Near-Earth asteroid, computer artwork.

An Astronomical Review of “Don’t Look Up”

In our annual New Year’s family tradition of struggling to stay awake until midnight, we decided to watch “Don’t Look Up,” the Adam McKay satire starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, and other fabulously good-looking people.

If you don’t want to read spoilers, then don’t look down!

In the movie, astronomers discover an extinction-level comet heading straight for the Earth, but their attempts to galvanize support to mitigate the threat are flummoxed by ineptitude, greed, and all the other usual human vices.

In the end, the comet wins, and humanity is served its just deserts.

As a scientist, I rarely criticize movies for getting the science wrong, because a) I’m not here to grade homework, and b) I want to enjoy a good story as much as anybody else. So when I watch a movie, I usually turn off the physics part of my brain and pretend that it’s all happening in a parallel universe where the laws of physics are similar to but slightly different from, the ones I’m familiar with.

Asteroid impact, computer artwork.

Asteroid impact, computer artwork.

The opening scenes with the discovery of the comet and the ensuring jargon-filled discussions weren’t entirely accurate, but not objectionable enough to mention further comment. Instead, what I found much more interesting was the portrayal of the relationship between scientists and the public, and scientists and policymakers.

Which was so accurate it was uncomfortable to watch at times.

The movie was originally developed to be a satire of our (non-)response to climate change, but the COVID-19 pandemic provided too rich of an opportunity to pass by. I think the movie suffered for it, as the second half lacked focus. But in either case, the film highlighted how scientists have to navigate difficult, evolving circumstances – and how they’re far from perfect at it.

Multiple times I’ve sat in TV interviews where reporters ask me silly questions and hear answers that they don’t understand, looking for opportunities to make a joke, just like Dr. Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) experienced. I’m not saying that reporters are unintelligent, but the entire setup of trying to communicate complex topics in happy little soundbites is often bound to fail. When Dr. Mindy struggled, I felt his pain.

Mike Massimino at the premiere of "Don't Look Up."

Mike Massimino at the premiere of "Don't Look Up."

When Dr. Mindy and his graduate student Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) approach policymakers, it’s evident that science and evidence take a back seat to political optics and opportunities for victories (and when they are initially not believed because they hail from Michigan State – which has an amazing astronomy department – and not the Ivy League, I cringed along with them).

When tech guru Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance) offers an opportunity for a financial windfall despite the suffering caused by an impact, it becomes clear where true priorities lay.

Throughout the movie, the scientists find themselves used as pawns to advance carefully crafted messages. The scientists become the face, the authority, the trusted source, to sell a desired outcome that sounds like it’s based on the evidence, but isn’t.

Indeed, even Dr. Mindy loses his sense of integrity, sacrificing the evidence in favor of a glamorous lifestyle and the appeal of celebrity culture.

On social media and in the larger public sphere, the scientists became either heroes or villains, distorted out of proportion based on personal preference and political leanings.

It’s through these angles that I personally found the film most cutting. Time and time again I see my fellow scientists try to speak messages that the public and our leaders don’t want to hear. And I see some scientists chase magazine covers and TV interviews, leveraging their authoritative positions to advance personal gain. I see many scientists failing at communicating basic, essential concepts – failing through both a lack of training and a lack of care.

Science communication is a tricky business, especially when the evidence points in uncomfortable directions and the vast majority of scientists are not properly equipped or prepared to do it. On how to craft a soundbite. On how to create a message that has a broad impact. On how to maintain integrity when used as a political tool. On how to lead with evidence rather than beliefs.

How would our society actually react if faced with an extinction-level comet? It’s impossible to say, but I can say that “Don’t Loop Up” precisely nailed how we would react to the scientists who made the discovery.

Learn More about the Universe

Journey Through the Cosmos in an All-New Season of How the Universe Works

The new season premieres on Science Channel and streams on discovery+.

Paul M. Sutter

Paul M. Sutter is an astrophysicist at Stony Brook University and the Flatiron Institute, host of Ask a Spaceman and Space Radio, and author of How to Die in Space.

Next Up

Space Debris Reaches Critical Levels Threatening Future Science

Space junk is a growing threat to mankind’s future. Old rocket parts, failed satellites, and pieces from previous space missions form a cloud of 750,000 pieces of debris circling the Earth at high speed. Scientists say an urgent clean-up is needed to prevent an environmental crisis in space.

A Guide to Defending the Earth

Let’s say one day astronomers announce that our worst nightmare has come true: a large object is headed towards the Earth with a significant chance of impact. What do we do?

Watch NASA's Asteroid-Crashing DART Mission Make Impact

NASA sent a spacecraft on a mission to crash into an asteroid, so how did it go?Updated 9/26/22

Want to Name a Planet? Now’s Your Chance

Read on to learn about this rare opportunity to name a distant world observed by the James Webb Telescope.

Six Planets are Retrograde, What Does that Mean for You?

Spoiler alert: It's an optical illusion.

Watch Out! Amateur Astronomer Watches as Jupiter Gets Whacked

Jupiter is the OG best friend in the solar system. It finds all the tiny little comets and asteroids heading for the vulnerable inner planets and takes one for the team, chewing up the dangerous rocks in its thick atmosphere. It happened again just recently, and this time an amateur astronomer caught it in the act.

Astronomers May Have Found a Rare “Free-Floating” Black Hole

How do you see a perfectly black object in the middle of a pitch-dark night? It sounds like the start of an annoying riddle, but it’s really the question faced by astronomers when they want to search for black holes.

Watch the Super Flower Blood Moon Total Lunar Eclipse

Those located in the Americas, Europe, or Africa can see this rare total lunar eclipse during the night of May 15, 2022.

NASA’s $10 Billion Space Telescope Hit by Micrometeoroid

NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) was recently hit by a micrometeoroid. One of the 18 golden mirror segments on the telescope was hit, causing some minor damage.

28 Billion Light-Years Away: The Most Distant Star Ever Discovered

On Wednesday, NASA announced the Hubble telescope broke a new record– detecting the most distant star ever seen.

Related To: