This film, available on Netflix, starts at a student astronomer’s desk. She is logging stars on a computer screen, so normal, so boring. But then she suddenly spots something alarming. She plots it on a larger screen: it is a comet, 7–8km wide, that will collide with this planet in six months’ time. She (Dibiasky, played by Jennifer Lawrence) reports this to her PhD supervisor, Dr Mindy (played by Leonardo DiCaprio). They eventually get to report their find to the President of the USA, Orlean (Meryl Streep).
A whiff of corruption
This is where the political satire, based on a story by Adam Mackay, begins. In the White House queue to see President Orlean, the urgency of their appointment does not loom large amid other political concerns such as a breaking sex scandal that may affect the mid-terms. Whilst they wait, a top military man helpfully offers them refreshment which they pay him for, only to discover a few hours later that in the White House such refreshments are free to waiting invitees, a first taste of corruption that Dibiasky obsesses on for the rest of the plot.
When they eventually get their White House interview next day, President Orlean is unfazed. Among a long list of doom-scenarios she has dealt with or is dealing with (bank crashes, pandemic, sex scandal etc), this just has to stay on hold. Dr Mindy, gabbling scientific jargon about data and peer review, and breathing heavily with nervous energy, is mocked by the Chief of Staff, Jason (Jonah Hill) who is also the President’s son.
But the pair of astronomers decide the message must be communicated to the public, so they get a slot on the most popular morning TV show, The Daily Rip, hosted by Brie Evantee (Cate Blanchett) and Jack Bremmer (Tyler Perry). In a tightly screened programme of topics on the latest celebrity romance (passionately played by Ariana Grande) and other interviews to lighten the audience mood, the doom message of the astronomers can’t cut across. Dibiasky ends up yelling the truth that the comet will kill all of us, while Mindy looks on glumly.
The verdict of the two media pros is that Dibiasky is emotionally unstable, while Mindy is … okay. Indeed, Brie rather fancies him, and initiates the sex play. So, Mindy is the one who carries the message forward to the public but watched by his loyal family (wife and two sons) in the background.
But wait a second…!
The President has finally got some action going to satisfy growing public anxiety. Three dozen rockets are to be aimed at the comet to blast it out of the sky. These are to be led by a ‘volunteer’ patriot “because NASA always needs a hero.” Hour zero is shown on screen, and the rockets blast off. But then they show a descending curve: mission aborted. Why?
It appears that an important discovery has been made about the comet: it mostly consists of rare valuable minerals. So, the plan has been changed, at the instigation of the rich profiteers, specifically of the super-rich CEO of BASH, who proposes to send up drones to explode the comet into smithereens, which will then fall to the Pacific Ocean where the rare minerals will be scooped up by US navy vessels. This CEO is played, by Mark Rylance, as a dead-pan technocrat with no emotional intelligence visible.
So, Hour Zero approaches. The public are now mostly aware, but many are in denial. The comet is even now visible in the sky. Mindy is back with his family. Dibiasky is there too as a guest, with a young man. The BASH mega-company screen their momentous effort to explode the comet. It fails. The scene flicks between the breaking-bread scene at the Mindy family home, with a moving prayer of thanks to the Creator by the young man, and the scene of the President, accompanied by the favoured few, scrambling into a rescue vehicle (although she forgets to give her son Jason a seat!).
As the credits roll, the scene is of these favoured few waking up after a cryogenic sleep to a new planet, and walking forth naked, as in a new Eden, but the President, leading to meet an unknown dinosaur-like creature … gets eaten up by it! Meanwhile her son Jason is stepping out alone among the ruins on planet Earth.
Sci-Fi then and now
This storyline has been seen as a parable about climate change denial. It can also be seen as an enjoyable romp through the American political and social scene (circa 2021 when denialist Trump was still in charge) as depicted in public media. How does such science fiction thrive in England?
Over a hundred years ago, H G Wells, whose childhood was in Kent, composed one of the original and most influential science fiction novels, ‘War of the Worlds’, while he was living in Woking, Surrey. The TV rendering of that story pokes fun at the inability of the Edwardian power structures, from local police to politicians in the gilded London clubs, to cope with a Martian invasion.
What would you do?
But seriously, how do governments cope with doom scenarios? Part of me says that if I were in charge and total annihilation were about to happen, I would not let the public know. Better to let people die suddenly while doing their normal things than to let them tear each other up in a panic, much worse than fighting for toilet rolls in the supermarket. Or should people be told just in time to arrange farewell family feasts like the Mindy’s?
I suppose doctors must make this decision often with their terminally ill patients.
But, with regard to climate change denial, the moral of the story is that there is still time to save the planet if we listen to the scientists. Note the scientists in the UK – over 700 of them – have signed a letter to the government warning of the risk in the new plan to trust in carbon capture and storage (CCS) to keep to the UK carbon pledges.