Two low-level astronomers must go on a giant media tour to warn mankind of an approaching comet that will destroy planet Earth.
Adam McKay has possibly became the most prominent modern satirist in American cinema, after success with ‘The Big Short’ and ‘Vice’, and he’s back again with his latest effort ‘Don’t Look Up’, a slight departure from broadly fact based studies of real life events or individuals. The target of ‘Don’t Look Up’ remains the same as the two aforementioned movies in that it takes aim at governments and institutions, but this movie widens that attack line to include the media and the general apathy and ignorance of the wider population. It’s a less successful, messier and more heavy handed effort than those two films, but I still found it to be an entertaining watch aided by strong performances from a stellar cast.
The story focuses on two astronomers (Leonardo DiCaprio & Jennifer Lawrence) who discover an approaching comet on a direct collision course with the earth. The movie follows their attempts to warn humanity about the impending danger, and their increasing frustration (leading to a couple of ‘Network’ esque rants on primetime TV) at the inaction of those who can make a difference. It’s an angry film that draws not so subtle parallels with attitudes towards things such as climate change and certain parts of the Covid pandemic response, and in those parallels there is humour, although I don’t think the clarity of message is all that strong. There are undoubted elements of the public and political response that feel worrying likely, yet there is a sense that McKay is straining a bit too much and goes a little too broad to hit the points home he is trying to make.
McKay turns his ire towards those unwilling to listen to scientists (the ‘Don’t Look Up’ hats and Meryl Streep’s president are barely disguised MAGA/Trump ciphers), yet complicates his own arguments by having his central characters put forward a case for questioning and not taking things at face value. This becomes particularly muddled when Mark Rylance’s billionaire businessman comes on to the scene and I felt whatever message McKay was going for here started to get increasingly lost, not helped by a weird and frankly not good performance by the usually reliable Rylance. ‘Don’t Look Up’ was a stronger film before Rylance’s involvement forces a left turn and it becomes increasingly far fetched and ridiculous from this point onwards.
It perhaps doesn’t help that this is an incredibly smug film, which should come as no surprise to anyone who has watched McKay’s previous films. I think it worked a lot better in ‘The Big Short’ and to a lesser extent ‘Vice’, whereas I can see why people would think it strays into obnoxiousness here. Nuance is not always necessary and I sometimes like a film that isn’t afraid to boldly state its points and politics (Ken Loach a fine example in this regard), but the second half of ‘Don’t Look Up’ could definitely have benefited from dialing it down a little.
I mentioned at the outset that I still found ‘Don’t Look Up’ really entertaining and I did – I thought the cast (Rylance aside) was pretty good, with Meryl Streep on fine form in particular, and I felt the premise was strong enough to overlook the ‘sledgehammer to crack a nut’ approach to driving the film’s key points home. ‘Don’t Look Up’ is a messy, tonally inconsistent science fiction satire about the world ending, and how humanity might react to that situation, and whilst a lot of its barbs don’t land as well as McKay might have hoped, it remains a funny and entertaining piece of filmmaking to end the year on.
Directed By: Adam McKay
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Jonah Hill, Meryl Streep, Rob Morgan, Cate Blanchett, Mark Rylance, Tyler Perry, Ron Perlman, Timothee Chalamet, Scott Mescudi, Ariana Grande, Himesh Patel, Melanie Lynskey, Michael Chiklis and Chris Evans