The Real Science Behind the Movie “Don’t Look Up”

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/Getty Images 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 completely different ways than they are used in everyday life.

For example, how we communicate ‘uncertainty’ – that word in science means that there is a range of possible values within the measurements we make, and not that we don’t know what we’ve measured! That’s just one example, but it exemplifies there’s sometimes a language barrier, because words are used differently.

To me, the movie is about how scientists try to take what we are learning about the world and bring that knowledge to everyone else so that decisions can be made based on the science. That’s a really challenging thing to do. But in the end, this movie is a comedy and hopefully people who see it will laugh a little at how all of us – while we try to do our best – don’t always succeed.

Atkinson: Could you share some of the science tidbits in the movie, and any chance that the real NEOWISE mission gets a mention?

A movie still from DON’T LOOK UP, showing the incoming comet’s trajectory. Credit: Netflix © 2021, used by permission.

Mainzer: I actually did model the comet in the movie loosely after Comet NEOWISE! This is a long period comet, which can come in at incredible speeds from the outer solar system relative to the Earth. We discovered NEOWISE in March 2020 and close approach to Earth was in July, and so like the comet in the movie, there was a very short window of time between its discovery and close approach.

The good news is that in reality, we have found most of the really large near-Earth asteroids out there – things that are capable of causing global catastrophes. When we get to asteroids that are 1 km or larger, we know of more than 90% of those and none pose any hazard that we know of.

However, long period comets are a different story. They are much rarer than asteroids but they are out there. And while we keep watch for them, we don’t know as large of percentage of that population. From my standpoint, an object making a close approach to Earth is a non-zero probability, so we do want to be knowledgeable and prepared. Therefore, the reasonable thing to do is to look for comets and asteroids, and track them with comprehensive surveys.

One of the things I spent a lot of time talking with the director about is how our system is designed for transparency. When we find an asteroid or comet, there’s a system set up to take the observations and associate it with previously known objects If the object is not something we already know about, the system is to make it public so that other astronomers can look at it.

DON’T LOOK UP (L to R) Mark Rylance as Peter Isherwell, Meryl Streep as President Janie Orlean, and Jonah Hill as Jason Orlean. Cr. NIKO TAVERNISE/NETFLIX © 2021. Used by permission.

From the scientists’ perspective, we are doing all we can to get the information out there, but the question is, how do people react? We are trying to do what we can to get the knowledge out there, and that process is portrayed in the movie.

Also, in the movie, the scientists who make the discovery are people who don’t do systematic surveys of comets for a living. They serendipitously discover the comet and the movie walks through the process of how they recognized this comet, how they determined its orbit and then how they communicated the results to the rest of the science community. Hopefully viewers will recognize the grains of real science, even though the movie definitely takes some artistic license. 

Atkinson: There are several big-name actors in this film. What was your reaction when you heard who was in the cast?  

Mainzer: These actors are legends for good reason. They are incredibly talented, and they are all people who really feel they could play an important role in portraying scientists as human beings — in all our human glory! They all care passionately about science and its role in society, along with the idea that we really should make decisions based on science in order to tackle problems as best we can. I spent a lot of time working with the cast on the dialogue, because some of the scientific terminology is cumbersome. And also, to express how scientists feel when we aren’t being listened to.  

One of the things I’ve always thought interesting is the interaction between science and the arts. Science tells us what is happening with nature, but the arts deal with is how we react: how do we feel and process what we learn from science? So, this movie deals with how both scientists and the general public react to what we are learning. The tension of trying to change society to make science-based decisions and how to get people to listen to science is very much at the heart of the movie.

Atkinson: A common thread in science denial is that NASA or the government is hiding things from the public. All the scientists I talk to always say that if they discovered a dangerous object in space, they’d be shouting it from the rooftops!

Mainzer: In my experience that is absolutely the case! When we learn something new and cool in science, it’s like going on a great trip and when you get home you might bore everyone because you can’t stop talking about it. Most scientists won’t stop talking about the things we learn because we love it. And we want other people to know about it because if they know about it they might love it too! That is part of the process that gets explored in the movie. 

Atkinson: What’s the biggest thing you hope people take away from the movie?

Mainzer: Hopefully the movie conveys that scientists are humans – and that this process of science is a human process.  As scientists, we may sometimes have communication challenges, but we are trying, and we are going to keep trying!