Adam McKay's entertainingly broad-side-of-the-barn satire Don't Look Up may be exactly the film we deserve in the post-Trump Presidency wasteland of COVID infections, science denialism, QAnon conspiracies, and locked-horns political turmoil. The raging political and cultural battles shaped by masses of people willing to turn a blind eye to demonstrable facts in favor of self-righteous ideological fantasy may very well be the defining quagmire of the current era, and McKay and co-writer David Sirota are clearly swinging for the fences in trying to capture it and bottle it as both cinematic entertainment and socio-political finger-wagging. It works both ways, but not always very well.
The gist of the story is that a huge comet is hurtling toward Earth, and when it hits in six months, it will be a "planet killer," meaning that its impact will extinguish virtually all life on the planet. The comet is first discovered by Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), a punkish graduate student under the mentorship of straight-laced astronomer Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) at Michigan State University. At first, they are elated to have discovered a new celestial body, but when they do the calculations and arrive at the only possibly conclusion, dread sets in. They try to sound the alarm, first by contacting and allying with Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan), the head of NASA's Planetary Defense Coordination Office (which, humorously, no seems to know exists). They take their findings to President Orlean (Meryl Streep), but quickly learn that she and her team, headed by her nepotistic son and Chief of Staff Jason (Jonah Hill), are too busy with their own political headaches to care. Undeterred, Randall and Kate take to the airwaves, where they find themselves on a chatty morning show hosted by the perennially smiling Jack Bremmer (Tyler Perry) and Brie Evantee (Cate Blanchett), who can't be bothered to break their show's chipper tone even when Kate literally loses it on air warning everyone of their eminent demise (which, of course, is immediately absorbed by meme culture).
At this point, Don't Look Up feels like a COVID allegory, positing a more extreme version of the scenario in which we are faced with a grave situation but can't shrug ourselves out of our complacency to do anything about it (people are more interested in Ariana Grande's fictional pop star and her high publicized romantic woes than the impending demise of humanity). However, once President Orlean finds herself in a particularly nasty political situation involving her disastrous Supreme Court nominee, she suddenly becomes interested in finding a way to stop the comet, thus shifting the film into Wag the Dog territory. But, wait, there's more, because a tech guru-billionaire named Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance, doing an weirder and more ominous riff on Ready Player One's James Halliday) discovers that the comet is filled with valuable minerals, and he colludes with President Orlean to try to exploit it, rather than stop it. Stop me if you see more parallels
McKay, whose last two films were the energetic and sharp The Big Short (2015), which dramatized the insanity of the 2008 housing collapse, and Vice (2017), which charted Dick Cheney's opportunistic rise to political power, clearly has his hand on the socio-political pulse of the nation, and at times Don't Look Up plays as the sharp satire it is meant to be. The inanity is palpable, as if it had been transferred directly from the evening news, and some of the most absurd elements ring the truest. There are too many corollaries to the here and now to count, but sometimes McKay aims too close to the obvious, such as having the clearly Trumpish President Orlean hold a massive rally of her devoted followers who have all embraced the head-in-the-sand mantra "Don't look up!"
McKay spreads his ire around quite freely (it is not just symbolic Trumpists and their red-hatted acolytes who take all the punches). He finds plenty of blame in the media, big technology, social media, the political class, insipid pop culture, and our own desire to be fed only what we already think we know. Some of his gags are simply too broad-the absurdity of Orleans's shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later Supreme Court nominee doesn't even work as parody-but quite a bit of it hits dangerously close to home. Interestingly, the film is at its best when it is at its most human level, eschewing cartoonish invective in favor of something more genuinely dramatic, which we see in the film's climax that finds a bunch of the main characters setting aside their differences and finding common ground as they wait for oblivion. For all its comedic fire and brimstone, what Don't Look Up captures in the end is actually its most hopeful message: despite everything, we can still connect as human beings if we just make the effort.
Copyright © 2022 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Netflix
Overall Rating: (3)
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