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Don’t Look Up: The Doomsday Dilettante

Mark Rylance as BASH CEO Peter Isherwell alongside Meryl Streep as President Orlean. Image courtesy of Netflix.

Despite all rumors to the contrary, Don’t Look Up is not about climate change (spoilers ahead). An incoming comet, being a purely natural phenomenon independent of human influence, would in fact be a bad analogy for the problem of climate change. For the latter is a problem of the influence of human industry on the impending disaster, but human industry plays no role in determining the direction or speed of the comet. 

To reduce the symbol of the comet to climate change pure and simple would be to miss the broader implications of its symbolic functioning within the film. A truly mythological reading of the comet would show its reflected meaning in the many mirrors it contains, drawing from the internal resources of its archetypal imagery. A symbolic reading thus stays away from a purely allegorical reduction of the comet, dispensing with the need to import external referents or additional hypotheses beyond those provided by the film.

From this mythic or uroboric point of view, the meaning of the action of the comet is, of course, the reaction it creates in the human race and our systems of organization and first response, bringing into the open our failing sense of collective responsibility. The comet depicts a narcissistic culture of indifference, caught in a “post-truth” spiritual atmosphere whose catastrophic finality is finally pushed over the edge by the most obscene element of all: the existence of BASH CEO Peter Isherwell.

Critics who took the film much too seriously and forgot that it was, after all, a comedy, also overlook the fact that Peter Isherwell is the true comic hero of Don’t Look Up. Where the scientists play the role of tragic heroes who ultimately fail but die honorably as decent human beings, Peter Isherwell actually succeeds, at the end of the film, in fulfilling his obscene dream of ushering in a New Golden Age of humanity—even if it was short-lived.

Moreover, the critics miss a crucial insight of the plot, one which really surprised some first-time watchers who were not expecting the positive turn the film takes during the first half of the story, when a fresh wave of scandal forces President Orlean to do the right thing and embrace the mission to destroy the comet.

At this point, the film’s mockery of people caught up in social media, disinformation culture, and mass entertainment, reaches its limit. By means of the very power of scandal, President Orlean finally does the right thing and steps up to the plate. Although corrupt and slow to act, the government does succeed in putting together a mission that could save the planet.

Leading up to the very launch of the mission, the film is incredibly optimistic, suggesting that there is hope to work with the system as it is, fake news and all, and still avoid catastrophe. But of course, this was only an illusion; we cannot work with the system as it is and still avoid catastrophe. For it is the functioning of the system as it is—a system that produces the obscenity of billionaires—that is the real source of the catastrophe. For this reason, Don’t Look Up drops the hammer with BASH at the last minute, reintroducing Peter Isherwell when it was almost too late to derail the mission. His intervention causes the mission to abort in mid-flight, showing us that the meteor they were looking for had already struck the earth in the shape of BASH.

As Peter Isherwell breaks into the situation room with a casual “Hey everyone, mind if I join?” Jennifer Lawrence’s character, Kate Dibiasky, is prompted to ask: “Is he allowed to be here?” to which Jason (Jonah Hill) responds: “Yeah, he's a Platinum Eagle level donor to the campaign. He has full clearance.”

The billionaire intervention of BASH is the mirror image of the comet itself. The writers suggest as much by naming the tech company BASH, like the sound a meteor would make when smashing into the earth. The meteor is BASH and BASH means the meteor. The meteor is the obscene existence of Peter Isherwell, the true unsung hero of Don’t Look Up.

Peter Isherwell is not only the personification of self-centered consumerism, he is also an embodiment of archetypal power as the mythic figure of the Old Wise Man. Like a Saint Peter standing at the gates of a golden age promised by Silicon Valley, Peter Isherwell is a kind of hybrid between Steve Jobs and Joe Biden. In his last name, Isherwell, we get the connotation of a wishing well—the fulfiller of wishes and the well-wisher of our final farewell. 

The figure of Peter Isherwell can be said “to illustrate the libidinous association of the dangerous impish ogre with the principle of seduction,” as Campbell writes in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, naming “Dyedushka Vodyanoy, the Russian ‘Water Grandfather’,” a mythic being who was “an adroit shapeshifter and is said to drown people who swim at midnight or at noon. Drowned or disinherited girls he marries. He has a special talent for coaxing unhappy women into his tolls. He likes to dance on moonlit nights.” (66)



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