by Matthew James
At first impression, the Netflix film Don’t Look Up, is just another disaster movie. It’s about a comet heading on a collision course with Earth which will cause an Extinction Level Event.
It could be seen as a sort of Deep Impact on steroids. But that would be to miss the point of the film.
The comet really isn’t the star of the show. Rather, it is the reaction of the social-media-infused humans on the ground that takes top-billing. The movie is a searing indictment of the sorry state of the Post-Modern mindset.
The modern mindset
My definitions may be inadequate, crude and incomplete, but a brief word on “Post-Modernity” before I continue.
The ‘Modern’ mindset was significantly forged by the 18th century Enlightenment which tended to insist on the ‘knowability’ of absolute truth, placing its ‘faith’ in scientific facts and the power of reason. There was an emphasis on there being knowable, objective Truth.
In contrast, Post-Modernity views such things as relative. It could be summed up by the phrase “Well, that’s your truth and it works for you, but this is my truth and it works for me”.
Modernity sought objectivity; Post-Modernity is unashamedly subjective.
In its earlier stages, Post-Modernity was largely a philosophical phenomenon confined to intellectuals and academic circles. It was the subject of all-night discussions in student halls of residence about moral relativism, deconstructionism (Derrida et al). It was generally limited to the metaphysical-epistemological world.
The advent of widespread use of social media has seen this genie decisively uncorked into ‘the real world’.
It culminated in the phenomenon of the Trump Presidency and its mainstream deployment of terms such as “post-truth” and “alternative facts”. Now we witness its flourishing in the polarised responses to the present twin threats of Covid and anthropogenic climate change.
Don’t Look Up explores the pernicious consequences of these tendencies when hitched to the corporate wagon and its associated greed.
Many have considered Post-Modernity as harmless when it remains in the metaphysical sphere e.g. in discussions about moral relativism or theology. But it becomes deeply problematic when attempted in the physical realm. When it impacts power, politics and policy.
Of course, conspiracy theories have been around for decades e.g. JFK’s assassination, David Icke’s Lizard People. But they have generally been the preserve of a small minority of weirdos.
Particularly in the last 5 years, the rise of QAnon, anti-vaxxers, climate change denial or “Scamdemic” responses to Covid have become far more mainstream. Covid lockdowns have exacerbated this as people have more time on their hands and their lives are affected on such a practical level.
Does this mean, though, that we have hit “Peak Post-Modernity”? Is the film illustrative of Post-Modernity having “jumped the shark”?
(A side note for those not familiar with this cultural reference: “jump the shark” harks back to the episode in Happy Days where The Fonz goes water-skiing and jumps over a shark. The show was deemed to have lost its way thereafter and the phrase entered the lexicon to describe something which has lost credibility.)
Only ‘future hindsight’ will tell whether we are at that point. But it does seem that there is an increasing appetite to push back at Post-Modern perspectives. Today, we are more likely to hear “you’re entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts”.
Don’t Look Up brutally satirises the nonsense that extreme Post-Modernity leads to. At a time when the comet is visible to anyone on Earth who looks into the sky, the polls report that “37% of people say the comet doesn’t exist”.
The role of faith
What, then, does this mean for those of us who call ourselves Christians?
It is fascinating that it is often religious conservatives who espouse conspiracy theories when they have been complaining about moral relativism for years.
But I think we may be witnessing the start of another quantum shift in how society interacts with truth: a swinging back of the pendulum towards a more objective engagement with such matters.
Truth and depth
In Don’t Look Up, this is perhaps best epitomised by Yule, the lapsed evangelical who leads the other main characters in a prayer at the end of the film.
At a time of chaos and destruction, when no one else knows what to say, he speaks words of depth and Truth. There is no cynical twist. The words unite the group and in response all say ‘Amen’.
Matthew James is a solicitor, married with three children, who lives and works in southern Hampshire