Arguably when it comes to mass extinction there is little place for subtlety. Why beat about the bush when it will soon be on fire due to global warming, diseased due to soil pollution, or blown apart by an incoming celestial cataclysm? Don’t Look Up is having no truck with subtlety, as writer/director Adam McKay applies the consequences of blind partisanship when it faces unquestionable doom plummeting towards planet Earth.
A large and talented cast has been assembled to run out the clock of our inevitable demise, led by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence as astronomical scientists who stumble upon the discovery that not only is there a gigantic comet heading towards Earth, but it is absolutely certain to hit in six months and detonate into a global extinction event.
What follows is an upward struggle to get the powers that be to take the threat seriously without ignoring it or distorting it for political gain, whilst constrained by an indifferent media treating the story as a light touch afterthought, and ultimately coping with a deeply divided populous.
To say reactions to Don’t Look Up have been mixed would be an understatement. The movie has been both lauded as a chillingly realistic portent of doom, and reviled as a smug, condescending narrative that hasn’t an original thought beyond looking out the window.
This particular writer? He is stood atop a plank, balanced upon a ball, holding each competing position in either hand, wearing a red hat upon which the words “Why Not Both?” are proclaimed in large, friendly letters.
There is no denying that the movie is packed and elevated by a skilled cast doing sterling work. Dr Mindy’s (DiCaprio) nerves at the enormity of the task before him is a journey of assuming self-evident facts will speak for themselves, only to be horrified when they don’t.
Similarly, Dibiasky’s (Lawrence) increasingly bull-headed attitude makes perfect sense, especially in a world where her appearance and gender lands far more criticism at her thick booted feet than her male colleague.
Other appearances are a mixed bag. Meryl Streep’s presidential presence is a thinly veiled composite of the leading clickbait figures of the U.S. right wing. Streep, along with the nepotistic appointment of her son (Jonah Hill) as Chief of Staff is Saturday Night Live 101; the humour so obvious that it lacks the actual laughs needed to carry it off.
Yet hang around for a bit and there’s a wonderfully weak voiced Mark Rylance (tech billionaire CEO of Bash) whose algorithms and money give him far more say than a private citizen should have. Also, Cate Blanchett as a slick TV host? Well, thank you very much.
The tightly wrangled editing desk of Hank Corwin (who also worked with McKay on the excellent Vice) heavily inserts throughout the movie a multitude of global snippets, from wildlife to humanity in all its forms.
Many a scene is interspersed with reaction shots from all sorts of people, or indeed a planet teeming with animal life blissfully unaware of how badly their apex predator neighbours are dealing with the threat from above. It’s a stylistic choice that is hard to love, further driving home the quickfire stereotypes that the movie relies on.
The clear comparison to Don’t Look Up is Mike Judge’s oft-cited Idiocracy, with both lamenting a population too stupid to save itself. McKay’s problem is that, whereas Judge could exaggerate to a comical level to make underlying points, Don’t Look Up can’t even manage to be a satire when the reality of its subject has been on our TVs for the past 5 years.
The comedy comes across as heavy-handed and superior because its targets are so easy, and despite blasting the edit with a scattergun loaded with mini-shots of human mentality, McKay musters no interest in how your average joe behaves in a world designed to entrench and separate all viewpoints.
Don’t Look Up’s script is too broad to achieve the blackly comic chops of Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin, which showed the callous exercise of power by ordinary men.
Is Don't Look Up Worth Watching?
Despite a strong opening and satisfyingly wrapped up ending, Don’t Look Up meanders through an off the shelf collection of modern talking points (vapid and manipulative media, a power system that relies on discrediting experts, a ‘them and us’ political landscape) simply to lament the self-interested dog-whistling from those who treat us like blips on a poll to be won.
Ironically, the movie does the same thing.
Douglas Adams, the late great master of writing worlds filled with hopeless indifference, once said, “We like to be on one side, and look at the other,” although he added in the same book, “You live and learn. At any rate, you live.”
Don’t Look Up packs a star cast into scenes that could be happening out there right now in any seat of power, where the likes of us will never see until our wallets are drained, and our skies blotted out.
Words by Mike Record