Don’t Look Up has been dominating the film discourse since its release on Nextflic. For many, it was an obvious choice to stream over Christmas, due to the pedigree of its cast and the film’s director, Adam McKay. Over the years, McKay’s shifted from nutty Will Ferrell driven comedies (Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Step Brothers) to more pointed socio-political commentaries (The Big Short, Vice). Those recent efforts have earned plenty of critical acclaim, as both received Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations. With his recent track record, expectations for Don’t Look Now have been ironically sky high since the teaser trailer was released almost a year ago. Unfortunately, this movie doesn’t live up to the hype, although there are enough redeeming factors to make it worth watching.
This comedy satire follows astronomy PhD candidate Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) and her professor at Michigan State University, Dr Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio). Kate discovers a large comet on a collision course with the Earth that’s guarantee to mean the end of all life once it makes impact. After receiving confirmation from Dr Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan) at NASA, the three scientists make their way to Washington, D.C to debrief President Orlean (Meryl Streep), accompanied by her buffoonish son and Chief of Staff, Jason (Jonah Hill). Despite the certainty of the event, POTUS doesn’t want to cause mass panic and opts to instead wait out the situation. But with time so critical in order to have any chance of avoiding an apocalypse, the trio decide to reveal their discovery to the media, but due to a frustrated rant from Kate on live morning television, their words aren’t taken seriously or given any merit.
When all hope seems lost, President Orlean finally reaches back out to the trio to indicate she’s ready to take action, which happens to coincide with a scandal involving her sending a dirty photo to her Supreme Court nominee. Surely, her brave commitment to save the world will distract voters from the situation, and raise her approval ratings! Just as the nuclear devices are about to be launched to destroy the comet, another roadblock emerges in the form of top donor Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance), CEO of the largest tech company in the world, BASH. His team realise the comet could be mined for valuable resources that can be used in their products, so rather than destroy it, he proposes breaking it up into smaller chunks to harvest. From there, to no surprise, matters only get worse…
Some of what McKay does well shines through in Don’t Look Up. For one thing, the film can be very funny. McKay has a penchant for coming up with ridiculous names for the media he aims to satirise. Dr Mindy’s family needs to change the channel from Jackpot Fiance, so they can catch his appearance on The Daily Rip, a morning show hosted with feigned chirpiness by Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry. There’s a fake film advertised, titled Total Devastation, that has the ridiculous tagline ‘When the asteroid hit us, he hit back’, that, as the lead character explains, “stripped away the politics of the comet and was meant to be enjoyed by all.”
The montages of “MeTube” editorials, BASH posts, and other instances of social media outrage also capture the polarity between opposing views in an effective and familiar way. Fact is countered by fabricating rumours and slander to dismiss the true issues at hand, something anyone with Twitter or Facebook understands. One vlogger goes as far to expose Dr Mindy’s supposed first career as an adult film star. The trends that follow capture the unhinged creativity of those who live for engagement and interaction on social platforms. Kate quickly becomes a meme after her meltdown on TV, and so does Dr Mindy, who becomes the poster boy for the A.I.L.F movement. And when citizens embrace the ‘launch challenge’ which involves shooting a firework directly in their own face, the results are devastating.
There are some great performances as well. Jonah Hill is incredibly comfortable conveying the tone-deafness of a character who’s essentially serves as a stand-in for one of Trump’s incapable and blinded-by-privilege sons. Jason continuously treats Kate like a human punching bag, throwing insult after insult her way, and has a deep love for ‘stuff’. As doomsday approaches, Jason’s sure to pray for the things that matter most like condos, cars, watches, and “other cool shit.” DiCaprio is also fun to watch, mainly because of how he takes on a character with absolutely no bravado, a significant juxtaposition compared to the types of characters he usually plays. Dr Mindy’s panic attacks and mounting anxiety feels truly authentic, which is a testament to DiCaprio’s ability to know who and what the character needs.
However, there are issues with Don’t Look Up. One of the biggest being its lack of subtlety. Satire relies on writers and directors to convey to their audience what they’re lampooning, so as to understand what they’re specifically critiquing about that topic. Typically, plot, character behaviour and verbiage provide enough context clues for moviegoers to connect the dots, but here McKay doesn’t take any chances and opts to spoon-feed his message. Most can decipher from the trailer that the film’s about climate change and the institutions complicit in downplaying the gravity of the issue. The comet-heading-for-us doomsday scenario is one obvious metaphor, but in case that didn’t land, McKay throws in imagery of forest fires, rotting street trash, and polar bears struggling to stay afloat as the ice surrounding them melts away.
But when it comes to taking down the complicit institutions, McKay appears to be checking off some type of pre-established list. Early on, the director is quick to highlight the wardrobe, mannerisms, and nepotism demonstrated by President Orlean, conveying she’s a stand-in for Trump. But it doesn’t stop there. BASH and a cartoonish performance from Mark Rylance as the company’s CEO present OTT interpretation of Facebook and what seems to be a blend of Mark Zuckerberg and Tim Cook. The previously mentioned MeTube, The New York Herald instead of The New York Times, and The Patriot Network (an analogue for Fox News) are all presented in such a straightforward manner, it makes the film’s satire feel cheap. The approach lacks originality because the exaggerated versions of these entities are not far removed from how they are perceived in reality. And while that may be an indictment of the entities themselves, it makes for a less compelling film as a whole.
In a way, the film feels like much of the satire that came from the Trump era. Whether it was Saturday Night Live sketches, or the recent Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm (2020) sequel, a lot of that comedy fell flat because of the blatant messaging that was prioritised over the jokes themselves. Sure, there have been some funny moments on SNL, and Borat had its moments too, but so much of that was muddied by the delivery of those piece’s directives. The same is true for Don’t Look Up. McKay’s been a vocal advocate for climate change initiatives for years now, and that’s a good thing! Climate change is a real issue that needs as much support as it can get. However, in wanting to spread that message to as many people as possible, the message was put first, putting this film at a disadvantage. Maybe the film works more as a PSA, but who wants to sit through a two and a half hour lecture when they’re expecting to be entertained?
During a solo segment on The Daily Rip, Dr Mindy has a meltdown of his own, which features DiCaprio at his most vocal. But as he continues to rant about humanity’s impending doom, the moment loses its luster. DiCaprio, also a known supporter of climate change initiatives, is no longer acting. Rather, he’s just preaching to a group of individuals in a theater, who likely already agree with everything he’s saying. So what does it add to the film? Not a lot, really.
As a whole, the film is fine, but it would have benefitted from a more subdued approach. There are funny moments here that feel like vintage McKay, but with such an impressive cast the film deserved to be more than just mediocre. If only it didn’t take itself so seriously, perhaps there could have been more room for humour. And given the film’s title, Don’t Look Up is quite the statement, considering the audience is being talked down for most of the experience.
USA | 2021 | 145 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
director: Adam McKay.
writers: Adam McKay (story by Adam McKay & David Sirota).
starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Rob Morgan, Jonah Hill, Mark Rylance, Tyler Perry, Timothée Chalamet, Ron Perlman, Ariana Grande, Scott Mescudi, Himesh Patel, Melanie Lynskey, Cate Blanchett & Meryl Streep.