Can you make an environmentalist movie with the help of the Pentagon? In this episode we answer this and other questions by focusing on Don’t Look Up – an ostensibly left wing film about climate change (which is disguised as a comet) and was made with the support of the DOD. I offer a very critical review of the movie and its thematic contradictions before outlining changes to the script that came as a result of DOD cooperation. We round off by looking at the film as a case study in how you cannot solve problems if you solely conceive of them through the lens of mediated reality.
I imagine most, if not all, of you have heard of or even seen Don’t Look Up. It was released late last year on Netflix, with a big splash of publicity, it has won awards, was nominated at the Oscars, and has provoked a lot of commentary.
One of the things missing from all this noise was the fact that the movie was supported by the Pentagon – they are listed in the credits and on IMDB. A listener asked about this when the film first came out, and then Matt told me he’d seen it and spotted the DOD credit. I didn’t actually watch Don’t Look Up until recently, because I was never enthusiastic about it, and anything where there’s a lot of noise puts me off.
Nonetheless, the film interests me because it was co-written by David Sirota – a journalist who I like, who interviewed me about National Security Cinema back when the book came out, and who has himself written about the US military in Hollywood. The other writer was Adam McKay, the guy behind The Big Short and Vice, both of which I’ve reviewed previously on this podcast.
You may remember, I was quite critical of The Big Short but had more time for Vice, and I love the TV show Succession, where he is credited as a producer. I also like some of his earlier work with Will Ferrell, particularly The Other Guys, a story about high finance and the New York Police Department pension fund.
However, the premise of Don’t Look Up – where a comet is streaking its way towards earth and scientists try to alert humanity to the impending apocalypse, but no one listens to them – put me off. It struck me as preachy, condescending and hypocritical.
Then I watched the movie. And it’s preachy, condescending and hypocritical.
We will come back to the question of DOD support and what that may have entailed in terms of rewrites towards the end of this episode, but I do want to devote some time to why this film pissed me off so much, and why it utterly fails in what it was (presumably) trying to do.
It is important to do this with supposedly left-wing films, or otherwise something that attempts to tell a story outside of the conventional narrative boundaries. A lot of the same problems I had with The Big Short recur in Don’t Look Up, but because the thematic stakes are so much higher it matters more.
In case you haven’t realised, the comet in the film is a metaphor for climate change, or what people like Sirota and McKay refer to as the ‘climate crisis’. I despise this term for several reasons:
- Everything is a crisis.
- Branding things as a crisis is always about trying to provoke short-term emotional responses from the general public, but this is the wrong approach to environmentalism because it’s inherently a long-term concern.
- It’s condescending, preachy and hypocritical for rich people to try to ‘raise awareness’ among poor people.
- From ‘global warming’ to ‘climate change’ to the ‘climate crisis’, people have been rebranding the greenhouse effect for decades, each time convinced that this time the branding will produce the desired response.
- This approach to environmentalism is reliant on magical thinking – if only we phrase the problem the right way, things will magically happen to solve that problem.
- I don’t even consider climate change, or potential climate change, to be the biggest environmental problem or the one that needs most urgently addressing. Focusing on abstract computer models of what might happen in the Arctic in 20 years is of considerably less concern to me than the obvious loss of wildlife (or what the scientists insist on calling biomass and biodiversity).
Thus, in Don’t Look Up they took a recent rebranding of only one part of the environmental devastation caused by industrial and post-industrial human society, and disguised it as a metaphor. Just dwell on that for a moment – the thing they’re talking about is already a rebranding of a problem, it’s not the problem itself, let alone one of a range of problems (i.e. the actual reality we face). The problem is already disguised, so why disguise that disguise with a metaphor?
Apparently, it’s because a disaster movie (even a satirical one, as Don’t Look Up aspires to be) about climate change wouldn’t be sellable, so they had to disguise what they were actually talking about. But that doesn’t work, because the writers gave endless interviews explaining the metaphor, and were then praised by bourgeois movie critics who were ultimately praising themselves for understanding the metaphor.
This is a really low point in American popular culture – where a movie that disguises its premise in a really obvious way, which is then explained by the moviemakers, is praised for disguising its premise because the reviewers figured it out. Because the moviemakers told them.
If this seem infantile, narcissistic and utterly futile, that’s because it is.
The whole thing comes across to me like a student film – and if this had been 15 minutes long, made for $200 and didn’t proclaim to be the cleverest film ever written, I’d have no problem with it. But given how clever the film-makers made out that they were, the film itself is horribly dumb. Every joke is obvious, every character is a paper-thin cartoon, it is full of low-hanging fruit being plucked solely to fill the gaps in a lazily-assembled screenplay.
And it’s 2hrs, 20 minutes long, when it could be half that run-time because the second half is just a rehashing of the jokes from the first half. It doesn’t expand or become more sophisticated or unpredictable, it just keeps making the same smug, dull, undergraduate points over and over.
I truly do not think it is an exaggeration to say that you or I could write a better screenplay than this. Shitty reality TV is one thing – none of us expect much from an episode of Top Chef filmed with the assistance of the State Department. But a movie with an A-list cast that cost $75 million to produce should be better than this, especially if the film-makers have any creative or intellectual ambition whatsoever.
So, for all I like the writers of this film, I am going to take it apart at the joints, Sopranos-style. I wanted Don’t Look Up to be good, or at least funny, but it is perhaps the most vainglorious, cheaply-written, so far up its own arse it can see the future movie I’ve seen in years.
Condescending Pricks Make Terrible Screenwriters
In my opinion, the reasoning behind the creative choices they made are deeply flawed. They wanted to make a movie about the impending crisis of climate change – fine, if that’s what they believe in then that’s what they should do.
Except, it’s already been done, in 2004. The Day After Tomorrow, a.k.a. Independence Day with climate change, is in some ways my favourite Roland Emmerich movie. It’s ridiculous and corny, but it works as a disaster film and has a few characters I actually enjoy watching, some nicely worked jokes about burning books on tax law, that sort of thing.
That film wasn’t laced with stars, nor did it hide its premise behind a clichéd metaphor. Some of the characters even have moments of genuine emotional depth, though admittedly this gets lost in the technobabble and the tsunamis. On a budget of $125 million it took over half a billion dollars, making it the highest-revenue generating film ever made in Canada. So presumably we can add in maybe a 30% rebate on those production costs too, given the generous tax incentives Canada offers to film-makers.
Don’t Look Up officially cost $75 million, but reports say that Leonardo DiCaprio was so motivated to make this important film that he charged $30 million for his role. His co-star, Jennifer Lawrence, got $25 million. Given that the film also stars Jonah Hill, Meryl Streep, Ron Perlman, Ariana Grande, Cate Blanchett, Mark Rylance and others, there’s no way these numbers add up.
Thus, there’s also no way Netflix made half a billion dollars on this turkey, though it did set some records for viewing minutes per week and things like that. But if you break down those numbers into how many people that translates to, it comes to quite a lot less than a major theatrical success like The Day After Tomorrow.
Then again, I guess Netflix saw this as a prestige movie – not necessarily a commercial driver in the short-term, but something that might win awards and help establish Netflix’s reputation as a major player in the movie business. I can only assume this is why they spent so much money on the A-list cast. Also, the film primarily shot in and around Boston, so we’d have to factor in a 25% rebate on production costs, since that’s what you get in Massachusetts.
Just as an aside – DiCaprio and Lawrence generally get around $20 million per movie, that’s their standard quote. So why would they ask for more to work on this film, if they truly believed in the cause? DiCaprio owns an E-racing team, it’s like Formula One but with electric-powered cars. This is the ultimate in hypocrisy, because it’s an entire branch of racing that doesn’t need to exist, produces masses of pollution and uses up a lot of rare earth metals in those batteries. It also occupies engineering talent who could, and perhaps should, be able to work on better things than making cars go zoom.
Thus, Formula E or whatever they’re calling it is a load of virtue-signalling nonsense, the exact sort of thing that attracts Hollywood liberals who make statements about climate change but also own private jets and mansions. ‘Limousine liberals’ doesn’t quite cut it anymore, given that you could buy an entire limousine company for less than either of them got paid for this film.
Factor in that some of that money – perhaps 25% of it – came from government coffers (i.e. the public) in Massachusetts. Could that money not be better spent, on carbon capture or tidal energy or improving public transport to reduce overall energy consumption, or improving internet provision to allow more people to work and study from home, or providing free insulation to low-income households, or… you get the idea. Paying two people who already have vast amounts of money, which they spend on living extremely high-consumption lifestyles, to preach to us about how stupid we are for not stopping the climate crisis is a prick move.
There’s no other phrase for it. It’s a total prick move.
Again, the assumption is that you can’t get people interested in a movie like this without packing it to the gills with overpaid and overrated talent. It’s patronising to think that people just wouldn’t be interested unless they disguise the premise with a lame metaphor and draw you in with glitzy stardom.
It’s the same logic used in the scene in The Big Short where Ariana Grande explains sub-prime mortgage derivatives. The audience just won’t pay attention unless they’ve got some tits and teeth to look at.
If you actually believe that, why make serious films? If you genuinely think people are so dumb that you have to turn your entire purpose inside out just to get through to them, why bother? If I genuinely believed that you were too stupid to understand what I’m saying, I damn sure wouldn’t spend my time doing this. If I thought you’d only get it if I made it into a childish cartoon, I wouldn’t waste my time.
If you’re actually trying to shift the focus and the discussion then why play into the very thing that’s shifting the focus and the discussion away from where you want it to be? Isn’t that entirely self-defeating? I remember McKay giving interviews about how Jennifer Lawrence has this nerdy haircut in the movie and he apologised to her for not looking as beautiful as she usually does, but she said she quite liked it.
What a fawning simp. But also a condescending sexist, as though women have to look beautiful in films and aren’t willing or capable of pursuing something more than that in their performances. Not that I think Lawrence is especially good at the whole acting thing, but to be honest she’s the only character in this film that I didn’t detest.
Also, it’s been widely reported that DiCaprio asked for script changes before he signed on, so we also have to blame him for the mid-air collision that is this screenplay. He and Lawrence play the scientists who discover the comet and try to warn everyone about it.
Then, there’s Meryl Streep, who is cast as a female Donald Trump, i.e. a president who doesn’t care about anything except approval ratings and maintaining their position. Just like putting her in The Post, the Spielberg movie about the Pentagon Papers, this is obviously a response to her widely-lauded speech condemning Trump. Which came hot on the heels of her lionising Margaret Thatcher in the movie Iron Lady, and trust me when I say Thatcher was a far worse leader than Trump.
So, to cast her as a female Trump-alike president in a movie that’s about a comet that’s really about climate change is just playing to the crowd. This film is clearly made by smug liberals who think they’re smarter than everyone, for smug liberals who think they’re smarter than everyone. Who live in mansions, ride around in chauffeur-driven cars and private planes, consume more in terms of energy and resources than entire housing blocks, and then preach to us that we’re so stupid when it comes to climate change that they had to make a movie about a comet.
And if that sounds irredeemably cretinous, self-absorbed and sanctimoniously prickish, that’s because it is.
Climate Change and Hollywood
One thing Don’t Look Up shares with The Day After Tomorrow is that they were both supported by the DOD. Just let that sink in – if it’s so difficult to make movies about this apparently taboo or downgraded, downrated topic then how come the pinnacle of the establishment – the military for skullfuck’s sake – would be happy to help?
That being said, there aren’t a lot of movies about environmental problems, and basically none that attribute those problems to the obsession with economic growth and the militaristic and technological dominion that comes with that, and serves that. But Al Gore did win an Oscar for his documentary – which used imagery taken from The Day After Tomorrow, and pretended it was real footage of the Antarctic.
There is, nonetheless, a problem with marrying serious topics with entertainment, as the State Department found out. In late 2014 State officials reached out to Paul Baribault, senior vice president for marketing at Disney. He seemed receptive to discussing ideas, so they arranged a meeting with Admiral Robert Papp, the State Department’s Arctic envoy. A four-page briefing for Papp noted how Bob Iger was very passionate about climate change, and listed core objectives for the meeting including getting Disney to commit to participating in State’s PR campaign. They listed several ideas including a child-friendly website fronted by a Frozen character to teach kids about climate change, a series of PSAs featuring the stars of Frozen and a ‘traveling interactive arctic exhibition’ which was seen as especially important ‘since not all Americans can afford to travel to Alaska or take a Disney cruise to Norway’.
State documents show that Papp and others met with Baribault in mid-November, though an email the following day shows that they weren’t optimistic about the outcome because ‘the negative impacts being seen in Arctic don’t necessarily fit within general Disney messaging of hope and happy things’. Despite letters from Papp to Baribault, it seems Disney weren’t interested in sponsoring the kinds of projects State had in mind.
The full story includes Papp making reference to this in several speeches and interviews in 2015, stating that they were still in discussions with Disney, when they weren’t. This pissed off people at Disney, who threatened to go public and accuse Papp of lying.
However, this is for a children’s cartoon, not for a satire or drama aimed at an adult audience. You wouldn’t expect to find counter-terrorism messaging in Beauty and the Beast, though I’m sure the CIA have tried. So while this dynamic is real, as evidenced by the State Department’s misadventures over Disney’s Frozen, it does not apply to all movies.
Indeed, what happened with Frozen is illustrative in another way. In late 2013 Disney executives showed a 15-minute rough cut of the film to officials from the Norwegian government, selling them on the idea it would help boost tourism to Norway. This led to a deal being signed between the Norwegian government and Disney, allowing the country to use the movie for promotional purposes.
This is big business – tourism accounts for around 8.5% of the employment in Norway, and a similar proportion of GDP. Naturally, I will try to get hold of these contracts and communications – I did receive a response from the Norwegian government which says:
Your message has arrived at the e-mail system of The Ministry of trade, industry and fisheries. The contents will be read and the required action will be taken as soon as possible.
But the wider point is that tourism is a big problem when it comes to environmentalism, mostly because of all the atmospheric pollution from people flying around the world. But there is also the additional energy consumption, let alone all the tourist merchandising tat. So, not only do Disney not want serious messaging to compromise the feelgood, everything will be alright in the end theme of their products, they’re quite happy to cause more pollution if it fattens their bottom line. And again, government money will have changed hands over this, money that could have been put to better use.
When it comes to other climate change themed films, there is AI, set in a post-climate change future where floods have taken out New York and other coastal cities. The 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, which replaces the nuclear war storyline with climate change. And was supported by the DOD. Then there’s Birdemic and Birdemic 2, which I’ve never seen but wish I had, and Geostorm, which I have seen and wish I hadn’t.
Curiously, another one I have not seen is Climate Change Denial Disorder, a spoof public service announcement that parodies climate change denial through discussion of a fictional disease. Leaving aside the issue of phrases like ‘climate denier’ and other idiocy, I’m left wondering if this is where Sirota and McKay got their idea. Their film is also a spoof, of sorts, and a satire. It’s about climate change, but is disguising that through the metaphor of a different kind of threat or problem. And it’s fundamentally about satirising people who simply refuse to acknowledge when there’s a problem.
Honestly, I think the makers of Climate Change Denial Disorder should be suing the film-makers behind Don’t Look Up, because a clearer case of plagiarism in the creative industries will be difficult to find.
Don’t Look Up: An Exercise in Thematic Confusion
Let’s get into the film itself, since there’s only so long I can justify ranting without actually getting to the topic. The basic storyline is that Jennifer Lawrence discovers the comet, DiCaprio figures out it’s going to hit the earth in about 6 months, other scientists at NASA and elsewhere confirm this. So, they try to alert the White House, but president Meryl Streep doesn’t care, so they go on a morning TV show, which goes badly and doesn’t help get the word out.
Then, due to mid-terms and political shenanigans, the White House changes their mind, takes it seriously, and launches a mission to fire rockets and nukes at the comet to deflect it away from earth. This mission is led by Ron Perlman, an ex-military pilot with some very old-fashioned views. The rockets take off, but are called back when the government and a major tech firm – headed by Mark Rylance – discover $140 trillion dollars of rare minerals on the comet.
So, the White House and the tech firm launch a new mission, to try to split up the comet and bring the pieces safely back to earth so they can mine them. DiCaprio continues trying to raise public awareness of the dangers, but a string of opposition movements loyal to the president – including some who deny there even is a comet – muddy the waters.
Predictably, the mining mission fails so the world’s elite escape on a rocket while the comet strikes the earth, destroying and killing everything. There are a couple of exceptionally flaccid mid-credits and post-credits sequences, but they’re so insultingly bad they aren’t worth bothering with.
My overall reaction, in case it isn’t already clear, was very negative. I found all these plot points obvious and predictable, I disliked most of the characters and didn’t feel they rang true, and it simply wasn’t funny. Again, the whole storyline resides in a dynamic where the writers think they’re so much smarter than the audience, and are kind of insulting anyone in the audience who doesn’t already think like them.
As a piece of environmental activist cinema, therefore, it’s a total failure. It simply entrenches the already well entrenched divide on this issue, and sides with those who think shouting ‘denier’ at anyone who doesn’t believe that computer models that are never correct are a bad basis for global policy. Now, of course, some people do just deny that there’s a problem, but it’s hardly just right wing, deeply religious Americans who behave like this. American liberals do it all the time, especially when trying to maintain the myth that the only problem in America is conservatives. The notion that a congress packed to the gills with ex-CIA and ex-military people, pretty much all of whom have significant investments in the weapons and other security state tech industries, is a deep, abiding problem (even when those congresspeople are Democrats) just isn’t on the table for discussion. Liberals are the corruption deniers par excellence – conservatives are just as corrupt, but they don’t pretend to be otherwise.
And it’s the same with environmental issues – DiCaprio made a documentary in 2007 called The 11th Hour, which was obviously a bunch of Oscar-bait given the success of Al Gore’s film the previous year. Well, that was 15 years ago, and what has DiCaprio done since except help launch an extremely polluting and wholly unnecessary car racing formula, and continue to jet around the world getting paid ludicrous money to star in movies? What have Sirota, or McKay, or Lawrence or Streep or any of them actually done?
So, in terms of actions, not virtue signals, I’d say they are all just as in denial as the people they’re criticising. We’ll come back to this. Indeed, the one scene in the film that rang true for me is when they first get into the Oval Office to talk to president Streep.
In particular, the dialogue about the never-ending imminent crises is exactly how I feel about this kind of apocalyptic branding. These days, everything is a crisis. ISIS was a national security crisis. The Brexit vote was a crisis for neoliberalism. Trump’s election was a crisis for democracy. Covid was a public health crisis. Every single economic bump in the road is a crisis. Every single time Russia or China does anything it’s a crisis.
Again, this is why branding the whole of environmentalism as the ‘climate crisis’ is really dumb, misleading and pointless. When everything is branded as a crisis, the ‘climate crisis’ becomes just more background noise.
So, this is misbranded climate crisis: the movie. It exists not to address any environmental problems or disasters that we might face, but simply to make a small minority of rich, highly consumptive people feel even more smug, and think they’re smarter than everyone else.
Put simply, they’re stood around bitching about how the deniers aren’t paying attention to them, and how they’ll just sit there on their piles of money while the world burns around them. But what are they doing that’s different? It’s almost as though being able to say ‘I told you so’ is more important than actually doing something about the ‘crisis’ that they perceive. In fact, it’s not ‘almost’ anything – that’s exactly what they’re doing.
Where the film gets deeply confused is in its treatment of celebrity-themed media, and the general mass media dynamics. When DiCaprio and Lawrence first go on the morning show, their segment is preceded by Ariana Grande – essentially playing herself – being interviewed about breaking up with her celebrity boyfriend because he cheated. Then he comes on the show via Skype and asks for her forgiveness, before then proposing, and she accepts.
I’m sure you all get the point – isn’t celebrity media trivial compared to environmental destruction? Why yes, yes it is. I can’t imagine anyone who watched this film didn’t already realise that. So, then the scientists come in for their segment.
Subsequent to Lawrence going mental she is effectively silenced by the government and branded by the media as a crazy shouty lady. This part of the film is simply a lie – American media is full of shouty, crazy people. It’s not like everything on US or Western media is light and fun and trivial. Pretty much everything on morning shows is, and that’s why I don’t watch them, but to pretend this is the sum total of all media is untrue. Whether it’s Maddow going apeshit every time someone with a Russian-sounding name says something, or the coterie of tedious, faux-angry guys on Fox bitching about ‘critical race theory’, anger and emotion are ever-present in US media, especially news media.
But if the moviemakers are so opposed to this vapid, celebrity-focused media culture then why did they cast so many A-listers? I’m sure their logic was that this is how you generate hype and get people to watch the movie, but it’s totally contradicting and self-defeating.
Then, around the start of the third act of the film, when the Don’t Look Up and Just Look Up movements are in full swing, they devote about four minutes to the Ariana Grande character singing a song on stage, called Just Look Up. Because if you get Ariana Grande, you’ve got to have her do a musical number, right?
What would have been genuinely subversive would be to cast her as one of the scientists, make no reference to her being a celebrity outside of the movie. Instead, they chose to play up to the very thing they’re apparently criticising, reinforcing it. This film does more to serve shallow, reactionary celebrity culture than it does to undermine, subvert or criticise it.
The US Military Rewrote Don’t Look Up
As further proof of how this film is an homage to power, rather than a challenge to it, the moviemakers got in bed with the Pentagon. They didn’t need to – military hardware only appears in a tiny handful of scenes that could easily have been done with sets and props and CGI. Given that Sirota is well aware of the compromises films have to make to win DOD support, I’m truly amazed they took this choice.
I have looked, and found absolutely nothing by way of reviews or commentary about Don’t Look Up that mentions military support. It was the same with The Suicide Squad, but at least on that film the DOD isn’t credited, whereas on Don’t Look Up, they are.
In the absence of documents on the film I decided to find a draft script for Don’t Look Up and compare it to the final, shooting script.
There’s about 30 minutes of extra material, some of which was obviously cut to shorten the run-time, but several scenes that were changed or removed show the usual signs of Pentagon influence.
For example, early on in the story DiCaprio and Lawrence are put on a military hop to get to DC and talk with the president. The description of the inside of the C-5 cargo plane in the original script says:
INT. C-5 GALAXY PLANE – HOURS LATER
Kate and Randall sit in the vacant back of the plane. It’s like two football fields and is completely empty except for a perfectly cut in half Abrams TANK.
Kate and Randall sit in the vacant back of the plane. It’s like two football fields and is completely empty except for the two of them.
I don’t really get what’s supposed to be funny about a Abrams tank that’s been cut in half, but clearly this is something the DOD nixed from the script. After the first meeting at the White House, which doesn’t go well, Lawrence, DiCaprio and the other scientist go off to a bar to talk about what to do next. One of them makes a joke about the NSA spying on them. This entire scene goes missing, but in subsequent scenes set in the same bar, that joke was never used. Given that the NSA is part of the DOD, and they have a history of being sensitive around portraits of domestic surveillance, we can assume this was also taken out due to DOD demands.
There’s also a plot line where the tech firm headed by Mark Rylance starts buying up large proportions of the US media, in order to control the narrative and promote the mining mission. This does not appear in the final script.
Then there’s a scene where Rylance goes to meet with a Chinese general. He is trying to make a deal over mineral rights in South America and Africa, and the general’s translator responds, ‘He says they want 185 billion cash, four board seats and editorial control over all BASH media.’ The dialogue continues, ‘He says you forget who has the advantage. Your country betrayed its workers so that the very few may be very wealthy. Now we make your phones, your cooking utensils even the silky clothes your women wear when you make love to them. We do not need you. Because we already own you.’
This scene also does not appear in the movie.
Other scenes that went AWOL include a bit where the news talks about gun stores running out of guns, and there’s a shot of a ‘long line of white men’ buying guns. There is no reference to the president winning the Nobel Peace Prize for defeating the comet, and therefore no line where a news anchor says ‘Which would be remarkable for a leader who once said waterboarding is “no worse than when the masseuse goes too hard on you.”’
When the Jennifer Lawrence character is arrested for the second time, after causing a riot when she reveals that the government has switched plans and is going to try to mine the comet, the original script has her being transported black site-style in the same military C-5 cargo plane that we saw earlier. This also doesn’t appear in Don’t Look Up, and it’s the FBI who do all the arresting and putting bags on people’s heads and threatening them to keep quiet, the DOD aren’t involved at all.
Then, there’s the character of Benedict Drask, played by Ron Perlman. He’s an old-school style military veteran who the president chooses to lead the initial missile deflection mission, which gets cancelled mid-flight. He is introduced as being part of some ‘get kids exercising’ government program, and is shown shouting abuse at a bunch of children doing star jumps and press ups.
In the original script he shouts at the kids:
Eleven! Twelve! Come on! You can do better than that! You look like a bunch of f-
Clearly this is ‘fags’ or ‘faggots’ or some variation. This was changed to him shouting:
You goddam lard ass! You look like a bunch of pussies!!
Then it cuts to the president saying ‘he’s just from a different generation’, cuts back to Drask who is shouting:
You want to hear about the last pussy I worked with in combat? You ever see inside a man’s torso?
So, they removed the homophobia and made it more generic hardass drill instructor type of stuff. They did the same thing when Drask is in the launch shuttle and as its taking off he starts blathering on the com:
6 minutes from main engine cut off. Everything is A-OK. Just wanna say hello to everyone on earth.All the proud white folks, the Mexicans, great food. The Arabs, at least the ones who don’t act all crazy. The Fairies, the Chinamen, your babies are really cute. And the negroes. Especially when you’re calm and not all jacked up and-
He’s then cut off by mission control. This was rewritten so Drask says:
And a big hello to that beautiful blue ball we call home. All those hard working white folks. God bless ya!
This time the General says, ‘It’s just a different generation’ before Drask continues:
I also want to say hello to all the Indians out there. Both kinds. You know, the ones with the elephant, the ones with the bow and arrow. Hey, why haven’t you guys ever teamed up? How cool would that be? I also want to say hi to all the gays out there-
And again, he’s cut off by mission control. It’s obvious that this character and his bigotry were watered down, and the only reason to do that is because the DOD were unhappy with an explicitly racist, homophobic military veteran character. So, they made him more of an old, eccentric guy who says confused, politically incorrect things, rather than a nasty bigot. Likewise, a scene later in the film where Drask has joined the comet denier movement and is giving interviews about how he went to the edge of space and there’s ‘nothing up there’, was also cut.
Let’s put some of these changes together, assuming most if not all of them were the resulted of DOD input on the script. The script had the military involved in spying on the scientists via the NSA, flying one of them to a black site to silence her, and one of their veterans is a racist homophobe who no one talks back to. This became the military having no involvement in stopping the scientists, and their veteran becomes more just a boomer with some stupid, confused opinions which everyone recognises are not acceptable.
However, there’s another problem I have with the film on top of these changes – namely, that the military are never really blamed for anything. The jeopardy and mistakes are caused by the tech billionaire and the useless president, not the General or Drask or any other military character. The blame is civilianised, just as they did in Contact, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, NCIS, Hulk and so on.
Now, there’s nothing in the earlier draft suggesting the story ever intended to blame the military for anything, which makes it the fault of the movie-makers, rather than the Pentagon’s entertainment liaisons.
Nevertheless, it’s important for us to recognise that if this had been a movie about climate change and the greenhouse effect, as it sort of is but sort of isn’t, that the military are one of the world’s biggest polluters. When I was reading through the documents on how the DOD got ‘national security exemptions’ during the Kyoto negotiations in the 1990s, it struck me how they were low-balling the military’s energy consumption (and thus, emissions). They were claiming it was in the order of less than 2% of the overall federal government’s emissions, which simply isn’t true. One study from 2007 found they were responsible for 93% of the entire US government’s fuel consumption.
So, by replacing climate change with a comet and letting the DOD rewrite the script, the film-makers actually denied perhaps the most important fact – that militarism drives environmental destruction. Instead of any meaningful discussion of this, we got one joke where General Themes scams the scientists out of a few dollars by pretending you have to pay for snacks in the White House. I can only assume this is some lamebrain attempt to say ‘if we didn’t spend as much on the military, we could tackle climate change’, but that rings pretty fucking hollow when you work with the military to make your film, and take public funds from the people of Massachusetts and give them to Leonardo DiCaprio to spend on a new G-6.
Mediated Reality and the Cultural Response to Environmentalism
Aside from everything we’ve already looked at, the most fundamental problem with this film is that it sees everything in media terms, through the lens of mediated reality. McKay discussed the origin of the film in an interview where he said:
I started talking to a lot of [climate] scientists. I kept looking for good news, and I never got it. Everything I was hearing was worse than what I was hearing on the mainstream media. So I was talking to [David Sirota], and we were both just like, “can you believe that this isn’t being covered in the media? That it’s being pushed to the end of the story? That there’s no headlines?” And Sirota just offhandedly said, “it’s like a comet is heading to Earth and it’s going to destroy us all and no one cares.” And I was like, “that’s the idea!”
This is a confession that all they sought to do with this film was address mediated reality, not actual environmental problems. It’s a couple of bourgeois guys complaining that the news isn’t covering what they want it to cover, so they make a film taking the piss out of the news.
Why not make news? If you’re bothered that news media isn’t covering something, or is covering it very poorly, just do the coverage yourself. Imagine if, instead of devoting a decade of my life to documenting government influence on the entertainment industry in real time, I’d simply written a screenplay about other people not covering this topic, and how much smarter than them I apparently am.
That would be an admission of defeat, which is ultimately what this film is. No one watching it has become inspired to become an environmentalist, they’ve either said ‘this is insufferably smug and irritating’ or ‘wow, how funny, and how clever I am for getting all the jokes!’.
Imagine if, when Kubrick set out to make Dr Strangelove, he decided that the audience were too stupid and basic to understand a movie about nuclear war. So instead he made a volcano movie, and it wasn’t about the volcano and why it erupted but instead was about poking fun at a loud but ultimately irrelevant group of people who like volcanos and don’t think they’re dangerous. And then cast Gary Cooper, Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne, Marlon Brando, Jimmy Stewart and Audrey Hepburn to draw attention to his volcano movie. And then went around telling everyone the volcano is a metaphor, because he thinks otherwise no one will understand that. And then gets Marilyn Monroe to do the whole skirt getting blown upwards thing while standing on top of the volcano, because otherwise why cast her?
That would be a fairly terrible experience for everyone, and would produce a fairly awful movie. That’s what Sirota and McKay did here, while convincing themselves they were making climate change’s answer to Dr Strangelove.
One final point – somehow, this film has won a Writers Guild of America award for Best Original Screenplay, when it isn’t an original screenplay (as I believe I proved, above, it was likely plagiarised) and it’s a really badly-written film. It was also nominated by the Academy Awards, and David posted a photo on Instagram of his hastily-written acceptance speech just in case they won. Among other things, it thanked journalists ‘for raising the alarm on the climate crisis’.
Doesn’t that say it all? He didn’t thank anyone for innovating solutions to these problems, he didn’t call for greater public investment in clean energy or carbon capture. He thanked journalists for making noise and calling something a crisis, while achieving precisely fuck all in terms of dealing with that supposed crisis.
If that doesn’t reveal that these are people who exist and think solely within the confines of mediated reality, and aren’t actually motivated to do anything about actual reality, then I don’t know what I’m talking about. This film is about striking a blow in a media war, not about environmentalism.