The new movie “Don’t Look Up” — now available on Netflix — is not your usual sci-fi disaster film. Instead, it is a biting parody on the general public’s dismissal and indifference to science. While the movie is about a comet on a collision course with Earth, filmmakers originally meant “Don’t Look Up” to be a commentary on climate change denial. But it also is reflective of the current COVID denial and mask/vaccine resistance, as well as our existing political polarization. It also lays bare our preoccupation with social media. While the movie is sometimes funny, it can also be depressing and frustrating.

“Don’t Look Up” includes a star-studded cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Jonah Hill, and Cate Blanchett. Meryl Streep, who plays the president of the US, has said this is the most important film she’s ever made.

Amy Mainzer attends the “Don’t Look Up” World Premiere at Jazz at Lincoln Center on December 05, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/GettyImages for Netflix) Used by permission.

Filmmaker Adam McKay wanted this film to portray the science — and the challenges faced by scientists — as realistically as possible. He brought in well-known astronomer Dr. Amy Mainzer to serve as the film’s science consultant.

Mainzer is a professor at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona and one of the world’s leading scientists in asteroid detection and planetary defense. As principal investigator of NASA’s NEOWISE mission (Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer) Mainzer has overseen the largest space-based asteroid-hunting project in history. A comet named after the mission, Comet NEOWISE, was discovered by astronomers who work with the spacecraft in March of 2020.

Mainzer talked with Universe Today ‘s Nancy Atkinson about the science in “Don’t Look Up.” 

Nancy Atkinson: When you received a call about working on a film about a comet, what was your first reaction?

Amy Mainzer: I am in favor of anything that features comets and asteroids in a script, as these are subjects near and dear to my heart! I’m happy to see that they are part of the cultural conversation through movies, and it was really fun to work on the project.

Atkinson: As a science advisor, what were some of your tasks?

Mainzer: I helped to bring in some science realism for the movie. This this is obviously a science fiction movie, since we don’t know of any asteroid or comet that is on an impact trajectory to hit the Earth, or any that have a reasonable chance to do so in the near future. So right off the bat we are in sci-fi territory. But that said, we wanted to anchor the movie in science realism so that it provides a framework that is not so “out there” that viewers would have to suspend belief. But the team behind the film is very interested in science and its portrayal in movies is important for them, and so that’s why it has so much science in it.

We helped design the comet — one that would fit the bill for the movie, but also be scientifically accurate. We described the circumstances of the discovery — how such an object might be recognized, how the trajectory would be determined, and how the scientists would react as they started to learn more about the object. The other part was to help portray scientists as human beings: what are we like, and how do we communicate science? Sometimes we succeed when we communicate, other times we do have challenges.

Atkinson: What stood out to me about the movie was that the scientists who try to warn of a disaster weren’t listened to. Given everything going on in our world – climate change and a raging pandemic – that indifference felt a little too real! How did that feel to you?

Mainzer: This movie has a lot to do with how we as a society take news from science and react to it. As you know, Nancy, as a science communicator, you are deeply steeped into trying to translate complex technical ideas into words that everyone will understand. And that’s a real challenge, because scientists sometimes use words in
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