Michigan State doctoral candidate Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) and astronomy Professor Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) discover that a “planet killer”-sized comet is headed toward Earth in the film Don't Look Up. (Credit: Netflix)
Just how popular is the most-watched movie on Netflix right now? Released on Dec. 24, 2021, Don’t Look Up (written and directed by Adam McKay, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio) recently recorded the biggest week of views in Netflix history, with more than 152 million hours streamed as of Jan. 2, 2022—nearly 40 million hours more than the next nine most popular shows combined.
What’s fascinating is that it’s also a movie heavy on science, both in the realms of science fiction and the portrayal of modern-day scientists.
Rick Stevens, department chair and associate professor of media studies in the College of Media, Information, and Communication, examines how science and technology get framed in public communication and pop culture. In particular, he studies how science fiction is a space where the public can comment on culture, explore its social dynamics and think about ethical issues presented by science.
“It’s a space where we take the familiar and make it unfamiliar so that we can talk about it, or we take the unfamiliar and make it familiar so that we can recognize it,” said Stevens.
Stevens spoke with CU Boulder Today about the new film’s popularity, the way it plays with the portrayal of science and why we might be in a new golden age of sci-fi entertainment.
Warning: spoilers ahead!
Lost in translation
Within the first 10 minutes of the movie, Michigan State doctoral candidate Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) and astronomy Professor Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) discover that a “planet killer”-sized comet is headed toward Earth. Yet when Dibiasky and Mindy inform the United States president about the impending comet collision, the president and her son (Meryl Streep, Jonah Hill), are more concerned about the upcoming midterm elections.
Even as Mindy, Dibiasky and a NASA expert attempt to articulate the science and the consequences, they are met immediately with impatience and critique. Hill’s character, both the president’s son and chief of staff, dramatically complains that the science is “so stressful.” The scientists are left with the White House team announcing they will “sit tight and assess.”
“It's a constant trope in science fiction that scientists have figured out that society is doomed or has a danger and people won't listen,” said Stevens. “The trope in this movie is a little bit more obvious because it shows just how much these characters struggle to communicate.”
The scientists in the film also want to simply share the data and the evidence, but they are repeatedly pressured to become storytellers, celebrities and counselors.
Scientists, engineers and mathematicians often use specific terminology to communicate their work and findings within their fields. While this jargon is useful for them, it is difficult for others to understand. Don’t Look Up showcases how it’s a whole different ball game for scientists to communicate to politicians and the general public—and how much being able to do so matters in today’s world, according to Stevens.
“Translating scientific findings and data into ways that average people can understand it is its own enterprise and endeavor,” said Stevens. “Knowledge in a mediated age has to make its way into mediated culture or people can't find it. It's not always accessible to people from their couches.”
Peer review, scientific ‘certainty’
Don’t Look Up might also go down in history as the first major Hollywood film to mention the scientific peer review process more than a dozen times and address the concept of scientific certainty.
“This is the first time I've heard the peer review process so extensively discussed in a movie, which is great. This is music to my scientist ears,” said Amy Manizer, an astronomer and professor of planetary science at University of Arizona, who served as a science advisor for Don’t Look Up during production. “It’s a movie at its core that really speaks to the importance of science-based decision making in our society, in our daily lives.”
Yet a key moment in the movie illustrates just how much the White House trusts the reputations of elite scientific institutions over the rigorous scientific publication process of peer review. As the humble Professor Mindy repeatedly emphasizes that their discovery is peer-reviewed, the White House team and others doubt its accuracy and ask that the data be reviewed by researchers at Ivy League universities and NASA. Only after the findings are confirmed by the prestigious organizations do the politicians believe them.
In a follow-up meeting, the president asks Mindy how certain he is that the comet will hit Earth, to which he replies: “100%, 99.76% to be exact.”
Suddenly, the White House team is more worried about “looking like idiots” in the news than saving all life on Earth. When in reality, scientific data is almost never 100% about anything, and 99.76% is about as certain as it gets.
“That's the brilliance of this film: it brings that kind of peer review of science language into a media sphere, and then major news media reacts to it in the ways that our current popular culture works. Then we watch how that quickly gets distorted, and what we would consider ‘scientific certainty’ becomes very uncertain,” said Stevens.
The film isn’t about whether or not the science is sound, Stevens added.
“Given that it’s a scientific fact [that in the movie, a comet will strike and destroy Earth], it’s a story of what could happen in our political and media-driven world, which keeps people from accepting or doing the things that can help us survive,” he said.
Social responsibility and science fiction
During the space race of the 1950s, science fiction was used as a tool to change the way people saw their world, whether it involved living on the moon one day or more immediate issues of racism and education, according to Stevens.
“Science fiction has historically introduced complex topics to the public to get them to think about social issues in particular ways,” he said.
In the case of Don’t Look Up, there are a plethora of scientific, societal and political messages McKay aims to convey, but one that stands out to Stevens is the point the movie makes about the anti-intellectual nature of our popular discourse.
“Science gets this treatment of: This is not a controversial subject, it's only controversial because of the consequences,” said Stevens. “And we can't really have a conversation as a public about these consequences, because politics and media culture just are not geared towards helping people have these kinds of discussions to save the world.”
As Don’t Look Up sets records and joins Dune, many popular Star Trek reboots and a variety of sci-fi shows and movies streaming on online platforms, are we in a new golden age of sci-fi? And if so, what might that mean?
Stevens attributes much of this uptick in science fiction and fantasy content to smaller budgets and economic flexibility that come with streaming services. Overall, streaming is cheaper and less risky, and doesn’t rely on a theatrical release during a pandemic.
“There's this moment now where science fiction is becoming more prevalent, more possible,” said Stevens. “And because of the rise of the number of quality streaming shows and movies about important social issues, there are more people willing to use these platforms to say important things.”
Don't Look Up is now streaming on Netflix.