Dr. Strangelove for 2020
I'm not going to see this because it looks too on the nose
Before I begin, I'd like you to take a moment to consider what properties you'd like xrisk fiction to satisfy.
I'll go first. I would like my xrisk fiction to
- Give a relatable account of "hero license", make trying to stop literally everyone from dying relatable
- Dodge the "yeah this disaster has a ginormous impact, but what really matters is that family sticks together / my girlfriend and I stop fighting" tropes
- Avoid trivial villainy; coordination failure is more parsimonious than malice, and teaches more valuable lessons
Don't Look Up was poignant and inspiring. It was also imperfect and annoying. In writing a review for the forum, my goals are to 1. unpack what it offers us as an xrisk movement, if anything; 2. make some claims about what Don't Look Up did wrong and how xrisk fiction can improve upon it. Ultimately, I will conclude with a recommendation to suggest it to your non-community friends. There is room for another EA reviewer to 1. take a "hard scifi" approach and cover the numbers and science, as well as 2. optimize the document to be a non-EA's intro to the real-life xrisk community.
Adam McKay was an SNL writer who by 2015 found his way to serious movies with Michael Lewis' the Big Short (film adaptation of the same name) about the 2008 mortgage crisis, then he did a Dick Cheney biopic called Vice. This period of his films is defined by extending his comedy heritage into drama through a rather unique blend of darkish comedy and information-dense historical rehash, frantic editing including found footage, as well as his political opinions. I think of Don't Look Up as being of this period, although it stands out as the only actual fiction.
What happened in Don't Look Up?
If you're the type of person who likes to know as little as possible about a movie before watching, now's the time to stop. All you need to know is that it's about astronomers getting laughed out of the room when they try to raise the alarm. I will say that I greatly enjoyed my inability to predict how it would end for the vast majority of it's length, but most EA Philly members who I was with said they predicted it trivially easily.
A PhD student (Kate Dibiaski played by Jennifer Lawrence) at the University of Michigan astronomy department is looking into evidence of supernovae or something when she sees an asteroid. She reports it to her supervisor (Randall Mindy played by Leonardo DiCaprio) and the lab opens some champaigne and does a bunch of math on the data. When they determine that it's an extinction-level event (direct impact of a 5-9 kilometer object), they contact the person at NASA in charge of such things (Teddy Ogglethorpe played by Rob Morgan). The first thing that happens is the merry trio gets more or less laughed out of the room by the president (Meryl Streep). "You don't know how many apocalypse meetings we have in here" she says, while her mind is really on her friend/supreme court nominee's politically problematic antics. The trio decide to go to the press, a paper heavily implied to be the New York Times supports them, mentions that they'll need to lawyer up and go on talk shows, and they break the story by appearing on a Regis & Kelly -like show (Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry) the same morning it's printed. At the talk show, the once-lighthearted hosts are shocked, take it very seriously, which inspires members of key institutions across engineering and policy to do their utmost. That would additionally be a great movie to watch, but I'm kidding: the astronomers get laughed off stage. The overall segment of the show had the least engagement of the whole hour, Dibiaski lost her cool on set and becomes a meme, and the paper of record pulls it from the front page of their website quickly because it wasn't performing well. Eventually, the executive branch of the US comes around, stating that they had higher-status-than-Michigan astronomers look at the data, but as Dibiaski points out it also looks like their more real reason is they need some sort of wartime boost in the polls because of everything else going on in the president's reelection campaign. They put together a scheme much like Michael Bay's Armaggedon (1998) to either break up or deflect the asteroid. At the last minute, a billionaire IT CEO (who bosses around the president and has the highest possible security clearance; comedy, remember) gets the plug pulled because his satellites department finds rare metals and estimates that something like $1e13 is at stake. Led by his IT company (which specializes in ads and smartphones), a new mining plan gets put in place. The merry trio of protagonists think this is, pardon my french, insane, while it seems like most ordinary people want to see the jobs and get their piece of the wealth. Ending world poverty is name-checked. The mining plan is much riskier than the Armaggedon (1998) plan, and for reasons that appear to me to be mostly for the drama, can't be executed until the last second. Mindy becomes a public figure, because he learns how to address the public and has a greater appetite for humoring the president and the CEO without getting sacked than anyone else, Dibiaski was worse at that stuff than anyone else and gets written out of the picture quickly. With the signature editing style I mentioned, culture wars are persistently in the background, showing all the different tribes that believe in the asteroid and want the jobs, believe in the asteroid but are pretty sure everyone is going to die, and straight up just don't believe in the asteroid. When things aren't going well for the (populist) president, her tribe (literally) chants "Don't Look Up", which must have been the cause of some cognitive dissonance as the same president had spearheaded efforts to deal with it and is, while her base is making disbelief the asteroid their ingroup signal, cooperating with the mining effort led by the IT company. Mindy, asking too many questions and putting too much faith in peer review, eventually gets fired from the team and otherwise silenced. When the mining project fails, literally everyone dies, except for a couple thousand elites who get on an ark.
McKay's choices are to emphasize:
- Greed and myopia are close partners, and how easily do they win
- The peer review process is a great antidote to greed and myopia (but too little too late)
- People are generally kinda dumb
What does Don't Look Up do for us?
There was exactly one moment I cried like a baby, and a few more made me vaguely teary. I don't think I've seen a lot on the forum or discord about the emotional burden of having an xrisk education; the catharsis I got from a fairly basic "I see you, you're not alone" was unexpected. Being manipulated into it by the emotional power of fiction/cinema was, it might not be obvious, very different from the emotions that just having friends and colleagues who share my education give me. When a protagonist looks the camera dead in the eye (he's a talk show guest at this point in the story) and says "we have our best people doing everything they can", I found it incredibly poignant (so I cried) because, in real life/intuitively, we don't have our best people doing everything they can, so many of our best people aren't working on xrisk and the ones that are are confused and struggling to find good levers.
In limited ways, at a few moments, you can feel a palpable "no one's driving this thing" that will be familiar to readers of Meditations on Moloch or Inadequate Equilibria. As I will point out, this feeling is undermined by choices the movie took and is not a particularly memorable affect/takeaway.
The populist president uses the crisis as one chesspiece among many in her overall gameplay. Everyone but the two-three protagonists thinks of this as eminently normal. Lots is said about social media, tribalism, and misinformation/disinformation. In a way, it's a story of two layers of myopia: one layer is for the elites, who worship their incentive gradients in the face of armageddon; the other is for normal people, who are subject to whatever processes cause vaccine hesitancy to cut along political party lines. I think the culture war -ification is a good choice for the movie to make, as I expect it to be a real problem as the real life xrisk community gains more traction and leverage.
How broken is Don't Look Up and how hard is it to fix?
By injecting his beliefs, aesthetics, preferences, ingroup signals, and so on, McKay betrayed the actual hardness of the problem. All the opportunity in the world for a delicate, nuanced story of coordination failure squandered in the name of billionaire bad (a Bernie Sanders speechwriter got a story credit).
When we look back at the Big Short, we don't see a lot of evil. We see instead a lot of incentive gradients. It's a movie about bad mechanisms that doesn't try hard to put a face on the designers of those mechanisms. Let me be clear: it would be difficult to make Don't Look Up a nuanced story of coordination failure without clear villains, but given Big Short's accomplishment I think McKay has the ability. But he values making movies for his political tribe more.
The takeover by the IT CEO and the whole idea of the mining program is played for moral outrage against corporate greed. There are a couple readings of this
- Even in the face of a nonhuman armageddon from outerspace, the persistent meme that corporate greed is the greatest evil has it's day.
- What I think adherents to that meme would say is that corporate greed is Literally The Blocker of global coordination (even though in the movie it only blocked national coordination), like conflict theory.
- On the other hand, maybe a point being made about myopia isn't conflict theory, it's kind of just dumber than that. And maybe that's the point being made, that elites are habituated into myopia in a deep way.
- Overall, I think it's a missed opportunity to be mistake theorist.
But moreover, I think McKay fundamentally believes that the aborted deflection mission was going to work. This is I think the fundamental disconnect between McKay and the real-life xrisk community. I think in real life, we don't have levers that definitely work (and it's just a (mistake theory) matter of coordinating), we in fact don't have the levers that definitely work (and we wouldn't know how to coordinate if we had them). I said this wouldn't be a mathy, hard scifi review, but I will claim that astronomy is a known quantity. My model of physics majors is that they basically understand how to deal with asteroids, whereas my model of CS departments and econ departments and whatever departments feed renewable energies is that they basically don't know how to align AI or slow down climate change. I think a more challenging and better movie would be made where there wasn't an implicit or explicit belief that we have the solution we just fail to coordinate to implement, but we in fact don't have a solution.
Don't Look Up is very imperfect, from a propaganda standpoint. It is not the ambassador we've been waiting for. I'm extremely glad it was made, I think on net it has everything it needs to raise the discourse level on xrisk in a world where Precipice didn't get on NYT Bestseller's list and isn't airdropped into high schools. It's extremely heavy-handed, so you have to be ok with that if you're going to watch it and not be miserable; sometimes in ways I find charming (when it aligns with my aesthetics or goals) and sometimes in ways I find annoying (when I think of it as catering to the director's pet political tribe).
Moreover, it should motivate us to articulate what we would prefer to see in xrisk fiction, and we can learn from it's mistakes.
Ultimately, you should probably watch it with your out of community friends, and discuss with them what they think it's about and what you think it's about.