[There have already been some reviews of Don’t Look Up, for example Quinn Dougherty's, Nicholas Kross's, and Scott Alexander's. I’m posting this anyway because I think I say pretty different things than these reviews; in particular, my impression of the movie was much more positive.]
[Epistemic status: trying to extract morals about x-risk from an allegory, but beware that some parts might accidentally generalize from fictional evidence.]
[Spoilers for Don’t Look Up on the level of: I tell you the entire plot.]
I think of Don’t Look Up as being divided into two parts.
The first part is about a relatively straightforward x-risk scenario: a grad student discovers a comet which will impact the Earth in 6 months, there’s some issues with coordination and getting the powers-the-be to take the problem seriously, but eventually the relevant players recognize the direness of the threat and launch rockets to deflect the comet. But then there’s a twist: actually the comet has lodes of valuable ore, $140 trillion of it. The deflection mission is aborted, and the second part of the movie begins.
The second part represents a much more interesting x-risk scenario: now some players have an incentive to trade off [probability of averting the x-risk] for money. This is more dire, and much more reflective of the likely x-risk scenarios we could face, especially AGI. Accordingly, where the movie’s society managed to pull itself together enough to avert the simple comet scenario in part 1, their levels of coordination and competence are not high enough to avert the modified comet-with-massive-economic value scenario in part 2. The comet impacts Earth and everyone dies.
The transition between parts 1 and 2 is kinda awkward. In the middle of the deflection mission – the launch has gone off flawlessly, the rockets are in the air, and people are already celebrating – someone informs the president that actually the comet is extremely valuable, and they abort the mission. It sort of seems like the movie is trying to communicate something like “okay good job, you defeated the comet on easy mode, but now let’s change things up.” In my mindcanon, the deflection mission goes off perfectly, the Earth is saved, and the movie ends in triumph. Then a new movie starts, Don’t Look Up 2, with the modified premise. I think this is a less confusing way to think about the story. Below I’ll talk about part 1 as if we saw it end in victory, because I think we’re supposed to imagine that happened.
Don’t Look Up: General Thoughts
Before I talk about parts 1 and 2 in more detail, here are some general thoughts about the movie.
How much you enjoy Don’t Look Up probably depends strongly on your expectations going in. I had very low expectations. I expected the movie to present a caricature of x-risk response along the lines of “good guys who want to save the world vs bad guys who are too stupid/greedy/evil to give a shit.” I expected it to be just grounded-in-reality enough to rile me up and provoke public conversation. And I expected it to be ungrounded enough to hit all the wrong notes and ensure the public conversation was infuriating and useless.
Instead I was very pleasantly surprised. Though the movie was necessarily a caricature, it felt like a very realistic caricature. This is probably because it draws heavily on things that Actually Happened during the COVID pandemic. Accordingly, the social and informational dynamics felt very plausible, as did the ways that the people in charge failed (or, sometimes, succeeded).
Relatedly, it seems that many people disliked DLU because they thought it was a one-sided attack on republicans/the media/some other cheap target. But in contrast I thought that DLU depicted everyone failing in a way that was … well, not “balanced” because some groups failed harder and worse than other groups. But “realistic” because in reality some groups will fail harder and worse, and DLU did a good job of depicting the realistic failures for every group, in a way that (usually) didn’t feel mocking. Though there were certainly stupid/greedy characters, I thought their failure modes were natural outgrowths of their incentives. Moreover, I think these “bad guys” ultimately shared blame with the “good guys,” who were incompetent in their own realistic ways.
I’ll talk in more detail about all the ways I think DLU was and wasn’t realistic below.
One thing I loved was that DLU includes scattered reminders of what we’re fighting for. The movie intersperses short video montages of beautiful nature, newborn babies, treasured pieces of culture, and other things we value. Then when humanity fails and the comet strikes, we watch these things get destroyed, leaving nothing but a profound sense of loss. (I warn people who might be sensitive to this that they might not want to watch DLU.)
Finally, a major simplification DLU employs is to focus almost entirely on the US, with only one nod to international relations which I’ll discuss below. In real life, there would be some level of international coordination, which would involve its own fraught dynamics and reckoning with the unilateralist’s curse. Indeed, these international dynamics might prove more important than the intra-national social/political dynamics which DLU focuses on.
DLU Part 1
Randall Mindy is an astronomy professor at Michigan State University with an unimpressive research record. His grad student Kate Dibiasky discovers a comet which will impact Earth in about 6 months. They call up NASA, who connects them with Planetary Defense Coordination Office head Teddy Oglethorpe, and the three of them go off to warn U.S. president Orlean.
I should probably mention that President Orlean is a clear reference to Donald Trump. She is unrefined, mired in political scandals, fills the ranks of her administration with people who are personally loyal to her, and even imitates some Trumpy mannerisms. When I said above that DLU “usually” didn’t feel mocking, I had in mind 1.5 exceptions, with the half-exception being the president. Though her plot-relevant decisions seemed like realistic things a social-reality-absorbed politician surrounded by obedient lackies might do, her stupidity and incompetence were exaggerated, probably so that the audience could have fun laughing at the Donald Trump satire.
(The other exception is the president’s son, who also serves as her chief-of-staff. His only role in the story is to be incredibly stupid, incompetent, and mean.)
Anyway, when Professor Mindy, his grad student Dibiasky, and PDCO head Oglethorpe first tell the president about the comet, she’s pretty incredulous. “Do you know how many ‘the world is ending’ meetings we’ve had over the years?” she asks. “Economic collapse, loose nukes, car exhaust killing the atmosphere, rogue AI … alien invasion, population growth, hole in the ozone” ... which, yeah, she has a good point. She adds “let’s get some other people on this, some Ivy Leaguers” to verify that there really is a threat, which is reasonable in some ways but also betrays a lack of trust for NASA’s confirmation of the orbital calculations. Additionally, the president is motivated to disbelieve the threat, because she doesn’t want to throw a wrench into the upcoming midterm elections. Between her motivated disbelief and these causes for skepticism, the warning is brushed off.
The main characters instead try to take the news public, but due to their incompetence at science communication, this is a flop. It ends up not mattering because a few days later, President Orlean has changed her mind and decided to act on the warning since (1) Harvard and Princeton professors have confirmed the orbital calculations and (2) she is polling horribly and needs to do something drastic before the midterms. The president announces the comet in a dramatic speech with fireworks, and she assures the public the government has a plan to deflect the comet. This plan does in fact exist, and a few months later it goes off without a hitch, saving the world. (The president’s party also dominates the midterms.)
A few takeaways from this part:
- The politicians in DLU are unequipped to think about issues outside of social reality. For example, President Orlean is unable to consider the question “Should I do something about the incoming comet?”, so she replaces it with “Will it help my political career to do something about the incoming comet?” At first the answer is “no” because she doesn’t want to throw a wrench into the upcoming midterm elections. Later the answer becomes “yes” because she is polling horribly and needs to do something drastic. This all seemed pretty realistic to me, not just for politicians but for people who have government careers in general.
- One reason the Orlean administration’s response came late was that they wouldn’t believe the threat until both NASA and other prestigious scientists confirmed it. The moral is that measures which are important to enact quickly should have as few veto points as possible.
- So many people had hyperbolized their pet issues into end-of-the-world threats that it was hard for any pointing out a real existential threat to be taken seriously. The horse is pretty out of the barn on this one – note that rogue AI is included on the list of fake threats because in the real world people worried about unfriendly AI still aren’t taken seriously – but we should do our best to avoid this in the future, I guess?
- The protagonists’ attempts to spread public awareness through the media ended up not mattering at all – if they had just waited for the Orlean administration to receive confirmation of their orbital calculations, the same thing would probably have happened. This seems realistic and a useful allegory about the role of “public awareness campaigns” in the face of an emerging threat. Namely, it’s probably more useful to focus on directly convincing the people in charge. That said, from the protagonists’ perspective the PR campaign could have helped, by putting pressure on the president to act on the warning sooner than she otherwise would. This also seems right. So in summary, in case of an emerging threat which needs a swift policy response (e.g. a pandemic), the most important thing is to convince the people holding the policy levers; direct communication is probably most effective here, but if that fails then a PR campaign might help if you can pull it off.
- Aside from the protagonists’ awful science communication skills, another reason their PR campaign goes badly is that the head of NASA has no relevant domain expertise and is a political lackey of President Orleans, whose instructions are to deny news about the comet. This might also have eroded the president’s own trust in NASA and led to her wanting more prestigious scientists to confirm the orbital calculations. The moral is that it could be very bad for certain leadership positions to be corrupted by politics (e.g. the head of the CDC).
- Note that things ultimately went well. Things could have gone more smoothly, but the basic structure was: threat discovered, president warned, action taken, disaster averted.
- That said, there were some plausible ways that they could have gone more wrong. If enough of these had gone wrong together, the world would have ended.
- The deflection could have failed for technical reasons. There would have been time to mount a second, and maybe even third attempt, but these could have also failed for technical reasons.
- The political calculus could have led to even more time being wasted.
- The PR campaign could have gone too well, causing public outrage and impeachment proceedings. Then the new president could have taken office with far less time to act.
I think it’s worth thinking about what the protagonists should have done differently. My list is:
- They should have pushed for more redundant back-up plans to be enacted, even before they knew whether the first one worked or not.
- Professor Mindy and Dibiasky are pretty bad at science communication. This is really obvious to everyone. Instead of letting Mindy and Dibiasky take the lead on explaining the threat to the media and president, they should have let PDCO head Oglethorpe – who was more trusted and a much better communicator – do all the talking.
- When the president was hesitant to act on their warning, Professor Mindy should have contacted all of his astronomer friends and asked them to check the calculations. A letter from 30 astronomy professors confirming the threat would probably have been more effective than trying to take the case to the public.
- The protagonists didn’t like President Orlean very much, and they let it show, leading to an unnecessarily frosty relationship. They should have tried harder to earn the goodwill of the people in charge.
DLU Part 2
There’s a new key player in part 2, billionaire Peter Isherwell, who discovers that the comet has rare ores totalling $140 trillion in value (for context, this is approximately equal to the current PPP-adjusted world total GDP, i.e. the total yearly value of the world’s economy). His engineers start developing a technology which will make it possible to both avert disaster and mine the comet. Though this approach is more risky than just deflecting the comet, he assures everyone that it is still Very Safe and that the amount they stand to gain makes it worth the risk.
The movie probably intends for Isherwell to represent the greedy billionaire class, which is too bad because I think he’s a bad model for the actual billionaires we have. Many of the U.S.’s billionaires do worry about existential risk and I doubt e.g. Elon Musk would trade a 1% probability of human extinction for $140 trillion.
On the other hand, I think Isherwell does work well as a representation of a more abstract concept: the general pursuit of economic incentives (whether by billionaires or not). He represents the startup that builds an AGI or a dangerous biotechnology because they know it will be worth a shitton. And just as the startup CEO might not fully understand the downside risk (“if it does something bad we’ll just turn it off” or “we’ll just not let it be used for dangerous applications”), neither does Isherwell appreciate that he’s playing with fire.
The protagonists disagree with what Isherwell is doing – they would prefer a safer plan to deflect the comet. But, like the inexorable pursuit of economic incentives, Isherwell cannot be stopped, only guided. So the protagonists must choose between quitting in outrage and working with Isherwell. Dibiasky chooses wrong: she again tries to take the case to the public (which accomplishes nothing) and is summarily removed from the circles of influence and rendered irrelevant for the rest of the movie. Professor Mindy chooses correctly … at first: he becomes National Science Advisor, pretends to be on board with Isherwell’s plan, and tries to ensure that the comet mining technology is sound.
Until one day he confronts Isherwell with a technical concern – he’s worried that the explosives might detonate out of sync – and Isherwell becomes irate and snaps at him. Mindy realizes that Isherwell is mercurial and prone to firing dissenting scientists and engineers, and loses confidence with the project. He tries to call Isherwell out to the public (this doesn’t work, it never works), and is kicked out of Washington and stripped of his influence.
Mindy and Dibiasky try to mount one last PR campaign, theoretically to pressure President Orlean to abandon Isherwell’s project. This has no noticeable effect. In the end, Isherwell’s technology fails in multiple ways, the most serious of which being the unsynced explosives Mindy tried to warn about. The comet hits Earth and everyone dies.
Some additional thoughts:
- One thing that felt very realistic in part 2 was the informational dynamics. In part 1 there was a clear message: there is a comet and we need to deflect it. Accordingly, the public grasp of the situation was generally good, with a very small minority thinking the comet is a hoax. In part 2, things are more complicated: now the official message is that there is a comet, but that the comet is good and we shouldn’t be trying to blow it up immediately. Accordingly the public believes all sorts of weird things, with a much larger proportion of people believing the comet is a hoax even though no one is saying that. One person interviewed has bypassed having an object-level physical-reality-based opinion at all and moved right along to social-reality: “I think as a country we need to stop arguing and virtue signaling. Just get along.” The interviewer finds this very refreshing. This all seems pretty spot-on.
- As the comet approaches Earth, it becomes visible in the night sky. Predictably, this causes many people to change their opinion, even those who already believed the comet was coming. Even Professor Mindy changes his behavior – he goes from being despondent to energetic about running his (pointless) PR offensive. On one hand this is irrational – Mindy should have known better than anyone that the comet was coming and seeing it with one’s own eyes changes nothing. On the other hand, yeah, this is totally what would happen. Experience tells me that even intelligent scientists have difficulty believing things they don’t see with their own eyes (e.g. maybe COVID will spread differently in my home community than it has everywhere else, let’s wait-and-see).
- This part contains my favorite line from the movie. Some people are postulating all sorts of conspiracy theories about why the comet isn’t being blasted away. “You guys, the truth is way more depressing,” Dibiasky says. “They’re not even smart enough to be as evil as you’re giving them credit for.”
What should the protagonists have done differently?
- Mindy should not have left Isherwell’s project. When Isherwell didn’t take his technical concerns seriously, he should have gone and talked to the engineer in charge of the explosive sync. Had he done that, the Earth might have been saved.
- As in part 1, they should have advocated for more redundancies and back-up plans. If the plan to mine the comet failed, they should have had explosives ready to try a last-minute deflection (as unlikely as that was to work).
Don’t Look Up is, as a literal story, very different from likely x-risk scenarios. But as an allegory it helped crystallize some of my thoughts about x-risk. It also marginally helped me internalize my opinions that (1) our society is unprepared for an existential threat and (2) an existential catastrophe would be very bad and we should try very hard to avoid one. My desire to have a career that reduces x-risk is slightly increased. I think these are good things which might also happen for other viewers, and so I generally recommend Don’t Look Up.
That said, DLU is a hard movie to enjoy if you’re actually worried about existential risk. It satirizes many aspects of society that I actually find distressing. Watching a plausible end-of-the-world scenario might also be painful for some people. If you’re such a person, I’d recommend not watching DLU, or making sure you’re emotionally prepared before viewing. If you’re in a group which is criticized in the movie (e.g. Trump supporters) and have a low tolerance for mocking humor, you might also not enjoy the movie.
I think of the 4 community reviews (5 if Yglesias is considered a community member), this is my favorite. I like that you carved right through wishing you were watching a different movie or expecting to watch a different movie, and just extracted the maximal value from the movie that you indeed actually watched. I feel like when I talk about ways the movie could've been better, I'm expressing dissatisfaction with the people who made it; when you do it, you're suggesting ways for the characters to improve.
I like that what others interpreted as cheap shots at greedy or stupid villains you interpreted as a realistic portrayal of the way social reality commandeers situations.
This calls to mind a genre I'd love to see exist-- stories of competence or humility having to resort to being cunning to sneak around in mazes (in the sense of Zvi's sequence) to get stuff done. Yes, in real life if a boss is too confident the move is to find somewhere on the org chart / chain of command someone who can be reasoned with. Some of us have been in large organizations, gotten results, and by that point it doesn't matter if an idiot boss who if anything made it harder to succeed gets the credit. I don't know a great citation for this, but the idea that top-down organizations have very real information flow and compression problems where people with decision-making power lack an inside view of what's going on throughout the organization comes to mind.
Completely, 100%. In real life there'd be many more agents, many of whom with capital / ability to coordinate massive projects. This is probably the principal shortcoming of the movie's realism, not counting various hard scifi comments about the real life state of the art in asteroid/comet deflection.
Thanks for writing this, it was a cathartic read. You articulated a lot of what I felt.
I thought this entire thing was far more applicable to AI than climate change. And one of the things that really got me is that humanity in this movie is, in fact, handed a miracle, and then manage to screw it up anyway. The scandal the president got involved was unrelated and pure luck; it should have saved the world. It's the analog of DeepMind putting someone with security mindset in charge, building a safe AGI, and then releasing the source code.
The missed opportunity I'm most annoyed about is around this-- In my version everything could go as planned via the first hypothesized miracle, then either 1. everyone could die anyway, or 2. they'd have to go back to the drawing board, get creative, decentralize (i.e. invest in other orgs or individuals), and try again. So much richer than the movie we actually watched.
Every movie based in reality is hard to enjoy for the experts in that field. I work in intelligence, and can't take spy movies seriously. My wife is (among other things) a chemist, and can't watch forensics scenes.
Is it? I find it hilarious when scientists are depicted in movies
Chinese may enjoy the movie, if they can reach it.