I’m not a rocket scientist, but I did cover JPL-NASA for a couple of years and I do live with a scientist. “Don’t Look Up” is a black comedy about a serious problem (global warming), but the astronomical aspects seem suspect, even on my first viewing. So I had to consult a scientist or two before writing this review.
When I lived in Pasadena, I knew the nerd and geek quotient is pretty high. There’s a Planetary Society, and amateurs out with telescopes on the sidewalk. The space industry doesn’t stop at the borders of Pasadena and even outside of the San Gabriel Valley, the electrical excitement for space is all over Southern California, in the deserts where the telescopes are, in the test sites, at Lockheed-Martin in the Westside of Los Angeles, in the amateur telescope industry in Orange County and the independent contracting companies that NASA partners with in San Diego.
People looking up into the skies and past earth’s atmosphere are part of the Southern California population. For that reason, I found it highly unlikely that a grad student in an astronomy program at Michigan State University, using Subaru Telescope (located at the Mauna Kea Observatory on Hawaii), would make that find. The grad student, Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), finds a comet near Jupiter’s orbit on a direct trajectory to the Sun. Her supervising professor, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), along with his team, determine that the comet will hit the earth in six months and cause a planet-wide extinction event.
Contacting Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan), the head of NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office, after the findings are confirmed, Oglethorpe, Dibiasky and Mindy visit the White House for a meeting with the self-absorbed president, Janie Orlean (Meryle Streep), and her chief of staff son, Jason (Jonah Hill).
When the White House ignores this imminent threat, Mindy and Dibiasky book time on a popular morning show, “The Daily Rip,” with Brie Evantee (Cate Blanchett) and Jack Bremmer (Tyler Perry). A nervous Mindy gets a beard trim and impresses while the distraught Dibiasky becomes an unflattering meme.
Eventually the president needs to distract the public from a scandal and gets behind Mindy. And there is a gung-ho macho megalomaniac willing to save the earth, but wait! What about that CEO of Bash, a teen billionaire and major donor to President Orleans?
Reasons the Astronomy Doesn’t Fly or Float
I covered the Juno entry into Jupiter’s orbit (4 July 2016). So I know that Jupiter and its surroundings are under great scrutiny and have been for years. There are photos in space of Jupiter.
Then comes a question as to what is a comet. According to NASA:
Comets are frozen leftovers from the formation of the solar system composed of dust, rock, and ices. They range from a few miles to tens of miles wide, but as they orbit closer to the Sun, they heat up and spew gases and dust into a glowing head that can be larger than a planet. This material forms a tail that stretches millions of miles.
Comets are cosmic snowballs of frozen gases, rock, and dust that orbit the Sun. When frozen, they are the size of a small town. When a comet’s orbit brings it close to the Sun, it heats up and spews dust and gases into a giant glowing head larger than most planets. The dust and gases form a tail that stretches away from the Sun for millions of miles. There are likely billions of comets orbiting our Sun in the Kuiper Belt and even more distant Oort Cloud.
There has been some consideration for comet mining:
Extraction and processing of volatiles from the Jupiter-family comets, combined with the crude but effective technology of ice rockets, present a wide variety of new possibilities along the path from our current small scale space operations to large-scale space industrialization. Native volatiles can be processed to supply current space operations, while making possible new industries with low up-front investment. Bootstrapping of transporation with native ice rockets and industry with chemical microreactors and self-reproducing greenhouses blazes a wide path along fertile territory, leading to the technological and economic resources for large-scale space industry and space colonization.
The theory about the dinosaur extinction event was about an asteroid, not a comet. What is the difference between asteroid and comets? According to Caltech:
The main difference between asteroids and comets is their composition, as in, what they are made of. Asteroids are made up of metals and rocky material, while comets are made up of ice, dust and rocky material. … Asteroids formed much closer to the Sun, where it was too warm for ices to remain solid.
There are minerals found on earth from space, but those are from meteorites, such as olivine/peridot. You might be wondering what the difference between a meteor vs. an asteroid versus a comet are:
- Meteoroid: A “space rock”—a relatively small object traveling through space, between the size of a grain of dust and a small asteroid.
- Meteor: A meteoroid that enters Earth’s atmosphere and burns up.
- Meteorite: A meteoroid, especially one that has hit Earth’s surface.
- Asteroid: A rocky object that orbits the sun and has an average size between a meteoroid and a planet.
- Comet: An object made mostly of ice and dust, often with a gas halo and tail, that sometimes orbits the sun.
When an asteroid enters the earth’s atmosphere, it becomes a meteoroid. As NASA explains it:
An asteroid is a small rocky object that orbits the Sun. Asteroids are smaller than a planet, but they are larger than the pebble-size objects we call meteoroids. A meteor is what happens when a meteoroid – a small piece of an asteroid or comet – burns up upon entering Earth’s atmosphere, creating a streak of light in the sky.
Meteorite impacts can be pretty violent. Many meteorites have left huge depressions in Earth’s surface, called impact craters or meteorite craters. The large Chicxulub crater in Mexico is thought to be from the meteorite strike that caused the extinction of many dinosaurs. The biggest impact crater on Earth is the Vredefort crater in South Africa—it was originally 185 miles across.
Weirdly, or not, rockhounds know something about this because some of us would love to have extraterrestrial peridot.
Back to the film, “Don’t Look Up” is a black comedy that can be watched with some relief now that a more level head is in the White House. We might not have a comet heading to destroy the earth in six months, but we do have a problem that Kaiju will not magically heal. Science and science education need to become important part of culture if we are to reasonably grappled with the climate and pollution problem over the next few decades.
Lawrence is the right amount of snarky for a woman trying to rise in the ranks of a male-dominated science field. This is a discipline that only recently acknowledged that its gender bias in evaluating proposals for telescope time. DiCaprio is fully grungy-gone-wrong socially awkward scientist who becomes the latest target of Blanchett’s man-eater of a intelligent woman playing dumb blonde. McKay’s direction keeps this comedy well-paced, never rushing–even with the slightly tipsy other-worldly Zen of Rylance’s Isherwell.
There’s not a false note in this ensemble’s frantic serenade for extinction.
“Don’t Look Up” is amusing and some of its basic science seems to both undermine and underline its message: We need to listen to the scientists.
“Don’t Look Up” was given a limited theatrical release on 10 December 2021 before it was released for streaming on Netflix 24 December 2021.