Director Adam McKay, following The Big Short and Vice, has made Don’t Look Up, a film clearly meant as a Big Important Movie That Aims High And Says Something. Having collected the year’s most star-studded cast, one with a couple of dozen Oscar nominations among them, McKay is clearly gunning not only for awards glory\ but for a great big political statement.
He’s delivered one, all right. It’s just one that’s shudderingly obvious, and not particularly likely to convince anyone not already convinced.
Don’t Look Up is a satire of many things. It’s a pretty straightforward allegory about climate change and the reaction to it, although it also works as an (accidental) metaphor for the COVID pandemic, and a general critique of Trump-era politics. It also wants to satirize social media, memes, reality TV, and other pastimes of modern life which are looked down on by the filmmakers.
McKay wrote and directed, with a story-by-credit from David Sirota, the political journalist, and former Bernie Sanders staffer; the movie lands in theaters on December 10 and on Netflix on December 24.
Don’t Look Up stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence as a pair of scientists who discover that a comet is headed straight for Earth, leading to the likely annihilation of the entire human race in about six months.
They attempt to warn the government (in the person of Meryl Streep as a female president/Trump stand-in), but they’re more concerned with short-term political considerations and ignore their help. The media is represented by both a bumbling New York Times-like newspaper and by a numbskull morning show hosted by Tyler Perry and Cate Blanchett. These outlets are presented as much less concerned with the comet threat than they are with the latest bit of celebrity gossip (featuring Ariana Grande, poking some fun at herself as a shallow pop star.)
Eventually, solutions promised and vetted by experts in the government are rejected in favor of a privatized mission led by a tech CEO (Mark Rylance, playing a combination of Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk.)
I would suspect that I agree with the overarching political views of most of the people involved in Don’t Look Up, and I have no disagreement with them on the urgency of the climate crisis. The problem with the film is, the central allegory is both crushingly unsubtle, and, well, wrong.
Part of why the response to climate change isn’t what it should be is that the disaster is seen as both slow-moving, and far off in the distance. A comet on course to strike the Earth in six months would draw a completely different response than what we see in the movie, no matter how stupid the current presidential administration happens to be. As for the movie’s shots at the media, such an event in real life would likely result in media inducing panic, rather than reacting with indifference. And the part with the Times-like newspaper, for instance, seems about 180 degrees from what the paper, which has devoted massive resources to reporting on climate change, would actually do in that situation.
But the problem is even more in the argumentation. Every point this movie is making is in all caps, underlined, and given four or five exclamation points. On a couple of occasions, a character will even scream out the movie’s thesis statements out loud.
And that starts with the film’s smug insistence that everybody MUST stop paying attention to stupid bullshit and address climate change, right now. “If you care about other things besides climate change, like say celebrity gossip or TikTok,” the movie seems to be saying, “you’re a moron and the impending end of the world is YOUR fault.”
It’s the “we’re all just buried in our phones” speech from I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson, stretched out to two hours and 20 minutes. (ITYSL fans will also appreciate a scene, played completely straight, in which an older man explains an old jazz song to a younger woman.)
DiCaprio and Lawrence are both fine, although this film won’t go on the career highlight reel for either of them. The film spends its first hour or so pretending that Leonardo DiCaprio is a nebbishy nerd, before dropping that presence altogether. Cate Blanchett, though, is a highlight; between this and Nightmare Alley, she’s having a great deal of success this season with sexpot roles.
However, nothing involving Meryl Streep as the president works. She’s supposed to be a female Trump —it’s not so much of an impression, but rather an experiment exploring what it would look like if a half-dozen of Donald Trump’s most notable pathologies were instead a woman’s. This is a good idea on paper, but in the actual movie, it more looks like she’s playing something like a sketch character. Also, her last name is Orlean, while Streep played Susan Orlean in Adaptation, which I guess is supposed to be a clever in-joke.
Jonah Hill plays the president’s son and chief adviser, who’s like a composite of all of Don Jr., Eric, Ivanka, and Jared Kushner- he’s got the rank idiocy, and the implied cocaine use and the creepy, oft-stated incestuous crush on his mom. None of it, despite Hill’s talents, is the slightest bit funny.
Sure, I’ll give the film credit for a few things. While I did like The Big Short and Vice, Don’t Look Up mostly stays away from the least successful aspects of those McKay films, the cutesy storytelling flourishes. It lands a few successful satirical punches, especially involving the disastrous privatization of essential government functions. McKay has almost certainly read Michael Lewis’ book “The Fifth Risk” — The Big Short was based on a previous Lewis book — and he knows how important it is that behind-the-scenes government functions be performed by experts, and not idiots and political hacks.
Rylance’s character is an Elon Musk-like tech entrepreneur who plans to take over space travel and who, like Musk, doesn’t seem all that worried when one of his rockets explodes. Rylance gives it his all, speaking in a weird cadence and sporting white hair that makes him look uncannily like 1990s wrestling executive Eric Bischoff.
I’ll also give Don’t Look Up credit in that it gets away from the usual modern political movie template of simultaneously depicting conservatives as hateful racists and liberals as overly smug and calling that fair. This time, it’s implied that the Republicans are in charge, but the Democrats, in this film’s universe, don’t even exist. There’s also a touch of Sorkinism here, including the fetishization of the idea of a man going on television and giving a loud, righteous speech.
There are also some shots taken at ineffectual left-of-center celebrity activism, which would be a lot more effective if this entire movie wasn’t exactly that.
An asteroid about to hit the Earth was the subject of two movies released within months of each other in 1998, Deep Impact and Armageddon; for all their flaws, Deep Impact at least featured a president character (Morgan Freeman) who took the threat seriously and mobilized an effective response.
Other movies, like Seeking a Friend For the End of the World and Melancholia, have also addressed what the end of the world might look like from a human standpoint. That ending, featuring a family at a dinner table, is probably the film’s most successful sequence.
But overall, the minuses outweigh the pluses in Don’t Look Up. I have every confidence that Bad Blood, the long-in-the-works adaptation of John Carreyrou’s great book about Theranos, with McKay directing and Lawrence starring, will be better; it was finally announced as moving forward two days after the Don’t Look Up premiere.
Watch Don’t Look Up