Adam McKay got the idea for Don’t Look Up long before the pandemic to address climate change. Yet the film has now also become an eerie portrait of how each major crisis divides our society. It’s an absurd, funny and sometimes exhilarating ride that ends in despair. With a lot of waning, but also a little bit of hope.
What does it say about the world if you have to make your satirical film even more absurd? When Don’t Look Up came to a standstill during the pandemic, director Adam McKay ( Step Brothers , The Big Short ) felt compelled to do so. Then he saw Donald Trump on TV suggesting to drink bleach against corona. But just parodying Trump would be too easy, so he borrowed from several former presidents. Yes, not just Bush and Reagan but also Clinton and Obama. The result is President Orlean (Meryl Streep), the “boss” in a parade of obstacles that scientists face. Only they are not doctors, virologists or biologists, but astronomers. Because yes, we are also killing the earth.
Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) is a PhD student who studies the expansion of the universe. Until she discovers a comet on course for Earth. A comet with a kilometre-wide diameter that will almost certainly help the earth. Together with her mentor, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), and NASA expert Dr. Terry Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan), they turn to the White House for help. When the president decides to wait a little longer, the trio takes a different tack.
They go to the written and then visual press. Unfortunately, that also does not go according to plan with two eccentric presenters. Kate loses her temper and quickly becomes a meme. Her credibility plummets as Dr. Mindy, “the sexiest scientist in the world,” grows in popularity and he begins to lose sight of the target. The experts are only heard when interests come in favor of politics. But that doesn’t save the world. They come up with an Armageddon-like solution, but you guessed it: that too is not without a fight. Especially not when tech giant Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance) gets involved.
Until you don’t smile anymore
Satire remains a difficult genre. There is always the risk of ridiculing an important topic without doing more with it. Good satire works when you laugh and laugh and then suddenly get to a point where it’s really not funny anymore. The formula didn’t work as well in Vice , because you couldn’t evoke too much sympathy for the subject. But unless you’re a climate or corona denier, you’ll be fine here.
The balance in the scenario is surprisingly good. The movie is really funny, but it works because the main characters are clearly in a drama. This is of course also thanks to the cast. Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio are the anchors of the story . The contrast of Kate and Randall’s understandably distraught reactions to the complete nonchalance of the White House and certain media underlines the absurdity well. It’s a joy to see DiCaprio again in a more comedic role. He is not the biggest supplier of one-liners, but his dry way of replying and facial expressions are spot on . dr. Randall Mindy is ultimately a multifaceted role that combines humor, gentleness and tragedy well.
Lawrence’s character is a bit more straightforward, a lot more sarcastic and cynical, but it’s the one you most identify with. And she has a running gag in the movie that doesn’t bore. DiCaprio and Lawrence don’t fall into the trap of going over the top with them either. They are both top actors, of course, but their passion for climate protection and good communication does show in their portrayal, especially in the monologues they both have at different points in the film. Especially DiCaprio’s puts you back with your feet on the ground.
The actors are assisted in their relative sobriety by Rob Morgan ( Greyhound , all Marvel Netflix series). His Dr. Oglethorpe is the ambitious yet disillusioned bureaucrat who hovers somewhere between Kate and Randall. Despite his limited role, his presence remains.
Just a little too much
Sometimes the pace is a bit skewed. With a duration of almost 2.5 hours, the film is a bit too long anyway, but certain scenes milk the satire a little too much. For example, there is an early, long talk scene in the White House or the small storyline of Ariana Grande, which only gains value when she sings. Moments like these tested my patience at times, so for those who aren’t too big fans of McKay’s style anyway, that’s something to keep in mind.
The supporting roles of Cate Blanchett as the Megyn Kelly-esque newscaster, Timothée Chalamet as the lovely dudebro, and the cameo of a certain former Marvel star are quirky enough to be fun. And of course Meryl Streep is good too. She chose the youthful wig herself to give her president the impression that she is desperately clinging to attention. Despite McKay’s various influences, her character tends to be a more extreme version of Trump, complete with an incompetent case of nepotism a la Jared Kushner played by Jonah Hill.
Polemics and issues
Don’t Look Up is an interesting film, because it comments on several hot topics in our society at the same time. How do you make something serious enough without causing panic? It’s something our leaders and scientists struggle with too. And how do you convince people who don’t want to listen? Then there is also the contradiction between the public interest and the political inclinations. Shouldn’t the first always take precedence over the second during a crisis? There is always a greater interest, be it political or commercial. Mark Rylance’s character is an indictment of capitalism and an obvious parody of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and the like, who could use their money to solve a lot of problems but choose to create technology that really benefits few people.
On the other hand, you risk to soften the seriousness too much at times, for fear of dividing society. This creates even more disbelief or apathy, as with the corona and climate deniers: the more opinions, the more disinformation. And then nothing is done until it is already too late. And then we haven’t even mentioned the misogyny that can accompany polemics, as happens to Lawrence’s character, as opposed to DiCaprio’s. Those aspects are so recognizable that a slightly depressed feeling starts to creep up on you throughout the film.
McKay also zooms in on our collective obsession with entertainment, social media, escapism and ‘going viral’. McKay uses less flashy shots at the beginning of the film than we are used to from his earlier films. He and cinematographer Linus Sandgren ( La La Land , First Man ) tend to focus on handheld and close-ups, switching between sharp and out-of-focus, because we’re completely in the scientists’ perspective. As soon as the rest of society comes into play, the quick edits return that sometimes cut scenes and there are ‘cutscenes’ where we see how a certain event is doing on social media. Those choices have no effect.
Fortunately, there is that interaction with the humor and the main characters, and the music of Nicolas Britell ( If Beale Street Could Talk , The Underground Railroad ) that also keeps the balance. It won’t be very easy to convince a wide audience to see a movie about climate change, unless I underestimate humanity. That’s why don’t look upnow perhaps the welcome movie equivalent of trying to give a dog pills. You put the necessary in something that looks nice and cool, but hopefully has the desired effect in the end.