Don't Look Up

Regina Silveira, One Thousand and One Days and Other Enigmas


Commentary on the film “Don't Look Up”, directed by Adam McKay

The film Don't Look Up It has generated a series of reactions on social media. The work is fun and is material for good memes because it satirizes denialists and mocks government inaction (or anti-action, rather) to combat the catastrophe, in an obvious reference to the terrible management of the pandemic crisis by far-right leaders such as Donald Trump and Jair M. Bolsonaro. What I propose here is a deepening of this analysis, in order to make the most of the critical content that the work can offer.

At the plot's defining moment, there are clearly two sides. Either you look up, or you don't. the dogmatic centrism[I] of those who refuse to take a side because they are tired of so much polarization, is put in their place: the inert are part of the problem when it is necessary do, and not stop doing something. And in that sense, they join the down-lookers by refusing any mobilization proposal. On this side, that of the film's “villains”, there is clearly an intellectual escalation, which corresponds to a gradual increase in selfishness and perversity as vulnerability to official propaganda decreases.

Need I say more clearly? At the bottom of the villainy pyramid are the cattle, who simply follow what the leader says. They look down at the pasture. Next, the denialist influencers, although each of them is not of great relevance (none of these characters is even called by name), their sum makes up an ideological apparatus of the State[ii]. The AIE are essential in the reproduction of capitalist sociability because they allow class domination and the maintenance of the material structure of society without the need for mobilization, much less efficient, of repressive State apparatuses, such as the police, armed forces, courts, etc.

In the film, the role of the FBI is secondary and subject to the whims of the president's son (the next step on our ladder of perversity, because his actions are pathetically restricted to what his mother agrees with), precisely because what is essential in the imobilization of the people is the ideological apparatus, not the repressive one.

When we get to the top, skipping a few throwaway steps because they are self-explanatory (like the press, another IEA, or generals like the one who sells free lunches just to demonstrate power), we get to the president. This one channels our hatred because, in Meryl Streep's great performance, the figure represents everything we don't want from a leader in times of crisis: she is arrogant, insensitive and, most importantly, pusillanimous and voter. It follows that, by omission, President Orlean is genocidal.

But the core, even so, is not her. She is cowardly and populist because her purpose is to be elected to stay in power. But power has an anteroom for decision-making, which is based on material interests, based on the systemic rationality of the capitalist mode of production. Liberal democracy is materially limited precisely because, through politics, it is never able to overcome the ultimate determinations of the mode of production, since it derives from the mercantile form, the atom of capital. This becomes easily noticeable because, most of the time, as in the film, it is the bourgeoisie itself, without which one is not elected, that directly controls the state apparatus.[iii]

Here comes the main villain of the film, played by Mark Rylance. Peter Isherwell is the businessman billionaire leader of technology giant BASH. The character embodies revealing dichotomies: his wit opposes his stutter and lack of social skills; his fragile appearance and his weak voice disguise his enormous economic and technological power, with which he is able to even predict the death of the other characters; while saying that his mission is for the evolution of humanity – “I am the future!” –, its pragmatic orientation is the old capitalist process of valuing value.

Peter gives the order, addressed to Janie (they call each other by their first names!), to order the comet diversion mission to resume. The reason, purely economic: there were, in the comet, ores worth trillions. This is where Fisher's phrase becomes emblematic: it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. This is exactly what is realized in the film: for the sole purpose of maximizing profits, a high-risk mission is undertaken to try to extract the riches that would come with the meteor. The risk materializes and, in the end, there is no wealth to exploit or anyone to exploit. All this for greed? It's not like that.

One of the main mistakes of any sociological analysis is personalism. The etiological analysis of any social phenomenon based on the psychology of its agents is obviously limited and inimical to the materialist-structural understanding. Therefore, Isherwell cannot be understood as a villain because he is a greedy and unscrupulous man. He is villainous because of his position in the political-economic game, which he determines, not determined by his traits. Because if the exclusive rationality of the capitalist mode of production is the valorization of value, there is a “natural” selection of the types that manage to reach the top of the food chain, that is, of production. So he is not villainous because he is evil, but he is evil because that is the precondition required for him to be the most powerful man in the world.

The perfectly rational villainy of villains is opposed by the catatonia of heroes. As a matter of fact, there aren't even any heroes. The protagonists are marked by the combination of, on the one hand, moral and epistemic correctness and, on the other hand, by their impotence in the face of the State apparatus. It remains for them to make a show of pop with Ariana Grande, post hashtags on social networks, shouting in the street, recording videos on YouTube. In short, proceed exclusively by a acting out of self-pacification: conclusion, of resigned relief, is that “we did everything we could”. But they did everything but act. Because the passage to the Act, the production of effects in the field of the real, this did not come close to being done, except in Dibiasky's speech to the regulars of a bar, which ends in a small Act of vandalism.

There was still hope. But the promise of salvation goes up in smoke when the Chinese-Russian-Indian mission explodes, which would be the only, untimely and failed counterpoint to the US monopoly of BASH. And it only comes, not because of prudent action out of concern for humanity, but because of the exclusion of the Chinese from the rights to meteor ore. This reveals how there is no socialism in China just because the economy was planned, but the transformation to state capitalism. The exclusive desideratum, guided by the mercantile form, of valuing value, subsists even in the apocalypse. If the Soviet Union still existed, would it be any different? A new Pachukanis would be shot for saying no. It remains to wait for the increasingly certain death.

And this is the plot's most important element, and so it ends in an anticlimactic way: there is no Act. There is fear, there is despair, there is the cry to look up, there is acting out, only there is no Act. Overthrowing the government, carrying out any kind of Revolution — the political Act par excellence — is always thought of as an abstract and maximum limit of action, which is never reached except hypothetically, as a thinkable absurdity. And it is Ato because it is unpredictable, risky, because it retroactively redefines the coordinates of political understanding. Everything changes in the passage to Act[iv]. And it's Earth's only chance.

But there is no Act because there is not the slightest risk-taking, except for the capitalist who risks the lives of others – he leaves, safely, aboard a spaceship – for profit. There is no one who takes the first shot, who dies trying to save the world, because our catatonia forces us to wait for certain death as long as it comes as late as possible. Risking one's life to, dialectically, survive, or guarantee the survival of the Other, like throwing the plane that was going to the White House on the ground, anticipating certain death to spare some lives, this is, curiously, always out of the question.

The message we must extract from Don't Look Up it's less about Covid denialism and more about environmental meltdown. Because this one has the potential to destroy, in we don't know how many decades or centuries, human life on Earth. Meanwhile, Beezos's grandchildren, Musk and the like, will travel to another habitable planet, taking with them the little super-qualified workforce needed to reproduce the capitalist mode of production on another planet, in the context of technological mechanization tending to the absolute. The Earth will remain for the useless mass of interplanetary capitalism, globally reduced to the condition of lumpen proletariat. If the class struggle today, as Marx anticipated, is located in the context of globalized capitalism, tomorrow's is between the interplanetary, intergalactic proletariat, who knows, in the growing deterritorialization of capitalist schizophrenia[v]. May we not die alone, but more importantly, may we not die inert.

*Alexandre de Lima Castro Tranjan is studying law at USP.



don't look up (Don't Look Up)
USA, 2021, 145 minutes.
Directed by: Adam McKay
Screenplay: Adam McKay and David Sirota
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Rob Morgan, Jonah Hill, Mark Rylance.



[I] I owe this expression to Eberval Figueiredo Jr.

[ii] For an understanding of this fundamental concept, cf. ALTHUSSER, Louis. about reproduction. Translated by Guilherme João de Freitas Teixeira. 2nd ed. Petrópolis, RJ: Voices, 2008. p. 97 and ff.

[iii] Cf. MASCARO, Alysson Leandro. State and political form. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2013. p. 85-9.

[iv] See ŽIŽEK, Slavoj. Welcome to the desert of Real! : five essays on 11/2003 and related dates. São Paulo: Boitempo, 170. p. 7-XNUMX.

[v] Cf. DELEUZE, Gilles; GUATTARI, Felix. The Anti-Oedipus: capitalism and schizophrenia 1. 2. ed. Translated by Luiz BL Orlandi. São Paulo: Editora 34, 2011.


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