Rob Morgan, Melanie Lynskey … I don’t need to continue, you get the point. There’s a clear feeling of urgent and sincere mission behind Don’t Look Up, which McKay wrote before Covid-19 became a well-known threat, but shooting was delayed into November 2020.
But it’s hard to escape the feeling of the film jabbing its pointer finger into your eye, yelling, Why aren’t you paying attention! (After all, McKay just that, at least the yelling part, at the end of Vice.) The thing is, if you’re watching Don’t Look Up, you probably are paying attention, not just to the news about the climate and the pandemic but to a half-dozen other things that feel like reasonable causes for panic. For me, the bludgeoning tends to blunt the entertainment value. So when the credits rolled — after an ending that was, admittedly, quite moving — I just sat there thinking, Who, exactly, is this for?
I had quite the same reaction to Silent Night, another recent “we’re all gonna die” release, written and directed by Camille Griffin and starring Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, and a host of others. It’s a tonally strange movie from the get-go, masquerading as a typical holiday flick about long-lost friends getting together at the holidays but ending with mass extinction. Yay!
The plot of this one is also technically metaphorical, but also eerily similar to Don’t Look Up. This time it’s a giant cloud of noxious fumes spreading across the planet, and our protagonists, sitting in Britain, have been informed by their government of the exact moment the cloud will hit them: midnight, on Christmas — very convenient from a filmmaking perspective. They’ve gathered to spend their last day together, and also to take as a group the government-issued pills that will allow them to die quietly instead of screaming in agony from the gas cloud. (Parents, be warned: part of the story involves deciding how children will die.)
In Silent Night — also written before the pandemic and shot during it — the debates are not so much over whether the cloud is coming as whether it’s better to die by pill or by poison cloud, and who’s really responsible for the cloud in the first place. (The metaphor gets queasy when you start, inevitably, to map it onto anti-vaccine debates.) But the allegory is as clear as glass: The cloud is climate change, or maybe a life-threatening virus, and the joke, such as it is, is that nobody wants to acknowledge what it means. Eat, drink, and be merry, because we will literally die tomorrow.
You’d assume films like these are meant to be warnings to the viewers — prophetic injunctions that if we don’t act fast, this really is the end of it all. (Will it be? As the quote goes, it’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future.)
But they’re also comedies — funny ones, sometimes, though you wince when you laugh. And they’re satirical, pointing out the absurdity of the situation and, especially, the reactions of those who wish to simply ignore the situation. Yet they’re less about bravely telling the truth to power and more about retweeting an influencer’s declarations to a feed full of people who already agree.
Given who’s most likely to watch a satirical film skewering climate deniers and (accidentally) anti-vaxxers, perhaps they prove something much darker: That even those who are inclined to agree are starting to feel so helpless that all we can do is cackle at our own imminent demise while lounging on the couch, the same spot where we angrily retweet and quote-tweet and post links about how bad stuff is.
Well, that’s bleak! But it sounds about right. I chafe against this kind of nihilism, but there’s no denying there’s a lot of it going around. And it seems to be the next step in apocalypse tales: If you can’t fix it, laugh with it.
And I worry that if we’re not careful — if we don’t look up from the TV and Twitter once in a while and remember we’re still here, for now — this kind of thing can be a poison pill of its own.
Don’t Look Up opens in limited theaters on December 10 and premieres on Netflix on December 24. Silent Night is playing in limited theaters and available to rent or buy on digital platforms.