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China Reviews Don't Look Up: "A sharp sword piercing the heart of the American people"
The Chinese internet on Adam McKay's Don't Look Up
Warning: This post [obviously] contains spoilers for the film Don’t Look Up.
“Why are people so mad about Don’t Look Up?” asked The Atlantic last month. The apocalyptic Netflix black comedy featuring a star-studded cast has divided viewers and critics for its portrayal of American society. The film, which tells the story of a group of scientists’ attempts to warn the world about an impending apocalypse and their message falling on deaf ears, originally started off as an allegory about climate change.
But for some, the satire hits too close for home or else is irrelevant entirely given the post-Trump Covid-19 world of today. Can you make a satire of modern times without it feeling too true-to-life?
And in China? Internet users have been quick to jump on the film and give their takes on everything from what it shows about Covid and the “collapse of US society” to the acting performance of Little Plum (Leonard DiCaprio) and more. Freshly translated from the Chinese internet realm are three hot takes on the movie. Links to the original articles are below the titles. Enjoy!
Translation and editing by Callan Quinn. Translations are abridged.
ChinaTalk's editor Callan is currently in London and planning an informal meet-up on February 24th. Details here.
Is shallow entertainment destroying seriousness?
Originally published as《不要抬头》简评：宛如南方公园真人版一般的讽刺剧 on the WeChat subscription channel 星云频道 (ID: starcloudgames).
I saw Little Plum [Leo’s Chinese nickname]. It was a sci-fi comedy. So I clicked.
The first 15 minutes made me feel very uncomfortable: the characters’ actions and the language in the scenes are very exaggerated. The lines seem not to have been thought about in the slightest and were like nonsense. Especially after the president and her son appeared, this discomforting feeling instantly reached its peak: although we can see that this is an allusion to Trump, even your average fool doesn’t act like this, let alone a person who climbed to the office of the presidency.
In fact, this consideration has always been a key criterion for me in evaluating film and television dramas. No matter how larger-than-life the film or television drama, it’s all from the perspective of the audience’s feelings: if the behavior patterns of the characters in the drama are comparatively close to the audience’s, then the audience can easily empathize with them and feel that their experiences could just as easily happen to them. A typical example of this is 万箭穿心. The tragedies experienced by the protagonist are the same tragedies that ordinary people may suffer in real life.
But for certain themes, exaggeration is permitted or even necessary, such as in satires. And it’s just a few minutes after the female president and her son enter, that the full irony of the film comes out.
It is like a live-action South Park: Little Plum here is a likes-being-in-charge Stan-type character; Little Plum’s graduate student is Kyle, responsible for saying things people don’t like to hear; the president and the CEO are Cartman, exaggerating their problems for the sake of satire and a laugh. The target of the satire is also satirical.
They originally wanted to satirize people’s lack of concern about climate change but the start of filming coincided with the Covid-19 epidemic, and Trump’s policies are very similar to the president’s policies in the movie.
This makes the film a lot more realistic.
I’ve seen a lot of people commenting that Little Plum’s acting is a bit too forceful in the film. Being too forceful is indeed usually one of his shortcomings but this is a different case. There are some performances and characters where these exaggerated acting skills must be used. For example, some people said this was the case with The Wolf of Wall Street, but in it, Little Plum plays a very provocative liar and impressive and inspiring speeches are a good way to be provocative.
If you think about it, [the people marketing] pyramid schemes or health supplements - or even a speech by Hitler - can also cause the same sorts of feelings. In this work, there are several scenes between Little Plum and presenters at a TV station. In one of them, his face is flushed red and his veins are popping as he angrily denounces the actions of the US government.
Here, the two TV presenters obviously represent the shallow media landscape of modern life. The serious scientific approach represented by Little Plum and the short-termism represented by the presenters and the US government are irreconcilably contradictory.
This contradiction is intensified as Little Plum foresees his own death and the demise of mankind but nobody listens to his theory. He is desperate and in such a position this kind of despair has no outlet. It can finally only become a hysterical roar.
[From this perspective] Little Plum’s performance is very normal. He is a scientist representing science and rationality. He can’t do extraordinary things and so all he can do is possess impotent fury. This actually appears in the film many times.
Even though the film is full of the gimmicky special effects common in popcorn movies, it is thought-provoking at its core. Especially given the current environment in the US - South Park formerly ridiculed the US presidential election as “脑残和傻逼中选一个不那么蠢的” (“between the moron and the fool, pick the one that’s less stupid”), and Biden’s inauguration was just like this sort of compromise.
Even if Biden’s policies are more scientific, a compromise is a compromise, and Trump’s forces are on track to recover their old power. Electing a president like Trump or the president in the movie would not only be a disaster for the country but could even be a disaster for the world. This is something that all countries should avoid, and all rulers should ponder how to avoid this problem under a democratic system or within the entire process of democracy.
But the most important point, and the one I want most to talk about, is the impact of shallow entertainment on seriousness. This has been a concern of mine since the advent of abstract culture because deconstructing serious words, removing their seriousness, and giving them other meanings (often rude ones) is funny.
Of course, this type of entertainment is “popular with the people” and I myself can’t help but laugh when I see it. But at the same time, serious discussions have started being silenced because they can’t compare with shallow entertainment. Most people are addicted to shallow entertainment, but a small number like myself have fallen into a double standard. I need both serious discussions and shallow entertainment to feel stimulated.
Due to the polysyllabic words and how common homophones are, Chinese is a great language for shallow entertainment deconstruction [of words].
We can see with the naked eye how the Chinese internet is degenerating into a cesspool.
Naturally, I don’t know what to do about it, and neither do the Americans who made the movie, but they did offer one remedy: just let the meteor fall and wipe out the human race.
Don’t Look Up is about Covid-19 in the US
Originally published as 小李子带头辱美，《不要抬头》到底惹毛了谁？on the WeChat subscription channel 酷玩实验室 (ID: coollabs).
Let’s take a look at how polarized [this movie] is among critics. For example, some media believes that this movie is a satire of reality and that every movie character has a counterpart in reality. Los Angeles Weekly commented that "Streep is the female version of Donald Trump. Jonah Hill is the fraternity version of Donald Trump Jr., Mark Rylance is the right-wing version of Tim Cook, Ron Perlman is the jealous version of General Turgidson [from Dr Strangelove].”
But there are others who say that this is simply an "American public figure" [McKay] coming out to smear the United States; that it is completely inconsistent with reality and unfair.
US Weekly said that “it distorts our current state of politics, technology and celebrity culture against the backdrop of an asteroid heading towards Earth" [Editor’s note: only Chinese-language references to this article could be found online].
Ordinary viewers have also divided themselves into two distinct factions. One believes that “the movie tarnishes the very word ‘movie’ and is not at all funny.” The other believes “this is actually reality and the irony is on point.” So what kind of movie is it?
It wasn’t until I finished watching the movie that I realized that what it exposes is thrilling. At the beginning of the film, it’s still the old heroic routine. A team of scientists, including Leonardo, discover a new meteor that will cause the end of the world. As is normal in these hero movies, they promptly report the situation to the president and then hope that the US will lead the way in saving the world.
However, the plot that follows goes against the mainstream ideal of the US: even if the US government does not act, everyday heroes cannot be counted on.
During the first meeting with the president, not only do Leonardo and the others not get her attention, but she turns a blind eye. This is because, for the president, the mid-term elections are only three weeks away. Whether she can stay in power is obviously a much higher priority than a doomsday crisis. In fact, Don’t Look Up is talking about the US government’s laissez-faire approach in the early days of the pandemic.
Today in the US more than 600,000 people are diagnosed with Covid-19 every day [Editor’s note: accurate at the time the original piece was published]. The total death toll is more than 800,000. In the movie, as in reality, individual heroism was unable to lead the population to victory. However, the cost of the US government’s stupidity is paid by the people. In the movie, the American powerful flee earth in a spaceship with just 2,000 seats.
In real life, Trump too after his diagnosis received the most advanced scientific treatment. This is completely different from his previous proclamations that disinfectants cure disease, Covid-19 isn’t serious and that there’s no need to wear a mask.
If Don’t Look Up were released two years earlier it would have been called absurd or magical realism. But these days it’s not surprising.
It’s a pity that the media prefers celebrity gossip. No matter how scary the descriptions of the “meteorite crisis” the scientists give, they [the media] always have relaxed expressions on their faces, and even ask things like “are there any aliens?”. At the same time the general public also doesn’t follow its senses. They would rather trust in the rubbish spouted by the former NASA administrator than in science and data.
The female lead role, also a scientist, gets humiliated just because she angrily refuted the clown of a TV host. Not only that, but after the rich took over the “meteor crisis” plan, scientists were continually fired just because they told the truth. In the movie, the hero bows his head at the intervention of the rich. In the real world, the hero is fired.
On May 18, 2020, Rebekah Jones, creator of the Florida Covid-19 data portal, was fired by the state’s Department of Health for refusing to update data on the outbreak. Jones previously served as a geographic information systems manager for the Florida Department of Health.
She had personally created two apps, four bulletin boards and six data graphs with 500,000 rows of data, with the aim of simply providing a way for Floridians and researchers to watch the outbreak develop in real time. But Jones was quickly asked to censor the data and was eventually fired for refusing to manually change the data to support the state's reopening plan.
This isn’t even the first time problems over “government censorship” of epidemic data have come out.
According to the Palm Beach Post, the Florida Department of Health deleted crucial records related to the epidemic on its website on the evening of May 4. The deleted records show that in January and February, a total of 171 patients had Covid-19 symptoms or tested positive - before the state reported its first confirmed case.
In the film, with the media fanning the flames, the population was also divided into two factions. One faction shouted “look up at the meteorite, the truth is there”, while the other declared “don’t look up, this is a communist and Jewish conspiracy”.
The American people were easily used as a political tool. The initial meteorite crisis was turned into a political struggle as all kinds of marches, riots [took place and] no one really cared about the actual truth. It’s the same with people in reality too.
On July 17, 2020, in the US state of Iowa, a large number of people “with” masks took to the streets. Yes, they were only “with” masks, not wearing them. In the end, the crowd gathered in front of the Iowa state government building and publicly burned all these brand new masks.
On August 19, 2020, the state in Massachusetts decided to compel students to take the Covid-19 vaccine, making it the first state to mandate vaccination. But a few days later, hundreds of Americans gathered in front of the Massachusetts Capitol building chanting “my child, my choice” and there was a strong backlash against the vaccines.
The reason is simply that they believe the vaccine is being used by Bill Gates as part of a depopulation conspiracy. On the other hand, all kinds of marches calling for masks and vaccines are also continually emerging. After these marches, events known as “Zero Dollar Shopping” [Editor’s note: Chinese internet slang referring to looting and rioting in Western countries. See 零元购] also began to occur. I think that every reader knows about these things. Even if I write about these cases all day and night, I couldn’t finish [listing them all].
It could be said that Don’t Look Up launched two hours of satire and even insults at every American so it’s no wonder that it’s been so controversial.
Don’t Look Up officially started filming in March 2020. At the time, Adam McKay only wanted to make a movie reflecting on global climate change. The comet in the film was a reference to the climate crisis.
At the same time, globally public opinion was in the depths of criticizing China’s ineffective epidemic prevention and control. Even within China, on the internet it was still widely believed that if an epidemic situation occurred in the US, it absolutely wouldn’t be as unbearable as it was in China.
On the 18th of the same month, with the combined efforts of all the people of China, the number of new Covid-19 cases finally returned to zero for the first time. Then, the epidemic broke out in the US and all those comments on major platforms got a slap in the face and were deleted. Public opinion began to change.
Mankind has lived alongside Covid-19 for more than two years and the situation in the world has been turned upside down. The American lighthouse has gradually begun to collapse. Don’t Look Up has dealt a heavy blow to the absurdity of the US epidemic. Whether or not you look up, reality is still there and fleeing from it will actually only cost more lives.
Don’t Look Up also not only has the appearance of being a personal reflection and expression of disappointment by the director Adam McKay about the US, but is also the unanimous want of the American people. If you don’t believe that, take a look at the internationally well-known movie review site Rotten Tomatoes. On the site, 55% of professional critics gave Don’t Look Up a negative review, while 77% of general audiences gave it a positive one.
The majority of the professional film critics on Rotten Tomatoes are from “professional” media and institutions. They naturally cannot give a film that exposes America’s underwear a positive review. But the American people can. They are the most direct victims of the epidemic and their feelings for the movie are the truest voice.
Don’t Look Up is a sharp sword that pierces the heart of the American people. In fact there is a very interesting plot point in this movie: Because in the scientific community a newly discovered [natural] satellite is names after the discovered, in the movie the heroine in “honored” with having the meteorite named after her.
At the same time, said heroine is the enemy of the whole of the US. The president in the film in a speech on one hand says she is their enemy, but on the other, in a false display of affection, tells the population not to blame her.
But at least in this movie the president finally expressed even a fake apology. I think the US government should indeed apologize to the Chinese people, and at the same time should apologize to the entirety of humanity. After all, why should all of mankind pay for the stupidity of the US government?
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Who is to blame for a lack of consensus in US society?
Originally published as 《不要抬头》到底讽刺了个啥？on the WeChat subscription channel 新潮沉思录 (ID: xinchaochensi).
The recently released satirical comedy film from Netflix, Don’t Look Up, has led to a great deal of debate. This certainly has something to with the star-studded lineup - unlike your average low-budget satire, this movie’s lineup has five Oscar winners and two Oscar nominees and is certainly a large scale project - but the lineup of actors really isn’t the main thing that has earned this movie so much fervent debate. It’s the satirical content of the movie that is the crucial topic [of discussion] for European and American society.
There are many interesting things in the movie, such as the female president. Her exaggerated character and style of doing things, letting her son hold an important position, wearing a hat, liking to incite voters - this is obviously a satire of Trump.
His performances on the twin issues of climate and Covid-19 were embarrassing. But the subtle point is that even with Biden taking office, the good days many people imagined have not come. His performance in epidemic prevention hasn’t been ideal, and his climate efforts have not satisfied European and American environmentalists.
As for the capitalist character in the movie who influences the president, he is stitched together from the likes of Musk, Zuckerberg, Bezos, Gates and Jobs. Imagine for a second the inflation caused by Covid, and then think about how the wealth of these capitalists has grown.
This reality has made everything in the movie all the more ironic. The director has also included some of Biden’s signature habits in the capitalist character, which is also worth pondering.
At the same time, as well as satirizing politicians and capitalists, the film depicts a population who are addicted to social media and all kinds of gossipy news, unconcerned about the crisis they face, and a lot of scenes are taken up by how easily the population is incited to populism and anti-intellectualism.
This is also the reason why many people cry out for truth. Obviously, over the last two years, everyone has realized that the social problems they are confronted with do not only come from politicians and capitalists. These sorts of statements really aren’t often seen in Hollywood and are very pointed - but they’re also in keeping with reality.
Don’t Look Up does not give any answers. Of course, writers and artists don’t need to give answers to complex questions, and this doesn’t affect the excellence of the film. But we should of course try to discuss these problems.
Regarding Covid-19 and climate change, experts have discussed technical solutions extensively. But if we think about it a little bit, we will realize that these are not problems that can be resolved purely by technology alone. Technology is without question very important but it is absolutely not enough if we want to solve the problem. The movie does in some parts express a similar view to this. It is clear that for extremely complex societal issues, we need forces beyond technology.
The case is like this with Covid-19. Domestic Covid-19 prevention and control can be implemented because in addition to the correctness of the general direction [of policy] and technical support, a consensus has been formed to a large degree, a consensus that complete eradication [of Covid-19] is beneficial to the Chinese people.
Otherwise, if there was no consensus, even if the correct direction is zero cases, it would be absolutely impossible to implement. This can be seen in the epidemic prevention policies of some countries.
But this is certainly not the case in all countries. For example, when the epidemic first started spreading in the US, domestically some people said that as Americans are all in good economic conditions, especially in terms of hygiene, that Covid-19 wouldn’t spread. There were people who said Americans are very brave and have a great national character so they fundamentally won’t be scared of dying of Covid-19 and there will be no effect on society.
Although the details of these two things people said are exaggerated, some of the hygiene habits of Americans really are particularly good and there are some that aren’t scared of dying, but it’s a complicated problem here.
If Americans are all so hygienic and abide by epidemic prevention regulations, then the spreading of Covid-19 in the US wouldn’t have been serious. But if Americans are not afraid of death at all and after entering the ICU still dare to spout this nonsense, then in the face of Covid-19 they can still carry on with production and daily life. In that case the US economy can be forced to work in the face of death.
But if both [these competing ideas] exist, and if they are both held by large parts of society, then these two sides will certainly fall into confrontation. No matter which policy, both would be difficult to implement, and so we come to the current predicament: a split in consensus.
The problem of consensus building is very challenging. It’s the main reason why humanity doesn’t successfully stop the comet in the movie, and it’s the movie’s key sad and ironic point. However, in the movie the blame for creating these consensus splits is attributed to the populism-inciting president and the tech tycoon using algorithms to predict behavior.
It could be said that this is the standard view among American society, no matter whether it’s Trump or Zuckerberg, they are now seen as the villains who create social divisions.
Of course, Trump’s agitation for populism exists and Zuckerberg’s use of algorithms to create information cocoons is an undeniable fact. But if the problem of consensus splitting is really attributable to them alone, then that really is baffling.
Trump didn’t make the voters who supported him out of thin air. They were created by the social problems that have built up in the US for decades. The use of algorithms that create echo chambers is almost the standard for technology companies, but they are not for the purpose of some complicated conspiracy. Instead they are, in the neoliberal game, merely the fundamental rules for the maximization of profit.
Under the neoliberal rules of the game, creating consensus splits is actually really not bad for business. Creating political divisions can distract everyone’s attention and allow for the real contradictions to be covered up, saving trouble and effort while at the same time winning the votes that politicians need. In the decades since the Civil Rights Movement, this game has always been tried and tested.
After entering the age of social media, along with the help of algorithms, the business world has perfected its playing of this game, becoming a part of consumerism. “To buy a certain product is to support a certain idea” has become a too common way to game the system.
The capitalist in the film is a composite of these patterns, something even more ironic given that the maker of this satirical drama is the streaming giant Netflix, one of the experts of this game. As for domestic [Chinese] social media and opinion leaders, they are also learning very quickly that traffic is more important than everything else - and I think everyone has a lot of experience in this.
This game of the postmodernist era appears to be playable without limits. In the final analysis, with the fall of the Soviet Union it seemed that there were no more enemies, as if “history had ended”. In a world where there are no more enemies, the capitalist world does not need consensus [to be able to] mobilize the entirety of society.
However there are always some things that aren’t human-related, that don’t care about splits of opinion: for example, the comet in the film or, in reality, Covid-19 and climate change. They are a manifestation of natural laws and mankind’s magical power for self-deception will be of no use against them. If humankind doesn’t face them correctly, it will pay a heavy price. To face these problems beyond technology will be impossible if there is no social consensus.
Regardless of how brilliant a project or breakthrough technology is, with no societal consensus to promote it, it is no different to the reflection on the surface of a bubble.
Only then the price of deliberately tearing up society will be reckoned with. The conspiracies and attacking each other during the Covid-19 epidemic are only the interest being paid on the price. No one can predict what Covid-19 will bring next.
A problem giving people even more of a headache lies in [the fact that] no matter if its Covid-19 or climate change, consensus within a country will not solve anything. There needs to be global consensus and that’s even more complicated.
There’s a scene in the movie after the US president refuses to get involved with other countries that other countries implement their own actions, but there’s only one scene where Russia’s launch attempt fails and there’s no other content [about this].
Whether it’s prevention and control of Covid-19 or environmental protection, China has had no small amount of success. Although I cannot go as far as to say that Europe and America should copy China’s experience or any of that kind of considering oneself as infallible talk, but from the start of the epidemic until now the majority of European and America media has still had no way to face up to China’s pandemic experience.
Every day they rely on imagining up new charges against China. It’s really sad. As for the huge sacrifices and achievements China has made in environmental protection, they are naturally ignored.
On these types of issues alone are they [Europe and America] quite capable of forming societal consensus. For them, I am afraid, creating public opinion hostile to China is the most valuable thing. When all is said and done, creating a common enemy is also a common consensus paradigm.
For example, in this type of movie that satirizes American problems, we see that the scenes in China still resemble those that often appear in American movies: a group of people dressed in outdated clothes in an old and cramped environment, eating noodles while watching TV together. There are still many scenes like this.
If we wish to solve the disaster brought about by Covid-19, many things need to be done and rebuilding consensus is among the most important and difficult ones. Fortunately, although it is difficult, it is also not completely impossible.
However, whether the societal consensus the West wants to rebuild globally is still conducive to solving problems is still a matter of debate. Instead of creating consensus around fighting Covid-19, I think Western public opinion is more interested in creating a consensus that Covid-19 is becoming less and less harmful, almost like the flu, which almost seems like a mechanical repetition of a speech Trump made a year ago that was at the time ridiculed by major media outlets.
When it comes to Covid-19, it doesn’t matter whether or not it was Trump who said it - pretending to be an ostrich won’t solve real-world problems.
The movie’s protagonist chooses to wait for the end. The president and the capitalist get into an escape pod and are ultimately killed by aliens. In reality, the WHO has said that it hopes the pandemic will come to an end this year. The mutation of new strains has caused new rounds of outbreaks around the world and more mutations are still lurking in the dark.
Whether it’s vaccines or new drugs, it’s hard to block its steps. In the area of climate change, although efforts are being made, and more and more environmentally friendly performance art occupies public space, the commitment of developed countries to control climate change still seems illusory.
But our lives must still continue. In this era full of splits, we still have to move forward. This is the challenge of these times. Although we may not find the correct path by looking up, if we don’t try, then we will surely be in an extremely difficult situation.
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