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Leonardo DiCaprio: How comet-themed 'Don't Look Up' shows climate crisis as an emergency

Leonardo DiCaprio's longstanding passion for climate change, which even brought him to NASA a few years back, is now on screen in a new movie.

The Oscar-winning actor ("The Revenant", "Inception") is the lead for the cast of "Don't Look Up" (Netflix, Dec. 10), a dark satire about a deadly comet heading for Earth. Director Adam McKay ("The Big Short") has said the comet is meant to evoke how the global warming crisis is being politicized by anybody with the chance to do something about it.

DiCaprio's advocacy for protecting the climate includes producing several films (such as "Before the Flood"). It also brought him to the recent United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in November, and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in 2016 .

In the new film, DiCaprio portrays astronomer Randall Mindy, mentor and colleague to comet discoverer and Ph.D. candidate Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence, "X-Men: Apocalypse", "The Hunger Games.") As the film shows, Dibiasky and Mindy have to fight everyone from the U.S. president to the military to get their message heard.

"I was just thankful to play a character who was solely based on so many of the people that I've met from the scientific community, in particular climate scientists," DiCaprio said during a livestreamed press conference Sunday (Dec. 4.)

Related: The Greatest Comet Close Encounters of All Time

"They're trying to communicate the urgency of this issue, and feeling like they're subjected to the last page on the newspaper," DiCaprio continued, and said he loves the personality of the two characters: his attempts to work the system, against Lawrence's "Greta Thunberg type of character."

While the film was conceived before the pandemic hit in March 2020, DiCaprio added the larger message about how science gets politicized carries even more weight in the new environment. "COVID hit, and there's a whole new scientific argument going on there, and it's just such an important film to be a part of at this particular time," he said.

But the challenge of the film, according to McKay, was figuring out how to convey the urgency about climate change while still allowing people to laugh, as he felt the comedy could help with unifying the various political views audiences might bring into the theater.

Don't Look Up

Adam McKay (left) directs Jennifer Lawrence during "Don't Look Up." (Image credit: Netflix) (Image credit: Netflix)

"You can feel urgency, and you can feel sadness, and you can feel lost, while also having a sense of humor, and that was really the intention with this movie," he said in the same press conference. 

"After the crazy last five to 10 years we've all had across the planet, [my feeling] was that God, wouldn't it be nice to laugh at some of this? And feel the other feelings? So that was kind of the approach, because I think we get hit with sort of trumpeting doomsday."

While the satire is about climate change, with the help of University of Arizona astronomer Amy Mainzer, the film also attempts to portray comet science in at least a somewhat realistic format, along with the scientists who do the work.

Lawrence portrays a Ph.D. candidate who appears (at first) to have a research breakthrough after discovering the comet, as having found a whole new world would be a boon in completing the long research work to get the degree. But as it quickly becomes clear that her discovery is a disaster in the making, her character's feelings about the comet change.

In "Don't Look Up", astronomers must convince skeptical White House officials of the impending comet threat, including the President's Chief of Staff Jason Orlean (Jonah Hill). (Image credit: Netflix)

"I think there was probably an evolution" in how Dibiasky thought about her namesake, Lawrence told the panel. "I think at first she was very, very proud of this. And then I'm sure, resentment started to build up as people started fearing Comet Dibiasky."

While the film runs through the implications of having a deadly comet associated with a person, Mainzer said during the discussion that this is a purely fictional scenario.  "Fortunately, in real life with the asteroids [and comets], we would not name one that's actually hazardous after a living person. That's not allowed."

Just about every kind of stakeholder in science was skewered, so alongside the scientists came satirical and negative portrayals of how the media and politicians tend to deal with "bad news" and disseminate that to the public.

Don't Look Up

Meryl Streep portrays U.S. President Janie Orlean in "Don't Look Up." (Image credit: Netflix) (Image credit: Netflix)

U.S. president Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep, "The Devil Wears Prada") at first turns down the astronomers by saying she wants the White House to check their work using what she considers more prestigious institutions than where Mindy teaches (the University of Michigan, which in real life is a well-cited astronomical institution.)

"It was kind of fun to put together this character that was just pure Id, just what her appetite wanted and about amassing power, money, more power and more money and that's pretty much it. And nice hair and nails," Streep said.

"There's no fellow feeling and that's, unfortunately, that's the cost of what being a public servant is now," she added. "You really have to make a big sacrifice. Your family makes a sacrifice, and you have to be willing to do that. It's amazing that we get good people, ever, to do it. But we need them right now."

Don't Look Up

Rob Morgan plays Clayton "Teddy" Oglethorpe, an official from NASA's Planetary Defense Coordination Office in "Don't Look Up." (Image credit: Netflix) (Image credit: Netflix)

An early scene in the film shows Orlean and her son Jason — also the chief of staff of the White House — completely dismissing the astronomers before checking their work. This is despite the warm support in the script of NASA's real life Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO) that assesses potentially threatening objects.

Clayton "Teddy" Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan, "Daredevil") was the senior-level representative of PDCO in the film, sitting in the room during this White House argument. He said the scene was poignant given recent top-level discussions about climate science in politics. The Orleans, he said, are "just dismissing facts and science."

He continued, "That, to me, was just very much ringing true because of what's happening, especially at this time in the country and where we were with the pandemic: things just being dismissed and everybody who says anything counter to what the truth is."

"Don't Look Up" debuts in theatres Friday (Dec. 10) and will be released on Netflix's streaming platform Dec. 24.

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Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a contributing writer for Space.com since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she tackles topics like spaceflight, diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Her latest book, NASA Leadership Moments, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.