“You guys, the truth is way more depressing. They are not even smart enough to be as evil as you’re giving them credit for.”
Adam McKay has a glowing resume of comedy movies, both realistic to fantastic; from Anchorman to The Big Short, and The Other Guys to Vice; his ability to satirise real-life events and place an overt comedic slant on them has been long celebrated. With Don’t Look Up, that talent is pushed to its limits, with a metaphor so broad that it hammers its point home with considerable gusto. How does it play out?
Graduate student Kate DiBiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) and her teacher, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) stumble upon an astonishing discovery; a comet, approximately 10km wide, is on a direct course to Earth and will impact in around 6 months with the potential to wipe out all life on the planet. When they contact NASA to share their findings, the head of the Planetary Defense Coordination Office, Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan) brings the pair to the White House to brief President Orlean (Meryl Streep), who decides to wait and assess. When the three then leak the news to the press themselves chaos ensues; as the scramble for an appropriate response leads to the existence of the comet becoming a politicised battleground.
Don’t Look Up is not a subtle piece of cinema. McKay, who wrote and directed here, has a very clear point to make, and he does not waste time making it. This film as a metaphor for the world’s response to the rapidly-growing threat of climate change, and the way that the private interests of those involved in resource management have generated a sociopolitical environment around the topic that is so toxic, it’s seemingly impossible to get anything done that will actually move us towards saving the planet for future generations. The crux of that comparison is what makes Don’t Look Up so compelling; but real-world events have supplied an even deeper context to this film than what was originally intended; as two years into a world-altering pandemic, it’s not hard to see similarities to our current situation around Covid-19 in this piece as well. It’s an interesting scenario where knowing the basic direction of the overall story in advance of seeing the film is actually beneficial to the viewer, as you can spend time appreciating the smaller details instead. The trailer gives away one of the key plot points for the main narrative; that a billionaire tech mogul identifies that the comet is mostly comprised of mineable resources, which would stand to make the person who can access them obscenely rich – at the potential cost of the destruction of all life on earth. With the main narrative playing itself out in a pretty predictable fashion, it’s the smaller, more character-based plot threads that become the hook to reel the audience in, with every player having subplots that play out beneath the line of the main narrative to keep things ticking over. That is where the real joy in this film lies; the small moments that confirm President Orlean and her chief-of-staff, who is also her son, Jason (Jonah Hill) are completely morally bankrupt and are criminally naive beyond belief, in what is a direct and incredibly unsubtle parody of the U.S’s 45th President and his cavalcade of dullard children, or the romantic drama that springs up around Dr. Mindy when the press takes to him as the World’s Sexiest Scientist and the damage that his ego allows him to do to his own case – these are the threads that McKay expertly has woven in to keep the film interesting and engaging beyond the mind-blowingly reckless actions of the controlling powers at the centre of the effort to exploit the comet for financial gain. This film has something to say and it says it very clearly, but it is also deeply funny, and I found myself laughing out loud numerous times, including at some moments I would not have expected.
The performances perfectly compliment the script, and are anchored around Lawrence and DiCaprio. They are the grounding for the tale, and while they do have their moments of absurdity within the narrative, the overall buffoonery on display tends to be dialled back when they appear, especially with Lawrence. Despite the comet being named after her, DiBiasky ends up on the negative side of the press attention after a furious outburst on a fluffy morning magazine program as she tries to get the room to take the danger at hand seriously; and her narrative thread involves her slowly becoming more and more of an outcast as the political response to the comet continues to reduce her concerns to present as hysteria. Lawrence does great work, balancing DiBiasky’s fury with the comedic chops that McKay asks of his actors, making that rage incredibly funny at various points in the film, without reducing the impact of her emotional response. DiCaprio similarly puts in a great performance, though with a different emotional thread; the journey of the nervous astrologer as he becomes elevated higher and higher by both the trend-chasing media and the incompetent White House and the distraction that causes him being a great outlet for DiCaprio to develop the anxious, flustered and incredibly private man into a pressure cooker of contrived confidence, manipulated by those in power around him.
Streep is perfect as President Orlean, channelling an incredible level of smugness alongside a clear demonstration of stupidity, which is enhanced by Hill’s portrayal of Jason as an over-groomed, arrogant dick (for want of a better term, but there really isn’t one). Some of his finest moments are in his playground-bully style torture of DiBiasky; his annoyance that the scientists went behind their backs to leak the news to the media driving a lot of his choices, and Orleans’ measuring of every potential step being directly connected to her desire to do well in elections and cover other suspect decisions as the narrative progresses. Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry put in great showings as the Brie Evantee and Jack Bremmer, hosts of the aforementioned magazine show The Daily Rip; with their own awkward on-screen chemistry signalling at a subplot which never really gets fleshed out, with Evantee’s interactions with Dr. Mindy taking the fore and making great use of Blanchett’s ability to portray seduction and manipulation. Also of note is Mark Rylance as Peter Isherwell, owner of the BASH network, who operates as a stand-in for all of our favourite billionaires; somehow managing to accurately parody the likes of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg at the same time, without specifically referencing any of them together; but by taking elements of them all and bringing them together to create a truly dislikable character who everyone somehow seems to love, despite the fact his products are designed to infringe on his customer base’s privacy at seemingly every turn. Timothée Chalamet also puts in a good showing as the pseudo-anarchic Yule, whose increased presence from the second act to the end adds a nice counterpoint to the capitalistic desires demonstrated by the majority of the cast, while also demonstrating the other kind of unhelpful attitude when staring down an existential crisis such as the destruction of all life on Earth.
Nicholas Britell is on hand for the soundtrack, assisted for one key track by Ariana Grande and Kid Cudi, who also appear in the film as parodies of all modern celebrity relationships. That track, titled Just Look Up, operates within itself as a parody of the likes of Band Aid; an interesting direction to go in, but one that makes sense given the context of the narrative. The rest of Britell’s soundtrack is wonderful, with sweeping brass scores, overactive flutes and frenetic drum beats accompanying the more chaotic sequences of the film in an almost big-band jazz style; but giving way to more considered string moments for the quieter, more reflective moments. This is the third soundtrack Britell has provided for McKay’s films, the others being The Big Short and Vice, and he definitely understands how to craft a score that compliments the action that McKay has put together without overwhelming the scene, songs that can fade down into the background as required without losing their punch.
Don’t Look Up is a metaphor that has been inscribed on to the head of the largest hammer McKay could find, then flung at the wall from a catapult; but its effectiveness comes from how unashamedly bold it is in that regard. A clever, funny and deeply passionate script and narrative are brought to life by compelling performances, and demonstrate a world that we can all understand, as it reflects the one we currently live in. It’s fair to say that your personal political ideology will go some way into determining how much enjoyment you get out of this film; but if you’re anything like me, it’ll do something for you. This one is worth a watch, as long as you’re prepared for the fact that subtlety is not welcome here.