How 'Don't Look Up' Makes Us Sit with Existential Dread

Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio in Don't Look Up

Niko Tavernise / Netflix

Key Takeaways

  • Netflix's "Don't Look Up" is a satirical film depicting the world's response to a huge comet hurtling toward Earth.
  • For many, the film tapped into the existential dread that's felt as a result of the lack of action around the climate crisis.

One of Netflix's most-watched movies since its release, "Don't Look Up" delivers the story of two astronomers who, after discovering a comet on track to hit and end all life on Earth in six months, are struggling to get the world—its leaders, especially—to take impending doom seriously.

Sound familiar? For decades, real-life scientists have been trying to move the needle on the fight against climate change. While the threat isn't as immediate as a comet hurtling toward Earth, it is imminent. And not nearly enough is being done about it.

Grace Dickman, LCSW

While confronting a worst case scenario is difficult, it is much more useful to develop skills for accepting it and navigating it rather than pretending like it will never happen.

— Grace Dickman, LCSW

Watching an alarmingly similar parallel to the climate crisis or, in some aspects even, the Covid-19 pandemic is unsettling, especially when that parallel ends in complete and utter obliteration of planet Earth. From the film's characters to its portrayals of the media cycle and general cognitive dissonance of the times, watching it often felt like looking at real-life reflected in a funhouse mirror.

Admittedly, I am no film buff. But I'm accustomed to the end-of-the-world flavor of "hero ultimately saves the world" or "post-apocalyptic life with some context as to how it happened." But in the case of "Don't Look Up", the world ends, then so does the film. (Unless you stayed put until the credits finished rolling—definitely worth it.) When the screen went black, I let out an exhale I didn't know I'd been holding. The existential dread was overwhelming, but at the same time, somehow, I felt seen.

Facing Fears

Grace Dickman, LCSW, is a New York-based therapist who works with clients dealing with existential dread, largely around the climate crisis. She recently watched the film, as well, and understood how I was feeling. But she points out that there is benefit to facing your fears.

"We are taught to seek happiness, happy endings, and then feel extreme distress when we can't find that happiness or can't hold onto it long enough," Dickman says. "While confronting a worst case scenario is difficult, it is much more useful to develop skills for accepting it and navigating it rather than pretending like it will never happen."

The movie is an excellent example of what can happen when toxic optimism eclipses reality—just consider the film's title, a phrase popularized during the campaign of Donald Trump-esque Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep).

For anyone concerned about the future of the planet, it's impossible to ignore the direness of our circumstances. We are surrounded by the information. While I still hope for the best and don't enjoy mulling over the possibility that all is lost, I am prone to catastrophic thinking. I fan the flames with the occasional doom scroll and fit of rage. This is what the movie tapped into for me.

The Power of Satire

If you've cared about any planetary or social justice issue, you've probably felt some version of what Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) and Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan) feel in the film: We have all this information, why won't the people who could really do something about it do anything about it?

While parts of the movie are undeniably funny, I had to pause several times because of the persistent sick feeling in my stomach. The anxiety that often coincides with reading a new article on how little time we have left to address the climate crisis, or how much more money corporations have made during the pandemic, piled on tenfold as the film's satire rained down.

Sure, at times "Don't Look Up" felt a little too on the nose. And the irony that some of Hollywood's highest-paid, yacht-sailing celebrities are acting out this global crisis in a production from the world's highest earning streaming service is not lost on me.

But you can't deny the film's successes. Characters and scenarios elicited a freaky deja vu in being nearly recognizable, but somehow worse: The news of a comet hurtling toward Earth gets buried in the news cycle by a celebrity break-up-make-up. A tech-billionaire prioritizes profit over human safety. Jonah Hill's performance offers a brazen Ivanka-Donald Trump Jr. hybrid. The list goes on.

Each new development fed the existential dread, but it also felt validating. It felt good, strangely, to succumb to the storyline, to watch the worst case scenario play out in a major motion film that offered some recognition that, if we are doomed, there are a few specific entities at greater fault. I found myself continuously thinking, "This is what we've been saying! This is what we've been saying all along!"

Coping with Dread

As it turns out, the film can actually help us cope with the existential dread we're dealing with. We can better handle difficult or uncomfortable emotions when we feel validated and taken seriously.

"The existential dread that many of us are feeling right now is not because of our fears of the end of the world, but because we are witnessing our government and other people in positions of power being indifferent to it and not taking the necessary steps to fix the issue," says psychologist Avigail Lev, PsyD, founder of CBT Online. "The gaslighting and not acknowledging the issue is what causes the suffering, not the issue itself."

For many of us, the lack of control is hard to swallow. It leaves us feeling helpless. And after the past two years of a pandemic in which countless people feel as if they've been left out in the cold, watching a film like this can seem like rubbing salt in a wound.

Avigail Lev, PsyD

The gaslighting and not acknowledging the issue is what causes the suffering, not the issue itself.

— Avigail Lev, PsyD

But it also offers a lesson. In the end, the characters who've spent months trying to save the world gather together. They've accepted that they've done all they could, but some things are just out of their control.

Connecting with community is one way to combat hopelessness. And it need not always involve a goal of solving the problem. Sometimes it helps just to get together to say "this sucks" and "I hear you," Dickman says.

"What I often work on with clients is being willing to accept uncertainty, being willing to sit with not knowing, being willing to invest time, money, energy into things they do know that feel good," Dickman says.

Practicing a degree of acceptance isn't easy, but it can help us go on in our daily lives without being crushed under the weight of existential dread. Focusing on what you can contribute as an individual, what you can control in your own life, can ease the frustrations of all that's out of your hands.

"Although this is not the reality that I’d hoped for, that I want and imagined, it is the reality that I’m getting," Dickman says. "In order to defeat an overwhelming sense of hopelessness or existential dread, it helps to connect with what feels meaningful and valuable to you."

What This Means For You

It's normal to feel existential dread around the climate crisis or the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. But focusing on what you can control and incorporating what's meaningful to you into daily life can help you cope.

2 Sources
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  2. Marazziti D, Cianconi P, Mucci F, Foresi L, Chiarantini I, Della Vecchia A. Climate change, environment pollution, COVID-19 pandemic and mental health. Sci Total Environ. 2021 Jun 15;773:145182. doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2021.145182