The sight of a planet-killing comet whirling across the computer monitors of an 8-meter class telescope should be enough to jar anyone from astronomical complacency. After all, there’s something about watching an impending apocalypse play out across the silver screen that is as chillingly compelling as a cheetah relentlessly stalking its prey.
As such, I was immediately intrigued to hear that Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, along with Meryl Streep and Jonah Hill, were starring in the new cataclysmic Netflix comedy “Don’t Look Up.” The film chronicles the experiences of two astronomers desperately trying to warn the world of impending doom from a planet-killing cometary impactor.
But the film’s real forte is depicting an America whose society has become so vapid and shallow that even when faced with concrete evidence of the planet’s upcoming demise, the political and media elites refuse to accept scientific truth. Some film reviewers have interpreted the film’s premise as an allegory for the fact that many in mainstream America refuse to accept the need to mitigate climate change.
In truth, “Don’t Look Up” is not so much a comedy as it is a satire that skewers all sides.
It’s a film that takes a jaundiced look at the way the mainstream media glibly communicates science. And it also highlights our anti-intellectual American culture at large, which has become largely bereft of introspection and reflection. We seem to currently inhabit a world that continually pays lip service to science but fails to scratch below the surface to the root of what researchers are actually trying to elucidate.
The film certainly deserves kudos for its opening portrayal of what actually happens on a night-to-night basis in a world-class observatory like Subaru in Hawaii which is where the fictional ‘Comet Dibiasky’ was actually discovered. Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of the fictional Michigan State University astronomer Dr. Randall Mindy is priceless. Mindy happens to be at the telescope when the comet is discovered and is able to calculate its future trajectory mathematically with relative ease. And as always, mathematics and celestial mechanics prove to be tools of sheer beauty in the finality and certainty they can bring to any impending such celestial catastrophe.
“Don’t Look Up” was also fortunate to have university of arizona planetary scientist Amy Mainzer as its science advisor. Mainzer has long been a leader in looking for potentially hazardous near-earth objects using surveys from both ground and space.
Even though the film goes slightly off track after the first hour, it soon regains its momentum and does provoke one to think deeply about our own existence here.
As those who have seen “Don’t Look Up” will understand, the film’s endgame for a select fictional elite involves a last-minute attempt to escape this coming apocalypse. Their plan is to use a heretofore undisclosed interstellar spacecraft to travel to a new habitable planet of some nearby sunlike star —- albeit one that, in the film at least, has yet to be discovered.
Although this is a sci-fi satire, the film does raise a frustrating point. Some of the general public seems to have the false impression that we’re somehow close to being capable of traveling to other extrasolar earthlike planets. That remains science fiction as does any near-term prospect of sending humans to settle them.
The interstellar propulsion technology to do so doesn’t exist here on Earth at least. That’s not to say it couldn’t exist eventually, but now and in the near future it doesn’t. So, in addition to working on present and future means of deflecting potential impactors, we as a civilization need to make interplanetary and interstellar propulsion more of a priority than it currently is.
Secondly, we live on a pretty special planet. As yet not one of the known exoplanets which orbit either nearby sunlike or red dwarf stars remotely resembles our own earth. None appear to be habitable to life as we know it over the timescales needed to develop intelligent life. Perhaps, the potential success of NASA’s Webb telescope will change this present astrobiological calculus.
Even so, we need to take this film’s comedic warnings to heart and heed its lessons. We must continue to invest in planetary impactor defense. And we also need to take the long view, if not for ourselves, for our progeny. And, finally, we need to make finding another nearby extrasolar earthlike planet a continuing priority so that future generations will have the option to leave this hallowed ground once and for all.