‘Don't Look Up’ Shows Us How (Not) To Pray | Sojourners

‘Don't Look Up’ Shows Us How (Not) To Pray

The characters of Don't Look Up. Photos from the film; graphic by Nicholas McMillen.

In Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up, we meet at the end.

In the new apocalyptic movie, religious expression reveals what really matters to people when the world is ending. As a planet-killing comet comes hurtling toward Earth, some characters, like Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), a Ph.D candidate studying astronomy at Michigan State, and her professor, Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) take action; others turn toward denial. But all of them, at some point in the movie, pray. How they pray on their final days on Earth says a lot about what they value.

The film, available for streaming on Netflix, is primarily a political satire, focusing on the willful ignorance of a society that prefers to ignore scientific evidence and instead be soothed by celebrities, pop culture trends, and feel-good news stories. Upon meeting the scientists, President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep), a Trumpian figure, is unbothered, saying, “I heard there’s an asteroid or a comet or something that you don’t like the looks of.” She only reluctantly takes action to save the world when it becomes politically advantageous for her to do so.

Orlean’s public announcements about the comet look more like campaign rallies than sober national briefings. From a large military ship lined with U.S. flags, she presents her plan to explode the comet and save humanity. Flanked by cannons pointing toward the crowd, Orlean ends her speech with a benediction: “May Jesus Christ bless every single one of you — especially the honorable members of my own party. We will prevail.” Fireworks and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” follow.

For the villains of Don’t Look Up — the exploiters and comet deniers — faith is performative. Orlean frequently utilizes religious language to bolster her political approval as well as her goals for the midterm elections. Her rallies are soaked with a fusion of political and religious symbols, resembling the same corrupted faith that we see in real-life American politics.

Orlean doesn’t use her presidential acts, or her prayers, in service of others. She chooses to incite conspiracy and apathy. Her campaign uses the phrase “don’t look up,” to discourage people from acknowledging the realities of the earth’s imminent end and to distract them from her own political schemes (clearly Orlean never read Job 35:5, where we are instructed to “Look at the heavens and see; observe the clouds, which are higher than you”).

We see similar behavior from Orlean’s son, Jason (Jonah Hill), her unqualified chief of staff. During a broadcast to the nation, Jason offers a prayer for “stuff.” “There is dope stuff, like material stuff, like sick apartments and watches and cars, and clothes and shit, that could all go away, and I don’t want to see that stuff go away, so I’m going to say a prayer for that stuff. Amen.”

Jason’s “prayer” does not mention God. He views prayer as an unrestricted channel to make demands — a way to cash in on what he thinks he is owed. In both prayer and politics, Jason has never been concerned for others.

In Matthew 6, Jesus teaches us how to pray. He says our prayers should not be full of “empty words” or done solely for the sake of others seeing us. In Don’t Look Up, we do not see this kind of genuine expression of faith until we meet Yule.

Yule (Timothée Chalamet), is a seemingly disaffected skateboarder who appears near the end of the film. He tells Kate that he was raised in an evangelical home, but that he resents his parents. Instead, he found his own way to faith, developing his own relationship with God. His faith is sincere but private; he asks Kate not to “advertise it.”

While our own world is full of people whose faith prompts them to address injustice: I think of Poor People’s Campaign co-chair Rev. Liz Theoharis who has critiqued Sen. Joe Manchin’s opposition to the Build Back Better plan or artist Kelly Latimore whose nontraditional iconography depicts religious figures and opens up space for dialogue about religious expression. But Don’t Look Up lacks evidence of active faith working toward a common good. Yule, like many Christians, understands the harm that has been done in the name of evangelicalism and would rather be private about his faith than to have it associated with harm.

Note: Spoilers below

At the end of the film, while the wealthy few are boarding an escape ship to leave Earth, the film’s central characters gather at Prof. Mindy’s home, having their own last supper. While sharing words of gratitude, Kate says, “I’m grateful we tried.” Prof. Mindy wonders aloud if they should say amen; they are not a religious family, he explains.

The characteristically quiet Yule responds that he’s “got this” and begins to pray: “Dearest Father and Almighty Creator, we ask for your grace tonight, despite our pride, your forgiveness, despite our doubt. Most of all, Lord, we ask for your love to soothe us through these dark times. May we face whatever is to come in your divine will with courage and open hearts of acceptance.”

Yule provides comfort with his prayer. He does not weaponize his prayer as a means to elevate himself, secure votes, or shore up material possessions like the other characters in the film. Not once does Yule force his beliefs on anyone who does not express a desire to receive it — that’s the sort of manipulation that ushered in the end of the world.

And that’s the power and pull of Yule’s prayer — the call to be grateful for being alive amid uncertainty and darkness, and to possess the will to try. As the world ends, a Christian who grew up evangelical joins hands with the scientists. Here’s to praying that in real life, that unity arrives before it’s too late.

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