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'Don't Look Up' director Adam McKay talks comets, climate change and total disaster

Director Adam McKay spoke with Space.com about his upcoming movie "Don't Look Up." (Image credit: Netflix)

Warning: spoilers ahead

What would humanity do if a giant space rock were hurtling directly towards Earth? According to director Adam McKay ("The Big Short," "Anchorman," "Step Brothers"), we might not even care.

In McKay's latest film, "Don't Look Up," a dark comedy premiering in theaters on Dec. 10 (and making its Netflix debut Dec. 24), two astronomers make the shocking discovery that a large comet they describe as a "planet killer" is headed straight for Earth. But, in a series of surprising (and unfortunately unsurprising) events, humanity doesn't really see (or even believe) the pressing danger of the situation. 

In an exclusive interview with Space.com, McKay discussed his inspiration for the film, its not-so-secret hidden meaning and what he thinks might happen if a comet were really headed for Earth.

Related: NASA's DART asteroid-impact mission explained in pictures

"What I loved about the idea so much is that it, right away, for all of us brings up memories of movies that we've seen," McKay said about the film, which is one in a long line of movies that center around an asteroid or comet headed to destroy Earth. But, McKay added, "If you're watching a movie [like this] … the scientist makes the discovery, the scientist tells someone, they go to the White House, they get to work on the problem. We all know that routine," he said.

McKay decided to frame things from a more realistic perspective. "It made me laugh and it also horrified me to imagine what that routine would be like now and we're seeing it play out," he said. "I bet you if they went to the White House, that we'd keep 'em waiting for six, seven hours." 

"And I do think that's what would happen," he said. "I think if an astronomer discovered a [dangerous] comet and notified the government and was going to meet with the President, I bet you'd be kept waiting all day."

"I go 50/50," McKay said about whether he thinks humanity would do the right thing if a giant space rock were really on its way to Earth.

He likened the situation to what has unfolded with the COVID-19 pandemic. "I wrote the script before COVID, but you're seeing incredible amounts of COVID denial, foot-dragging, because there [are] concerns about the economy, people playing politics," he said.

But the pandemic isn't the only connection that's apparent while watching the film. 

Related: The Greatest Comet Close Encounters of All Time

A not-so-hidden meaning

"It's a Clark Kent level disguise for the climate crisis," McKay said about the film, referencing Superman's Clark Kent "disguise" that was made up primarily of a pair of glasses.

In showing how humankind might respond (badly) to news of its imminent demise by way of a giant comet, McKay holds up a mirror to how our species is responding to climate change. Essentially, we know it's happening, we know how serious it is, but we aren't acting like it.

"We're not trying that hard with disguising it [climate change]," he said. The film is a "riff on how would people respond to this … it's denial, it's distraction. You hear the news not mention it and then they go right to a commercial for a gas-driven car or an oil company. It's conflict of interest, it's careerism. It's a lot of people who are financially insecure. And it takes a lot of guts to raise your hand at that newspaper meeting and go, 'why don't we have a giant headline that says, 'Oh, my God, we're all going to die!'"

The film delivers a message about climate change without preaching or lecturing by using tools like humor, storytelling and a giant comet. While the movie has a powerful message behind it, McKay has a simple hope for how it might affect viewers.

"I don't expect, you know, religious, earthshaking, mind-changing outcomes from this movie, but just, if you could look at the world and see the distractions, see the profit motive, see the careerism, see the contentiousness that creates profits separated a little bit from what matters just a little bit better, I would be happy with that," McKay said.

Although this is a movie that shows how humanity is responding poorly to climate change, McKay is optimistic about planet Earth. 

"Ultimately, I'm very hopeful about the future when it comes to the climate because we have an Excalibur, we have a secret weapon," he said. "It's science! Science can do incredible, incredible things. Look at all the millions of lives that have already been saved by a vaccine that was developed at record pace." McKay mentioned a number of scientific climate efforts and new developments in carbon capture technology, renewable energy and more. 

"I just hope people — through laughing, through engaging with the movie — could just see things a little bit differently when it comes to and feel the urgency of the climate crisis and feel the urgency of the moment, maybe just a little bit more," he said.

Science fiction becomes fact

McKay's passion for science also shone through as he discussed NASA's recent DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) mission that actually saw the agency launch a spacecraft to practice what it might do if a giant space rock were, in fact, threatening Earth. 

DART launched on Nov. 24 for a 10-month journey to an asteroid system where it will practice smashing into a space rock to change its orbit. In "Don't Look Up," a similar mission utilizing a similar planetary defense technique is launched and goes hilariously wrong.

"I think it's terrific," McKay said. "It's an example of science, of scientists using collective action, empirical thoughts, to potentially save billions of lives to stop a great catastrophe."

Email Chelsea Gohd at cgohd@space.com or follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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Chelsea Gohd

Chelsea “Foxanne” Gohd joined Space.com in 2018 and is now a Senior Writer, writing about everything from climate change to planetary science and human spaceflight in both articles and on-camera in videos. With a degree in Public Health and biological sciences, Chelsea has written and worked for institutions including the American Museum of Natural History, Scientific American, Discover Magazine Blog, Astronomy Magazine and Live Science. When not writing, editing or filming something space-y, Chelsea "Foxanne" Gohd is writing music and performing as Foxanne, even launching a song to space in 2021 with Inspiration4. You can follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd and @foxannemusic.