‘Don’t Look Up’ Is a Heavy-Handed Satire, but It Needs to Be | Movie+TV Reviews | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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‘Don’t Look Up’ Is a Heavy-Handed Satire, but It Needs to Be


SPIN THIS DiCaprio and Lawrence play scientists trying to get politicians to confront a terrible reality in McKay's satire. - COURTESY OF NETFLIX
  • Courtesy Of Netflix
  • SPIN THIS DiCaprio and Lawrence play scientists trying to get politicians to confront a terrible reality in McKay's satire.

Everybody's talking about Don't Look Up (2021, Netflix). Whether you love or hate it, you can't deny that the new satire from director-cowriter Adam McKay (The Big Short, Vice) takes on a major target: our species' preparedness — or lack thereof — to face the prospect of its own extinction.

McKay asks us to contemplate the premise that, faced with a clear and imminent existential threat, the humans of the 21st century would react ... with anguished social media posts, conspiracy theories and both-sides editorializing.

The deal

Astronomy grad student Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) is thrilled to discover a new comet — until she and her professor, Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), realize it's a "planet killer" on a six-month collision course with Earth.

The two academics make a frantic visit to the White House, where President Orlean (Meryl Streep) questions their science and suggests that the best plan is to "sit tight and assess." Not at all reassured, Mindy and Dibiasky alert the media, with mixed results.

Soon the scientists are celebrities themselves, with Mindy a media darling and Dibiasky mocked and memed for her insistence on telling it like it is ("We're all going to die!"). Meanwhile, that comet isn't changing course.

Will you like it?

Someone on my Twitter feed recently lamented that it's tough to love a movie everybody else hates. Respondents to the tweet instantly identified the film in question as Don't Look Up.

It's not that film critics doubt McKay's good intentions in making his disaster comedy an obvious allegory of the climate crisis. Rather, many of them object that his approach is too obvious.

That assessment is hard to quarrel with. Don't Look Up starts with a winky epigraph from "Deep Thoughts" humorist Jack Handey and continues with a pop-art credits sequence that evokes the brash, broad satires of the 1960s. Every politician and pundit in the film is a caricature. Subtlety is not the name of the game.

But here's my question for those who condemn the movie's heavy-handedness: Have you forgotten 2020, the entire year that felt like a painfully unsubtle "Saturday Night Live" sketch? While Don't Look Up was conceived in 2019, the film now does double duty as a satire of the nation's pandemic response. It features conspiracy theorists known as "impact deniers" who could just as easily be deniers of COVID-19 as of the climate crisis. The thematic thread — scientists go unheard — is the same.

So, yes, Don't Look Up is loud, crude and broad. And that may be the only possible tone for a movie about people who are so used to living in a loud, crude, broad virtual reality, governed by clicks and algorithms, that they find real reality tough to process.

Where McKay goes wrong is in stuffing the movie's cracks with generic comedy filler. A prime example is the set piece in which Mindy and Dibiasky, rebuffed by the president, break the comet news on a popular talk show. Playing the hosts, Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry are pitch-perfect in their desperate efforts to turn doomsday into light banter.

The satire is devastating because it feels like it could happen. But that's not enough: To drive the point home, McKay has to add a tired subplot about a pop star (Ariana Grande) whose breakup is bigger news than the comet.

There are razor-sharp scenes and portrayals here. As a meddling tech billionaire, Mark Rylance is so bizarre and elfin that he transcends caricature. Streep is clearly having the time of her life as an id-driven hybrid of Donald Trump and Marjorie Taylor Greene. And Jonah Hill is beautifully reptilian as her chief of staff, who's also her son. "You're breathing hard," he complains to the scientists, making the end of the world all about his own mental health. "It's so stressful."

By contrast, the "likable" characters don't always work, and sometimes they feel like a waste of screen time. Way too glam for a grad student, Lawrence's character never rings true, though DiCaprio is more convincing as a schlubby nerd thrust into the limelight.

Overall, Don't Look Up would have been a better film with a ruthless edit. If you can appreciate the absurdist humor of someone yelling into his phone camera, "I'm the last man on Earth! Don't forget to like and subscribe!" then this film is for you. If that seems like a bridge too far — well, there are plenty of serious movies about impending doom out there.

But McKay is doing more than preaching to the converted. He's reminding us of just what an enormous ask it is, especially in the digital era, to get anyone to heed an inconvenient truth.

If you like this, try...

The Big Short (2015; Kanopy, rentable): Best known as a comedy director, McKay embarked on his career as a political satirist with this dissection of the 2008 financial crisis.

I Am Greta (2020; Hulu): Here's a recent documentary about someone who's actually trying to do something about the climate crisis — young activist Greta Thunberg.

Deep Impact (1998; fuboTV, Philo, rentable): This movie and Armageddon (1998; Hulu, rentable) established the Hollywood version of what's supposed to happen when a comet menaces Earth. McKay has fun turning those clichés on their heads.