I know what you’re thinking: Don’t go there. The Netflix hit Don’t Look Up is a political satire and an allegory for climate change. There is no Christian subtext.
Ok, the movie obviously wasn’t written by a baptist studio, an evangelical media startup, or Kirk Cameron. It was written by a liberal comedian. And the idea of a random comet hitting earth and destroying all human life for no reason contrasts with the end-times beliefs of most Christians, not to mention the disbelief in climate change by many—but not all—evangelicals.
Nonetheless, one thing you’ll find is, despite all this, the incidentally spiritual eschatology latent in this otherwise irreverent, scientifically-minded film.
While as a satire, Don’t Look Up has its flaws, I give the script the benefit of the doubt that it is not necessarily an allegory for the climate crisis, but for the human reaction to existential threats that fall upon is. I mean, I also interpreted it as applicable to the Coronavirus pandemic, not because Covid-19 could wipe us all out, but because if it mutated in such a way that it became 100% fatal, there is reason to believe we would not contain it even if we had the means—due to our stupidity.
A satire of the human response to extinction.
With that in mind, the story of Don’t Look Up plays out differently. While the heroes are scientists, they could be exchanged for any other kind—climatologists warning us of global warming, virologists warning us about a killer flu, radiologists warning us about a massive nuclear…whatever, you get it. They could also be exchanged for textual scholars warning us about judgment day.
Hear me out: while Biblical prophets did not engage in the scientific method (nor did anyone until at least Ibn al-Haytham of the late 1st century, and not at all widely until 16 centuries later), they nonetheless maintained a close study of the information given to them, as well as its interpretation, predicated upon careful study and a trusting relationship with the providing source. And when they saw the signs, they spoke out. Theirs was a spiritual scrutiny, but it is not divorced from science or against science. It’s just a different pursuit than science. Hence why sometimes climatologists who warn us are sometimes seen as prophets.
So when a Christian watches Don’t Look Up—if they can get past the swearing and the sex—they might feel a familiar sense of frustration and certain doom. The world will end very soon and if something is not done, if people do not take certain swift action, everything they know will perish forever. Armageddon. Apocalypse. End times.
Imagine how Noah felt as he built the ark. The rains are coming.
Countless adherents to Christianity interpret Biblical texts to mean that God will literally burn up the entire earth one day. Now, almost nobody says that we can “stop” it, but most believe that human actions can either delay it, hasten it, or assure that we will overcome it through safety and/or eternal paradise. So, even if the “comet” comes, for you it can be permanent or a blip on a timeline of post-comet heaven.
And how do most people react? If you believe God has determined an end of creation as we know it (say, fire across the earth), and has given us a prescription for moving past it into long-term survival (resurrection into paradise), how do you see most people respond?
It’s not at all different from the movie:
- Morning talk shows will cheerfully bring up Christian faith stuff from time to time, talk about Easter and Christmas and charity—but never the problem of sin or damnation or the end of time.
- Social media influences and self-indulgent artists will stage elaborate calls for attention to the subject at hand, maybe a few weeks of “I’m devoted to this belief system now and we all should be,” only to go right back to indulging in their own identity and relationships being important to everyone.
- Politicians will rally believers for their votes when useful, but when not useful, kind of neglect the urgency of following the necessary path to avoiding inevitable disaster. Talk about Christian values and initiatives, but never go full sermon-on-the-mount with your policy. Can you imagine?
- Big Tech companies will never fully ignore or refuse to serve swaths of believers in a precious faith—they need their data after all—but the bottom line will always come before laying down the cost of discipleship.
- And the prophets themselves? Well, even they have their moral failures from time to time, do they not? Adultery, drug use, mental breakdowns, the feeling of total failure and giving up. They doubt their beliefs. They doubt themselves.
So yes, a Christian who believes Biblical eschatology is being and/or will be fully realized may find some sympathy with the scientists in Don’t Look Up. We know what we know, and nobody seems to listen to us, no matter how sure we are that our fate is a huge deal that needs to be reckoned with.
Seeing how scientists are treated in the story reminds me of how Christian belief is sometimes treated. Respected one minute, not taken seriously at all the next. Sometimes even ostracized. It’s part of why, as a Christian, I respect science, rather than ridicule science, as some Christian groups have throughout history.
To bring it all home, I draw your attention to a single character and a single scene: A shoplifter named Yule whom scientist Kate brings for dinner.
Played by Timothée Chalamet, Yule almost doesn’t fit into the story. He’s not part of the societal complex that has any power in stopping the threat. He’s an outcast, one that many would dismiss as unimportant, not worth saving. I think that’s why the writers introduced him to the heart of the story as the end comes near. Our scientific prophet, now cast out, meets a rogue street “thug,” also cast out. And the big surprise about him? He actually has a deep belief in a Creator God.
When we see the final dinner of our tragic heroes, we see them enjoy one last time the things they were fighting to preserve: family, friendship, food, faith.
That’s right, faith. Yule leads the table in a prayer. Sure, it might just be an anthropological necessity to include such a rite one last time. That powerful shot of a medicine man dancing an ancient, useless prayer as fire rains from the sky could be a mockery of “thoughts and prayers” don’t solve problems. But Yule leads a prayer of thankfulness for what they had while alive and forgiveness for their stupidity, and to escort their hearts into the end.
While liberals are quick to remind us that religion can be a destructive force that heeds progress and ushers disaster, I was surprised the movie didn’t include a central religious figure who keeps telling everyone that God would never let a comet hit earth, and if we pray, it’ll just go away.
Instead, our religious message mainly comes from a powerless outcast who comes to the emotional rescue of a prophet who did everything she could, and when the end comes, joins hands with the believers of truth so their last moments can be somewhat canonized. A kind of last supper. If there’s a paradise in our film, it’s not for the elite (watch past the credits), but maybe and/or hopefully for the humble heroes who tried their best.
This, I think, is the movie’s point made about religion:
There is room for faith. In fact, faith, rather than strive to contradict science in the name of fundamentalism, can dialogue with science to bring meaning out of the truths we find. In any crisis, authentic faith is necessary to humble us, guide us to action, heal us when we we are both wrong and wronged, and soothe us when hard times hit. Because if it is too late to prevent death, which is true for all of us, at the very least we need to find a way to accept it. That might be easier if we say that we believed and we tried our best.
Needless to say, the message of faith included in this liberal Hollywood movie was not only surprising, but also refreshing.
Here’s the prayer from the ending scene, which was actually actor Timothée Chalamet’s idea to include:
Dearest Father and Almighty Creator
We ask for your Grace tonight, despite our pride
Your forgiveness, despite our doubt
Most of all Lord, we ask for your love to soothe us through these dark times
May we face whatever it is to come in your divine will with courage and open hearts of acceptance Amen