Don't Look Up December 30, 2021
2 Hrs., 18 Mins.
n Adam McKay’s new satire Don’t Look Up, the good news arrives nearly as quickly as the bad. A previously unseen comet has been spotted! But: this 9-kilometer-wide space hunk is headed straight for Earth. When it finally collides with the planet six months and 14 days from now, it will be received about as well as “a billion Hiroshima bombs,” one character puts it simply.
The Ph.D. candidate who discovered the rock, Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), immediately goes on an informal “tour” with the Michigan State University professor (Leonardo DiCaprio) who initially uncovered the comet’s trajectory to get the word out. But powerful ears have a bad habit of folding the moment the truth reaches peak despair. Girlbossy president Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep), a full day late to her briefing (“I heard there’s an asteroid or a comet or something that you don’t like the looks of,” she says indifferently when she finally appears), thinks it would be best for now to simply “sit tight and assess.” She’s focused for now on a sex scandal currently inextricable from her name — the midterms are coming up and an image-primp takes precedence. News media tends to trivialize the report. And the public is less concerned with the world not-potentially-but-certainly ending and more with recent celebrity breakups and making memes out of Dibiasky’s at-wits’-end appearance on the chronically bantering news program The Daily Rip. (At most, hashtag activism abounds.) Don’t Look Up is basically a compilation of outrageous situations climaxing with either the Lawrence or DiCaprio character bemoaning with comic chagrin that nobody is listening!.
Most quote-unquote disaster movies deal with the disaster suggested by the title in real time for a great stretch of the film for maximum excitement. It’s like we’re supposed to get a masochistic thrill finding out how people will be killed in such an abnormal, grand-scale way. (See 1972’s The Poseidon Adventure,
1974’s The Towering Inferno, 1997’s Volcano.) But in the two-and-a-half-hour-long Don’t Look Up, there are by design no real thrills to distract from the severity of the impending catastrophe. The real disaster, after all, is the half-year leading up to the Earth’s inexorable doom, mishandled by self-interested politicians and billionaires and shrugged about by a public so unwilling to acknowledge the truth that, late in the movie, Orlean’s large adult son-slash-chief of staff Jason (Jonah Hill) starts a “don’t look up” campaign that proves a success. He christens the comet a hoax engineered by unexplicitly named Democrats to elicit fear; it’s gobbled up until it can’t be anymore.
Comedically going for something like Dr. Strangelove (1964) by way of Network (1976), most of what goes on in Don’t Look Up looks to satirize the depressing cultural absurdities endemic to the Trump era. The film is typically at its most amusing when specifically lampooning the former president's theatrics and self-interested salaciousness via a game Streep. (Though McKay seems to fallaciously believe we wouldn’t be *here* if a Trump-like figure weren’t in office — lol.) There’s also a decent subplot involving potentially mining the comet for resources under the guise of job creation. Prioritization of financial opportunity above the preservation of human life is of course a given in a capitalist society, though the particular way it’s discussed here feels so COVID-era-specific it’s surprising its dialogue was conceived pre-pandemic.
Exclusively hitting easy targets, Don’t Look Up never surpasses baseline amusement, though. Bracing critique is foregone for endlessly stating the obvious with the help of a truckload of A-list actors doing mostly underwhelming work in funny wigs and makeup that apparently only eked a few 1s from the film’s $75 million budget. (I admittedly did have a lot of fun staring at the uncanny yassification of Cate Blanchett as the Daily Rip’s fake-blonde, spray-tanned, and veneered co-anchor, though.)
The comedy also comes with a stinky whiff of off-putting condescension. McKay’s myopic generalizations of the media and U.S. populace as stupid and frivolous and somehow equally to blame as political and corporate leaders who have far more resources to enact systemic change — when both the media and the populace certainly have more than plenty of people who are just as frustrated as he is — suggest a filmmaker that hasn’t wade out of his neoliberal Hollywood bubble in a while. He’s missing the measured and empathetic outlook needed to be an effective satirist. Satire is better the more laser-pointed it is, the more it commiserates with its audience cleverly and articulately. Instead, McKay thwacks his objects of disdain with meat hammers. You only ever feel like he’s talking down to you.
McKay’s limitations contaminate more than just the film’s comedy. It impedes the lead-up’s suspense (the chronic avoidance of nuance makes this all feel like a protracted skit), and the meant-to-be-emotional this-is-it-ness of the final few moments are unearned even if they’re superficially well-conceived. Don’t Look Up isn’t much more than a chorus of artistically talented rich people harmonizing about our doom as if it already wasn’t an eternal earworm we wish we could unlearn. At least there are a handful of laughs, and a dopey surprise Ariana Grande musical number, to be had. C