‘Don’t Look Up’ Review: Apocalypse Comedy Can’t Compete With Reality
Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up, opening in limited theatrical release on Friday in advance of a December 24 Netflix launch, isn’t the first satire to find itself bested by present-tense horror. The film wears its intentions on its sleeve, offering a comic look at a world unconcerned with or unable to overcome institutional apathy for the climate apocalypse. The fictional scenario in this all-star comic farce, starring A-list folks like Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep and Cate Blanchett alongside a deluge of high-profile cameos (Ariana Grande, Tyler Perry, Timothée Chalamet, etc.), is a planet-killing comet headed to Earth in a matter of months. Alas, in the years between when the film was envisioned and its current release date, a pandemic swept over the world and rendered much of the otherwise biting satire comparatively toothless and second-rate.
Being trumped by reality isn’t always a deal breaker. Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds opened in July of 2005 with stark and horrifying images of fleeing Americans turned into desperate refugees in their own country, only for Hurricane Katrina to turn the fantastical into an even more horrific tragedy of American refugees, with the added kick of arguably willful cruelty, systemic indifference and a populace only willing to care so much in the face of devastation. Still, the Tom Cruise blockbuster at least offered up visual splendor, tripwire intensity and a political subtext that pretended to be a 9/11 metaphor yet instead was an Operation Iraqi Freedom parable which presented American military might as the extinction-level threat. Since it’s a black comedy rooted in the horror of its premise, Don’t Look Up doesn’t have much more to offer than its bite.
Honestly, pop culture has been wrestling over the last decade with its most iron-clad artistic tropes (villainous actors doing harm in fear of exposure, good triumphing over evil once the truth becomes known to the masses, etc.) becoming culturally irrelevant. Social media was already slashed the size and impact of the news cycle to the point where once-definitive revelations, tragedies or scandals were, at best the most important story on Facebook for 48 hours before we all collectively moved on to the next outrage. I first remember watching The Bourne Legacy (a movie that has its own self-inflicted wounds) and wondering why the diabolical government operatives were killing off their best and brightest in the name of cover-up. Surely revelations about Treadstone, Blackbriar, or whatever would cause a day of cable news and social media handwringing before the world moved on.
Anyway, Don’t Look Up, penned by McKay and journalist and political pundit David Sirota, begins with two low-level scientists (Dr. Randall Mindy played by DiCaprio and Dr. Kate Dibiasky played by Lawrence) discovering a comet heading on a direct collision course with Earth in less than a year. An initial meeting with the President (Meryl Streep doing a shockingly lazy “What if Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump really were the same?” characterization) falls on indifferent ears, a leak to the press sees our heroes try and make their case on a Good Morning America-like talk show. While DiCaprio is pegged as “hot for a scientist,” Lawrence’s impassionate declarations of doom get her declared conventionally hysterical. Nonetheless, the U.S. government does eventually see fit to act, and a Deep Impact/Armageddon-like plan to stop the comet eventually takes shape.
It wouldn’t be much of a movie if the plan goes off without a hitch in the first half of the film. Without going into details, last-minute interventions from corporate interests (personified by Mark Rylance as a Zuckerberg/Musk-ish tech tycoon) leaves the mission and thus the planet in peril. The ensuing fallout sees Dr. Dibiasky further ostracized while Dr. Mindy plays along exactly enough (up to a point) to get caught up in his newfound celebrity. Lawrence mostly plays to type, even if she gets the best running gag and the most telling yellow-highlighter line toward the end. DiCaprio relishes playing a comparatively normal guy, with an age-appropriate love interests, everyday medical maladies and a decidedly unglamorous arc. Chalamet is great in a third-act turn, while Blanchett gets layers, but most everyone else is confined to one-dimensional farce.
The plot machinations of Don’t Look Up betray a certain skewed optimism, one which argues that if only voters were better informed about their own self-interest that they would make the right choices. Either they don’t care, or white supremacy trumps any other theoretical self-interest, which isn’t exactly a hot take so much as a resigned affirmation. A photograph with Bill Clinton seems to position President Janie Orlean as a Democrat, so it rings true when she argues for ignoring the crisis until after the midterms (because her opponents will use it to their electoral advantage and then do nothing once they take Congressional power). The moments of upper-level incompetence and a population divided into believers in reality and the ‘Don’t believe your lying eyes!” brigade rings true, but there’s a lack of intentional cruelty and malice that made Trump’s response to Covid so horrific.
Don’t Look Up feels claustrophobic, especially in terms of A) America seems to be the only nation whose reaction matters and B) the entirety of the mass media seems to exist within the bubble of a single morning talk show. Beyond that, the production values include surprisingly “big” sci-fi moments, even if much of the $110 million budget went to the “no box office = no backend” cast. DiCaprio and Lawrence alone cost $55 million. As far as the film being a Netflix original, it doesn’t feel or play any different than it might have had it become a theatrical Paramount Picture (it’s much better than Vice but not as sharp as The Big Short), save for the too-leisurely 145-minute runtime. While I’d argue this film on this budget might have actually been a theatrical hit, its existence as a passive Netflix pick means it might actually reach beyond the politically converted.
As surface-level entertainment with an obvious (and correct) broader political point to be made, Don’t Look Up gets the job done. It has a fantastic cast and neither DiCaprio nor Lawrence phone it in while the heavy hitters come to play. However, there is something deeply unsatisfying about seeing such an icy satire which A) feels like watching a highlight reel of the last 18 months as “entertainment” and B) seems to underestimate the willful malice at play in a world where the bad guys seem to be winning in plain view of the populace. The picture is a natural next stop in McKay’s progression as an increasingly political subtext = text filmmaker, and if the film works as casual entertainment more than pinpoint of-the-moment satire, that’s partially because the real world is now a place every everyone gets mad as hell but those in power relish our pain.