A comet is on its way to Earth and despite dire warnings from scientists, almost everyone isn’t taking it seriously. That’s the premise of Don’t Look Up, Adam McKay’s latest film that premieres today on Netflix. It balances the blunt social commentary of his most recent Oscar-nominated films (The Big Short and Vice), with the comedic absurdity of his early hits, such as Anchorman and Talladega Nights. The result is a bit uneven and a bit too long-winded, but it’s also a rallying cry against the anti-scientific, fact-phobic reality we live in today.
The comet is an obvious metaphor for climate change, an apocalyptic scenario we’re racing toward as governments chase after, the fossil fuel industry feigns ignorance, and most people live their lives oblivious to what’s to come. But Don’t Look Up also details humanity’s bumbling response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a global disaster that has resulted in more than five million deaths.
The title of the film is a mantra used by a conservative president (Meryl Streep) to make her red-hooded supporters look at the ground, not the glowing comet in the sky that they can easily see in the sky. It’s hard not to be reminded of the politicization of COVID-19, which has led people to deny its existence and demonize vaccines, all because of something they heard on Fox News or their family’s Facebook group.
After two astronomers (played by a surprisingly naive Leonardo DiCaprio and a feisty Jennifer Lawrence) rush to the White House with news of Earth’s impending destruction in six months, they’re forced to wait. Streep’s President Orlean is dealing with a potential scandal involving a Supreme Court nominee, which is more important, of course. By the time they announce Earth’s impending doom, Orlean would rather wait and do nothing. ‘What’s this going to cost me? What is the question?’ she says.
As the two scientists try to spread the word, first by leaking the doomsday scenario to the media and then by becoming their own media personalities, the film hits the bull’s eye for criticizing our modern society. The great Mark Rylance plays a tech executive for Jobs-meets-Zuckerberg, the kind of mogul whose idea of innovation is a phone that constantly watches you to resolve negative emotions. (Feeling down? Bash Life automatically books a nearby therapy session for you.) Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry emerge as cable news presenters who can only address their audiences with false, upbeat teasing — yes, even if that news is about humanity’s impending destruction.
Don’t Look Up sometimes feels like it’s precipitating, especially when it comes to the sheer stupidity of President Orlean’s conservative followers. But the film is not afraid to criticize anyone, even the protagonists of the scientist. Both characters struggle to properly convey the meaning of their discovery. And when DiCaprio’s astronomer finds his media feet, he’s fully part of the government’s propaganda machine.
By the time the U.S. government finally decides to do something about the comet—just because it benefits the president, of course—it’s dressed in patriotic showmanship, as if Michael Bay was directing George W. Bush’s deaf 2003 Mission Accomplished speech. I won’t tell you where the movie goes from there, but it’s clearly a spoofing of Bay’s Armageddon. One war hero and a big missile is all it takes to stop a planet destroying threat, right?
Don’t Look Up isn’t a complete success – the comedy is hit and miss, and it could seriously benefit from a shorter and more focused story. But the last act hits with a bang, sometimes re-enacting scenarios I’ve seen in far too many nightmares. If the world really ended in a few months, how would you react? What do we owe each other as a civilization? And what does it take to protect this planet from the profit-seeking vampires, who would gladly risk humanity for a few more resources? Adam McKay has no answers. But his anger is something we can all understand.
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