How do you make a movie about a hyperobject?

The film ‘Don’t Look Up’ turns climate change into an allegorical comet.


You are, at this point, well aware of the crisis. Scientists have warned us, but we’ve doubted their data or dismissed them as alarmists. Politicians, preoccupied with transient election cycles, have neglected the issue, or ­else weaponized it in the culture wars. Large segments of the media have ignored it in favor of celebrity scandals, while corporations are profiting by obfuscating its dangers and thwarting possible solutions. And our puny brains, so ill-equipped to calculate future risks, have locked up like ungreased gears in the face of inevitable catastrophe. 

The crisis in question is, more properly, two crises — one metaphorical, one all too real. In Adam McKay’s new film Don’t Look Up, the fictitious doomsday device is a huge comet, a “planet killer” that will obliterate the Earth in six months. The horrified astronomers who discovered it (played by Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio) leak the news to the press, demand action on talk shows, and beg for help from a crass president who commands legions of red-hatted denialists, only to be brushed off at every turn. This is, of course, an allegory for climate change, the real world’s very genuine, very immediate and very undealt-with cataclysm. As parables go, it’s a blunt one — but then, that’s what it takes to make art about a hyperobject.

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In Aspen, Colorado, WE ARE THE ASTEROID III, a conceptual artwork by Brooklyn-based artist Justin Brice Guariglia, displays a phrase coined by Timothy Morton.

Don’t Look Up, as the opening credits tell us, was made by Hyperobject Industries, McKay’s production company. The company takes its name from a term coined by the philosopher Timothy Morton, who, in 2015, explained the concept in an essay for High Country News. Hyperobjects, Morton wrote, are those massive, overwhelmingly complex things “that you can study and think about and compute, but that are not so easy to see directly.” A Styrofoam cup isn’t a hyperobject, but all the Styrofoam in the world is; a speck of plutonium isn’t, but all the plutonium ever produced is. You can’t touch hyperobjects, yet they shape human lives in tangible, often deleterious ways that leave us morally obligated us to deal with them. The Dust Bowl was a hyperobject. Chronic drought is a hyperobject. And global warming is the ultimate hyperobject“something that is so big and so powerful,” observed Morton, “that until now we had no real word for it.”

Over the years, Morton has acquired a substantial following; they’ve been described as “the most popular guide” to the Anthropocene and have published their dialogues with Bjork at the Museum of Modern Art. McKay first encountered hyperobjects in The Uninhabitable Earth, the journalist David Wallace-Wells’ grim account of how thoroughly screwed our planet is. Morton’s ideas resonated with McKay, whose recent films have gravitated toward big, elusive concepts, like predatory financial instruments (The Big Short) and the ruinous consequences of neoconservative foreign policy (Vice). The notion of hyperobjects, to McKay’s mind, encapsulated the ethos of his new production company — encapsulated it so perfectly, in fact, that Morton’s neologism would supply its name.

“The whole idea of the company was, ‘Wow, the world is insane and shifting and teetering,’ ” McKay told me over the phone, about a week after his movie’s Netflix release. “What does that mean for the kinds of stories we should be telling?” He struck up a correspondence with Morton and later invited them to speak at a retreat with Naomi Klein, Ron Suskind and other thinkers. “We all got together and talked about where stories are headed,” McKay said. “We’re trying to describe the indescribable. What a great, futile mission.”

“We’re trying to describe the indescribable. What a great, futile mission.”

McKay wanted to make a movie about the most colossal hyperobject of all — global warming. But climate change’s hyperobjectivity made it a slippery subject. Stories thrive on specificity: The best ones tend to involve recognizable characters acting in discrete locations in a relatively linear chronology. Hyperobjects, by contrast, scoff at narrative. Global warming is operating everywhere, affecting everyone, all the time. Its incorporeal vastness inherently stymies art.

McKay addressed that dilemma in a couple of ways. First, at Morton’s suggestion, he decided to write a comedy. “When it’s absurd, when it’s playful, it allows us to take in harder, more challenging truths,” McKay said. “One thing we can all agree on is that the world is frustrating and crazy, and that’s obviously what the astronomers in the movie encounter.” Few of us are climatologists, but we’ve all struggled to make sense of a civilization run by venal politicians and their corporate masters. “For a crowd to be laughing, there has to be some common ground,” McKay said — no matter how thematically bleak.

Second, of course, was analogy. If hyperobjects defy storytelling, the workaround was to create, well, an object. The metaphor McKay settled on — an intergalactic ball of rock and ice — most likely had multiple origins: In one interview, McKay credited the producer David Sirota, while Morton and their artistic collaborators have been deploying the phrase “We Are the Asteroid” since 2018. Regardless, McKay said, the comet served as a “sleight of hand,” a clean, incontrovertible disaster that brushed away the messiness of climate science — “a very simple truth that’s coming on a very predictable schedule.” Having dispensed with global warming’s ambiguous timeline, McKay could foreground the absurdity of society’s response. When planetary death is days away and Big Tech is still trying to strip the comet for parts, you know we’ve descended into kleptocratic hell.  

The film, in my view, succeeds — it’s consistently funny, and if its metaphor hits us over the head, well, we deserve the whack. But I also wondered if, in analogizing a hyperobject, Don’t Look Up sacrificed something essential about what made its actual subject so damn tricky. Unlike McKay’s comet, climate change won’t instantly annihilate all life. Instead, hyperobjects are what Morton describes as nonlocal, meaning they’re distributed across vast swaths of space and time, the future included. Sure, we’re experiencing climate chaos today, but our descendants will have it much worse — yet they can’t advocate for themselves in the present. Global warming is intractable because, unlike the comet, it’s a problem of intergenerational justice: The humans who will bear its brunt don’t yet exist.

There are other vital differences. The comet’s outcomes are binary: Either it’ll destroy us, or it won’t. But climate change is a gradient; a planet that warms two degrees is nothing like one that heats up by three or four. Hyperobjects, Morton has written, are phased, meaning we only encounter pieces of them at once. Likewise, global warming flummoxes us because it’s a choose-your-own-misadventure with infinite prospective paths, each contingent upon our own response to it.

When I attempted to raise this conundrum to McKay — that, in objectifying a hyperobject, you potentially strip it of the attributes that make it so vexatiously hyperobjective in the first place — I tied myself in an inarticulate knot. Still, McKay gamely tried to follow my tortuous train of thought. Then he said something that surprised me: I’d identified the wrong hyperobject in Don’t Look Up. Global warming wasn’t the hyperobject of concern, he said. Instead, it was “modern civilization’s reaction to global warming” that was the problem.

Adam McKay directs Jennifer Lawrence on the set of “Don’t Look Up”. The film was made by Hyperobject Industries, McKay’s production company. The company takes its name from a term coined by the philosopher Timothy Morton.
Niko Tavernise/Netflix

“I think the hyperobject is what (the astronomers) confront, which is a massive, shifting system of careerism, profitization, politics and leveraged power,” McKay told me. “That’s what’s confusing and traumatizing.” Global warming is vast, yes, but its fundamental physics aren’t much more complex than a comet’s. The hyperobjects that animate the film, to McKay, aren’t geophysical entities — they’re capitalism, electoral politics and human psychology. “There are like 15 hyperobjects that all gather around the hyperobject of climate change,” McKay said. 

When I talked to McKay, he was recovering from COVID-19, yet another society-melting hyperobject. It occurred to me that we’d engineered a world perfectly conducive to hyperobjects: one that was more globalized, more online, more ephemeral, more polluted and more dependent on bewildering technology. Can you explain the blockchain that underpins your bitcoin holdings?) With trepidation, I asked him what hyperobject he planned to turn into a movie next.

“I’d love to get into the real rot at the center of the system, which is dirty money,” he replied. “The climate crisis, income inequality, homelessness, the lack of health care, the opioid epidemic, guns — all of that stuff is driven by dirty money freezing up our system. So I think that’s a pretty good hyperobject to go at.” He paused. “Would you say that systemic corruption qualifies as a hyperobject? I think it does.”

Ben Goldfarb is a frequent High Country News contributor and the author of Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter

Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

Note: This story has been updated since it originally published.

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