Director: Adam McKay
Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Leonardo DiCaprio, Ariana Grande
Having made a few well-loved and very silly comedy movies, Adam McKay threw what seemed like a curveball in 2015 with his serious-ish financial crash exposé The Big Short. Six years and one disastrous biopic later, McKay shows no sign of reverting to type. Rather he has reconfigured as a self-made prophet on the mount, keen to shine a light on corruption and ineptitude at levels that often seem untouched by consequence.
For Don’t Look Up he makes a slight shift in approach, fantasising a world-ending cataclysm as a thinly-veiled McGuffin to takedown our stagnant approach to climate change. With a casting call that reads like an Oscar nominee guestlist, McKay’s celebrity love-in aims to satirise our warped priorities, and our instincts to bury our heads in the sand from all but the most digestible soundbites.
Making a most welcome return, Jennifer Lawrence plays PHD-candidate and astronomer Kate Dibiasky, who discovers a comet 9km wide hurtling toward Earth. Running the numbers, she concludes we have only 6 months until impact. When she and professor Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) take the news to the White House, they are staggered by the flippant response from showbiz President Orlean (Meryl Streep) and her dude-bro Chief of Staff (and son) Jason Orlean (Jonah Hill).
Flummoxed by the political apathy that also includes a gag order, Didiasky and Mindy turn to their fellow scientists to build humanity’s response, but the process gets mired in ‘media training’ and PR debacles. Here Cate Blanchett vamps deliciously as Daily Rip broadcaster Brie Evantee and Ariana Grande even gets to send-up her own image as a pop starlet who steals our heroes’ limelight in the news cycle.
Once the threat is finally reassessed and taken ‘seriously’, it’s more in service of better polling and optics than the sure and certain safety of the planet. Then, once a response strategy is finally organised, it is jeopardised by the possibility of… monetising the comet?? Priorities, huh? Here a bewigged Mark Rylance seriously embarrasses himself as Steve Jobs-caricature Peter Isherwell, who takes centre stage with a new plan to mine this galactic “treasure from heaven”. Points to anyone with a surefire grasp on what Rylance is actually striving for here. At least Jared Leto will have some company at the Razzies.
As the scientists get swept up in their own media storm (or lack thereof), Don’t Look Up sets its eyes on a more ephemeral target; meme and tabloid culture. The disparities between politicians and TV pundits grows increasingly thin, as McKay reflects scabrously on the circus that we all witnessed surrounding Donald Trump’s disastrous presidency. He argues that the bar has been irrevocably lowered, and that we may never take global travesties seriously again. When Dr. Mindy publicly explodes over America’s ‘post-truth’ tendencies, McKay’s voice comes screaming through. Kudos to DiCaprio for lending this sequence just the right gravitas it requires.
While the sensibilities of cable TV are the primary target, it increasingly feels like the blame is being laid at the feet of Gen Z’s buy-in to the clickbait culture they’re being fed by their seniors. This seems like a slightly odd stance to take considering the present generation are the set most keenly engaged in combating climate change right now. Dibiasky’s hysterical trauma at the inaction around her at least acknowledges this. But the broader feeling is more contemptible. Don’t Look Up rekindles the bad-vibes-only energy of McKay’s previous film Vice.
McKay flanks his sequences with jazzy ’60s brass, fetters his piece with further cameos (both on and off the credit crawl), packages Don’t Look Up as a classy celebrity update on Kubrick’s war comedy Dr. Strangelove. To a degree, this presentation sells. But the more McKay tilts toward the culture he supposedly blames for all society’s ills, the more disingenuous his film becomes. There’s more than a whiff of hypocrisy in how he condemns the world for certain ills, but panders toward the same attention-deficit tactics. While not quite as calamitous, his movie is closer to Steven Soderbergh’s recent firebomb The Laundromat.
Don’t Look Up hits an unexpected grace note when the threat in question finally becomes visible in the night sky, vindicating Dibiasky and Mindy’s claims amid so much hot-take noise. For a fleeting moment the film touches on the strange beauty in cataclysmic nature. That even the things that will destroy us have some ineffable majesty. But the chaos of soundbites soon reasserts itself. In McKay’s world, any beauty gets lost in the chatter. Lost in the greed. Lost in the stupidity.