“You’re going to die! You’re going to die!”
Through a plot that follows the fight for a response to humanity’s impending doom when a comet is discovered to be heading for Earth, the message of Don’t Look Up is clear: unless those with power start listening to those calling for action against global disasters – whether that’s an impending comet or a global rise in temperature – planet Earth is looking at a mass extinction. This message is so true to the real-life climate crisis, reviews have been critiqued for failing to respond to the film in exactly the same way the media industry within the film fails to respond to the comet; by critiquing those calling them out. Other reviews address the similarities between the fictional disaster and the climate crisis, from scientists’ frustration, to political portrayals.  Regardless of their stance, these reviews fall short in addressing anything in the film unrelated to humans, choosing to ignore the portrayals of animals often so pivotal in climate imagery, despite these appearing frequently in montages and collages in this film. In light of this, this article explores how non-human animal imagery is used within Don’t Look Up to further climate activism.
On the surface, Don’t Look Up appears to portray human culture as the cause for the disaster. Specifically, it blames materialism in Western culture. This is portrayed not only through the plot, where material greed prevents successful action against the comet, but also through the way animals are portrayed within the film. The first and final depictions of animals show an eagle and a bull respectively, taking the form of bronze statues. This serves to frame the narrative with connotations of humans prioritising material greed over life, which is a prominent theme throughout. The animals depicted connote strength and power, evoking the ironic idea that materialism leads to power. The eagle is the national symbol of America, representing the ideals of power and freedom, and it is within the White House that this statue is displayed. Ironically, pursuit of power is the downfall of the American government in McKay’s film. The bull depicted may be a reference to another American symbol, the Charging Bull, symbolising financial power. However, depicted here it is instead a symbol of the failure of financial prioritisation; just another material object floating alongside the phones and cars that are now worthless without a human audience.
Many of the live animals in the film are depicted through the literal lens of capitalism too, their image corrupted by humans through a camera lens. For example, the ratio aspect of this clip of a bear in a supermarket differs from the rest of the film, providing the perspective that it is being viewed through a phone screen. The placement of this clip within the film – during the end of the world montage – hints at the belief that commodification is so integral to humanity that it will continue until the death of humans. This lack of respect towards animal life is shown similarly in the clip of the puppy on the rooster viewed through a phone screen, explicitly stated as used for raising the mood of humans. However, what appears to be a cute video is actually objectification of animals at best, and at worst, animal abuse.
By portraying animals through a materialistic lens, the film brings attention to the inhumanity of humanity, thus furthering climate activism by raising awareness not only of how human greed and social media lead to the mistreatment of natural animal life, but its potential to extend to the mistreatment of nature itself.
However, considering only these negative portrayals of humanity places animal imagery in Don’t Look Up as a drain on hope for climate justice, where hope is a necessary aspect of successful engagement with climate activism. But animals are not only portrayed as victims. This solitary image of a heron appears amongst an overwhelming montage of news clips. This is the only image of non-human life to appear in this minute-long montage, and the clip itself is shown for less than a second. Despite how short-lived this image is, it serves as a reminder that even when the worst of humanity overwhelmingly dominates the narrative, purity still exists and is worth saving, no matter how insignificant it seems. Animal life best illustrates this idea as it is a wide held belief that “naturalness is… inherently good and that people prefer natural entities to their unnatural counterparts,” ie. technology. Here, and elsewhere in the film, animals can be viewed as a symbol of hope and the thing worth combating climate change for when human morality has failed.
But to believe that the film presents the argument that humanity itself has failed is to misread its messages on a deeper level, as Robinson states in his review. Within the plot, only those in positions of power – those focused on the economy over the safety of the planet – are to blame for the crisis. There are many other characters fighting for safety, including Mindy and Dibiasky. Animal imagery is used too to reveal other aspects of humanity that are “good.”
Images of animals mostly appear within collages that develop themes throughout the film. Take, for example, this short collage following the comet sighting in the sky:
The first image of the fallen statue appears to represent the decline of humanity through historical imagery. The statue is weathered and lying on the ground, perhaps indicating a human lack of respect for their culture. But the following three images are, I argue, images of naturalness and purity. Babies are viewed widely within Western culture as uncorrupted, and “purity is often linked to sanctity or sacredness.” Hence, babies and religious imagery are often placed within Don’t Look Up’s collages to portray the goodness of humanity and, more broadly, the planet. However, the associations these images hold are incomplete without the animal imagery. The hippos here epitomise purity through their lack of association with anything ‘human’. A mother is depicted interacting with her child in a relationship that humans also relate to, which is reinstated by the following image of a baby. Animals are used in this context not only as an example of what is worth saving regarding climate justice, but also to draw attention to aspects of humanity worth saving too.
This is not only done through seemingly ‘pure’ imagery either, although this does occur multiple times. In earlier collages, images of animals are seen alongside images of working-class people, for example the hummingbird and the sanitation workers. These images are paralleled to portray both lives on an equal level, showing that both are a necessary part of the functioning of life. As well as this, the workers are actively engaging in an activity that benefits the environment, blurring the boundary between human and non-human life. Animals draw attention yet again to humans worthy of saving in disaster situations.
Despite all of this, animals do not exist in this film as their own entities. Rather, they exist as objects used to spur emotions regarding human action. Why is a film focused on spreading the message that the whole planet should be saved so focused on centring humans?
To answer this, we must turn to morality concerns. Skitka argues that “holding an attitude with moral conviction leads to increased involvement with [issues],” and so in this film, moral concerns are drawn upon to increase involvement with climate activism. According to Rottman et al’s argument, there are two main moral concerns that humans react to in their climate activism; harm-based concerns and purity-based concerns. Purity-based concerns – including traditionalism and keeping the Earth ‘clean’ – are drawn upon in images such as babies and animals. Purity-based concerns appeal more to political conservatives – a group typically unengaged with climate activism – than harm-based concerns due to their ideals built upon a foundation of traditionalism and, often, religion. In fact, the associations between religion and animals goes beyond this film, where arguments have been made that “treating the environment as sacred can increase environmental concerns.” Therefore, appealing to political conservatives through purity imagery potentially furthers the cause.
However, due to the fact that “people who are overall more concerned with purity tend to be less concerned with climate change,” purity-based concerns often have little effect compared to harm-based concerns, hence Don’t Look Up relies far more on portraying harm-based concerns. Few of the animal images appeal to this concern though, and the ones that do rely on pre-established contexts. For example, the polar bear on an iceberg depicts the melting icecaps, and the bear in the supermarket is not in its natural environment. Yet again, the film relies on anthropocentrism in its appeal for climate action.
Don’t Look Up is an outlier amongst disaster movies for even considering non-human life in its narrative, and there may be good reason for this. One critic argues that “audiences find it easier to engage with images that depict people,” and other scholars argue that “being considered a ‘person’ is often necessary in order to achieve unambiguous inclusion in the moral circle.”  Essentially, this means that humans are unconcerned on a harm-based level for any creature they don’t perceive as ‘like themselves’. Even climate movements rejected the concern for animals in favour of concern for humans in order to engage people with the cause, as the People not Polar Bears movement did.  Many films overcome this challenge by depicting animals through anthropomorphism, which is particularly seen in animation, and which has relative success in engaging people with the harm-based concerns of animals.
The animal imagery itself in Don’t Look Up never attempts to portray animals as human-like. Why are animal images even used in a film that relies so heavily on appealing to harm-based concerns?
Don’t Look Up is clearly aimed at a primary audience of those leaning politically left, as it satirises right-wing politics and the corruption of media industries through political power and capitalism. As the left-wing are typically unconcerned with purity-based concerns, it serves the film to centre humans and their concerns in its narrative. Despite this, it still attempts to appeal to the masses, through its comedic form and huge star cast of actors. Therefore, the film must remedy the critique of right-wing politics somewhat to still appeal to the group aligned with this ideology, so as to maximise profits. It also serves the film’s agenda to engage them with extinction anxieties. Animal imagery, I would argue, serves the purpose of engaging the right with climate activism, as it appeals to their purity-based concerns. By depicting non-human animals, the narrative is grounded in nature – the primary concern of the right – providing moments of relief from the constant engagement with politics. Even though humans are centred in the narrative, the issues presented still span the boundary between humans and the non-human, therefore providing a perspective on both serves to appeal to those of differing concerns.
Although animals serve this film by furthering engagement with climate activism through imagery association, animals are still never given their own narrative within this film and every portrayal centres humans. This raises the concern that the film portrays humans as having sole ownership of the planet. This isn’t a new concept for disaster movies either. Although research has proven that humans are predominantly only concerned for human life, we must ask how this speaks to questions about how humans value non-human nature. After all, film as a medium tends to reflect the views of society, particularly Hollywood film, which Don’t Look Up is an example of. The film perhaps tries to remedy this in its depiction of the bird-like creatures in the final scene attacking Meryl Streep’s character in an act of revenge against humanity on behalf of non-human life. But is this enough?
Whilst Don’t Look Up draws parallels between human and animal life in its imagery, the two are always distinct and separate, with human life always the primary cause for concern. But when both species face the threat of extinction on an equal level, it is counterintuitive to try to separate them. Climate justice cannot be achieved when animals are still used for human gain, rather than respected as their own entity.
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