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‘Comedy can hold different emotions’: Why Don’t Look Up director chose humour to tackle climate inaction

“You can realise how ridiculous our lack of action on the climate crisis is, while also being terrified, while also being confused.”

That capacity of comedy to “hold different emotions” is why Adam McKay, director of Don’t Look Up, ultimately chose comedy to take on climate change – or what he sees as the underwhelming response to it.

“It’s one of the great unifiers,” he told Sky News, explaining he had considered other approaches to what ended up being a satirical film, which he wrote, produced and directed.

Adam McKay and Jennifer Lawrence working on Don't Look Up. Credit: Netflix
Image: Adam McKay, left, with Jennifer Lawrence on the set of Don’t Look Up, in which experts struggle to get the world to take their warnings seriously. Credit: Netflix

The director is no stranger to amusing takes on the everyday, having won various accolades for films including Anchorman, which pokes fun at mediocre white men, and The Big Short, the story of the 2007-08 financial crisis and who profited from it.

His latest film, in which Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence play characters desperately seeking, and failing, to alert the world to the urgency of a comet about to destroy Earth, has just been nominated for four Oscars and four BAFTAs.

Don’t Look Up reflects the lack of urgency McKay perceives in world leaders’ responses to the climate crisis.

“It’s very bizarre to see our world leaders sort of trounce around and shake hands and talk about vague sort of carbon neutral by 2050 goals, which you know really are just false kind of empty promises,” he says during a video interview with Sky News.

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Don't Look Up. Credit: Netflix
Image: Adam McKay, left, with Leonardo DiCaprio on the set of Don’t Look Up. Credit: Netflix

Of last November’s climate conference in Glasgow, COP26, he says: “I think you can say without exaggeration, the future of life as we know it on planet Earth was at stake”. And yet it’s “crazy” that “it’s starting to look like it was a bunch of chatter with no real action behind it,” he adds.

The politicians and negotiators who thrashed out a deal in Glasgow, as well as the think tanks who observed, say the conference did make progress on climate action, including the commitment to update climate actions plans within one year rather than five. Although many concede the crisis demanded much greater, more urgent action, particularly in helping poor nations adapt.

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Although his tone is cheerful, his outlook is bleak.

“We should have a Manhattan Project-style laboratories all across the globe working on carbon removal. This should be the largest mass mobilization of human resources in history,” he says.

“And instead, there’s nothing.”

Don't Look Up. Credit: Netflix
Image: Don’t Look Up observed coronavirus protocols on set. Credit: Netflix

At one point in the film Leonardo DiCaprio’s character reflects on planet Earth with the comment, “We really did have everything” – a line the actor came up with right before they shot that scene.

For McKay, that phrase pretty much says it all.

“We have this beautiful planet that is perfectly calibrated with a livable climate with with food, with oceans. And every day we’re destroying it with fossil fuels and CO2 and pollution. And the tipping point is coming,” he warns.

“And when that tipping point comes, and it’s not going to be as far off as most people think, we’re going to have that feeling that DiCaprio had… which is we really did have everything.”

Watch the Daily Climate Show at 8.30pm Monday to Friday on Sky News, the Sky News website and app, on YouTube and Twitter.

The show investigates how global warming is changing our landscape and highlights solutions to the crisis.