The Planet-Killing Asteroid Is Always Political

Every generation gets the planet-killer story it deserves. ‘Don’t Look Up’ is no exception.
January 7, 2022, 3:52pm
dont
Image: Netflix

When I was in college in 2008, my friend Matt and I organized a “film series” in which we screened the 1998 Michael Bay movie Armageddon once a week for a month. We posted cheeky flyers around campus announcing “ONCE A WEEK THE WORLD WILL END.” Our motives were partly inspired by our dismal future prospects: we were about to graduate from art school into the wreckage of a global recession, and cataclysmic events did seem to be happening on roughly a weekly basis. What better catharsis for all that uncertainty and gloom than to repeatedly watch Bruce Willis die for the planet’s sins and bask in misguided nostalgia for pre-9/11 imperialist propaganda? 

Advertisement

All this is to say: Armageddon is a really good crystallization of a particular zeitgeist. Movies where giant rocks from space end up on a crash-course with Earth tend to be. It’s easy to project a lot of present-tense existential anxieties onto space rocks, and stories about planetary-scale problems tend to involve other planetary-scale systems, like empire and capitalism. 

Asteroid movies, like most science fiction, are primarily vehicles for blunt ideological statements. They’re about as much about actual astronomy as zombie movies are about epidemiology or time travel movies are about quantum physics. While the release of Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up has produced a surfeit of (she writes, choking back bile) discourse, most analyses haven’t actually situated the film in the long political history of asteroid movies. There are probably two reasons for this: for better or worse McKay has explicitly sought to frame Don’t Look Up as a climate change allegory rather than an asteroid movie, and asteroid movies are as a general rule pretty bad movies so people don’t take them seriously. Don’t Look Up has an Important Message that merits Serious Discussion, Armageddon had animal cracker foreplay and Steve Buscemi as a pervy geologist who gets space dementia

But while McKay’s climate change allegory and his extremely online defensiveness have produced a lot of sturm und drang, it’s probably the least interesting thing about the movie. And the fact that asteroid movies are largely perceived as (and, well, often are) spectacle and explosion-driven films with almost no self-awareness doesn’t make them any less political; if anything, it renders their politics all the more explicit. There isn’t a lot of room for nuanced messaging in narratives about big dumb rocks killing everything on Earth. Looking back at some of the high-profile asteroid movies of history, it’s clear that the genre of a scorched earth has always been fertile ground for arguments over capitalism and the state. 

Advertisement

A caveat: one thing that becomes abundantly clear when trying to construct an intellectual history of the asteroid movie is that there are a lot of asteroid movies. Most of them were made for television, many of them look terrible, and at least one of them is also about don’t ask, don’t tell. The following chronology is far from comprehensive, but focuses on some of the higher-profile entries into the genre. 

I’m now going to completely disregard that caveat by telling you about a 1916 movie about an asteroid hitting the planet that was, in part, about capitalist greed weaponizing the media and environmental disaster for profit. The silent Danish film, Verdens Undergang (The End of the World, also released as The Flaming Sword), features a villainous mine owner who takes advantage of the inevitable stock market crash brought by news of a planet-killing comet. After buying up stocks for pennies on the dollar, he conspires to spread what we would today call a “misinformation campaign” to convince people that the comet’s a hoax, thus bringing the market back up and making himself the richest man in the world. He then invites all his rich friends to go hide out in an underground bunker. Meanwhile, a disgruntled miner who loses his sweetheart to the charms of the aforementioned capitalist seeks his revenge through leading a proletariat revolution. 

Advertisement

Made in the wake of Halley’s comet passing by Earth in 1910 and amidst the wreckage of World War I, it’s unsurprising that Verdens Undergang offered such a blatant critique of capitalism and case for seizing the means (there’s also a lot of Christian moralizing—which also kind of makes sense for the time, as it’s literally an apocalypse movie). The comet isn’t exactly the war, but the wreckage the comet leaves probably would have been eerily familiar to many moviegoers. 

Verduns Undergang may not be the most famous asteroid movie but it does have the distinction of being one of the first, and it almost certainly influenced another film first: renowned French silent filmmaker Abel Gance’s first foray into talkies. 1931’s Fin du Monde shares much of the same plot as Verduns (both films drew on an 1893 novel by French astronomer Camille Flammarion);  it even goes to somewhat greater cartoonish lengths, featuring a capitalist orgy interrupted by rioting monks. But Fin du Monde also gestures toward idealist interwar-period politics toward the end of the film, with the creation of a (Christian, of course) world government supporting the people of Earth rebuilding from the comet’s wreckage. 

It should be noted that at no point does anyone really try to stop the big rocks in either Verdens Undergang or Fin du Monde. It’s really after World War II that the asteroid movie takes on its familiar narrative arc of government(s) doing Big Science to prevent planetary destruction. Two politically contentious technological developments shaped this narrative shift: nuclear weapons and the Space Race. Asteroid movies offer a pretty nice redemption arc for nuclear weapons and their Cold War proliferation: while they were created for the purposes of mass murder and pose an existential threat to life on this planet, they’re also conveniently the only method of protecting or saving the planet. A later Cold War film, 1979’s Meteor manages to critique the shenanigans of Cold War politics and simultaneously redeem nukes. Its protagonist, played by Sean Connery (no for real), is a scientist who leaves NASA after the military turns his asteroid defense technology into a weapon. When the asteroid threat emerges, Connery is brought back to NASA to convince stodgy politicians to get past their Cold War posturing and work with his Soviet counterpart (because of course the Soviets built an identical system of space missiles) to take out the meteor. The film features an extraordinarily long sequence of American and Soviet missiles gently cruising through space side-by-side (get it?). 

Advertisement

For most readers, this is all prehistory—the asteroid genre as it’s known today really begins in 1998 with Armageddon and Deep Impact. Of the two, Armageddon was the more financially successful and more aligned with the more conservative side of Cold War politics, somehow both deeply patriotic and vehemently anti-government. Like Meteor, Armageddon doesn’t bother to give its President of the United States a name; like Meteor, Armageddon shows capable scientists at odds with the military and bureaucrats. (Also, both Meteor and Armageddon feature imagery of New York’s World Trade Center in flames that hasn’t aged well; this may be more of an unfortunate coincidence than political message). 

Armageddon also takes the Cold War “thing that could kill the world will save the world” message to the next level by making people who work on oil drilling rigs—as in, people enabling and profiting from climate change—as the only team capable of effectively stopping the asteroid. The audience is apparently supposed to like the fact they work in the extractive industry (we meet Bruce Willis’ character on an oil rig, pitching golf balls at a boat of Greenpeace protestors). As Sarah Gailey has observed, Armageddon is also a film about masculinity and fatherhood: it’s not nukes and oil extraction that save the planet, it’s essentially Bruce Willis’ dad-ness.  

Advertisement

By contrast, Deep Impact’s president not only has a name, but is played by ultimate gentleman Morgan Freeman. If Armageddon was the asteroid movie of conservative, toxic-masculinity-laden imperialism, Deep Impact was the liberal centrist’s asteroid movie—competent engineers take center stage, not swaggering oilmen, and during the press conference announcing the comet to the world Freeman insists that in the year’s time before the comet’s arrival that life will continue as normal. (Watching a fictional president tell the world about a looming extinction event and then say, with a gentle smile, “you will keep paying your bills” strikes an unfortunately prescient nerve in 2022.)

For the most part, I’ve focused here on the category of asteroid movie where people try to stop a big rock from hitting the planet. But there is another angle, one that unsurprisingly hit its strides in the past decade: stories where people figure out how to live either in anticipation or the aftermath of a big rock hitting the planet. I say “unsurprisingly” because the 2010s were a big moment for millennial malaise. This is where we might put ponderous entries like 2011’s Melancholia or inexplicable romantic comedies like 2012’s Seeking A Friend For The End of the World (side note, remember when people kept putting Steve Carrell in romantic comedies?). Subverting the action movie form—focusing usually more on everyday people and their feelings instead of heroism and explosions—lays bare the real conflict at the heart of all asteroid movies, which is the question of how people choose to live while facing the inevitability of death. This is a worthy question, but it’s often rendered into an apolitical individual journey rather than a matter of collective experience or discussion of power. Characters in these movies sleep around, fall in love, and find themselves. They don’t choose organizing or community-building, they choose the nuclear family and heteronormative romance.  

As any connoisseur of disaster movies understands, simultaneous apocalypse is a great way to flatten politics and power dynamics in the name of an overarching story of “humanity.” It's never how disaster unfolds in real life, where the already suffering face disproportionate harm and capitalists find some angle through which to profit. (Also, even in most asteroid movies there’s some unevenly distributed suffering, since there’s almost always some preamble destruction where deadly medium-sized detritus takes out New York City or Hong Kong.) Movies with survival arks and bunker lotteries (1951’s When Worlds Collide, Deep Impact) gesture at this reality, but typically end on the positive note of another tomorrow rather than unpacking the fucked-up process that saved the lucky few. 

This brings us to Don’t Look Up and how (as previously mentioned) it really isn’t that interesting as a climate change movie, but as an asteroid movie has a lot to offer. McKay comes closest to doing for asteroid movies what George Romero did with zombie movies: he lays their latent symbolism bare and acknowledges its real underlying existential horror, not to mention the implications of the fucked-up ways most modern asteroid movies face that horror with gee-whiz technological salvation or toxic fuck-you nationalism (sometimes both). While the more self-aware subgenre previously mentioned does something similar, Don’t Look Up manages to avoid going fully interior to the detriment of a political message. It’s laser-focused on the systemic fuckups and abuses of power manipulating the planetary disaster. The main characters ultimately fail and they mourn, but they do also organize. 

I still have a real soft spot for Armageddon—admittedly, more for the experience of watching it in 2008 than any of its cinematic merits. But I do think that disaster movies, especially the big loud ones that make people roll their eyes, are worth taking seriously in a time increasingly defined by disaster capitalism. In most movies where our heroes avert the asteroids, the ending tends to feature a celebratory return to some status quo—think of Armageddon’s end credits featuring faux-grainy footage of Liv Tyler’s white wedding. In movies where the earth sustains damage or everyone dies, the narrative tends to either be about the promise for a world reborn or some kind of closure via a reaffirming of the status quo. I don’t know if Don’t Look Up is an especially great movie. It’s a disaster movie without catharsis—which maybe explains why it’s so polarizing. But there is something very of this particular zeitgeist in an ending that insists that there’s really no going back to the way things used to be and that there are no guarantees for redemption.