Approaching predators cast expanding shadows (i.e., looming) that elicit innate defensive responses in most animals. Where looming is first detected and how critical parameters of predatory approaches are extracted are unclear. In mice, we identify a retinal interneuron (the VG3 amacrine cell) that responds robustly to looming, but not to related forms of motion. Looming-sensitive calcium transients are restricted to a specific layer of the VG3 dendrite arbor, which provides glutamatergic input to two ganglion cells (W3 and OFFa). These projection neurons combine shared excitation with dissimilar inhibition to signal approach onset and speed, respectively. Removal of VG3 amacrine cells reduces the excitation of W3 and OFFa ganglion cells and diminishes defensive responses of mice to looming without affecting other visual behaviors. Thus, the dendrites of a retinal interneuron detect visual threats, divergent circuits downstream extract critical threat parameters, and these retinal computations initiate an innate survival behavior.