BASED ON TRULY POSSIBLE EVENTS.
There’s something about Adam McKay that irritates the hell out of right-wing activists and left-wing intellectuals alike. In the first case, the reason is obviously politics; McKay makes movies that satirize conservative ideas. In the latter case, his brand of filmmaking and taste in comedy seems too cheap and lowbrow to many liberals. When Don’t Look Up premiered, there were comparisons to Dr. Strangelove, which seems excessive… but even the mere suggestion infuriated many progressives, who also disliked Vice because the portrait of Dick Cheney seemed too glib.
I’m sure there are cleverer ways to address the climate change crisis than Don’t Look Up… but this one goes a long way, and achieved something unusual: many climate activists felt heard and understood, for once.
Discovering a comet near Jupiter
The story begins with an astronomy Ph.D. candidate, Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), discovering a comet near Jupiter. When her professor, Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), takes a closer look he reaches a startling conclusion: the comet will hit Earth in six months and its sheer size means this will be an extinction event, similar to the one that killed the dinosaurs. NASA confirms his calculations and Kate and Randall are flown to Washington D.C. to meet with the President (Meryl Streep). They expect a conversation focusing on what must be done to avert the disaster, but are horrified to learn that no one in the White House takes the news seriously.
Inventing a very direct threat
The genesis of the film was a discussion between McKay and writer David Sirota on the issue of climate change and the media. ”It’s like a comet is heading to Earth and no one cares”, Sirota blurted out, and McKay realized that he was on to something. Don’t Look Up is a broad comedy that invents a very direct threat to our own future and treats it in the kind of disinterested, distracted and skeptical way that many people do when it comes to the climate crisis. The comparison with Dr. Strangelove isn’t far-fetched; the humor here is just as absurd and there’s even a mad genius in the shape of a tech billionaire played by Mark Rylance who offers a way to harvest rare-earth minerals from the comet rather than blowing it to pieces. He comes across as a moronic Elon Musk and Streep’s president shares the same kind of selfish, ignorant traits as Donald Trump.
A major target for McKay’s attacks is the media, primarily represented by a slick morning show hosted by two people (Cate Blanchett, Tyler Perry) who are aggressively uninterested in anything going on outside their celebrity-obsessed bubble. The film moves fast and throws in amusing jabs like a Pentagon general who makes the White House guests pay him for snacks even though he knows it’s for free. Our initially flabbergasted lead characters aren’t immune either, as Dr. Mindy is seduced by the glamor of media attention and proximity to power.
As days turn into weeks and months, and the bitter end draws nearer, the film becomes darker in tone, and we understand the real value of Don’t Look Up: rarely has mankind’s depressing inability to focus on an overwhelmingly complex and unsexy problem been so effectively illustrated. In the future, when we talk about the challenges of the climate crisis, we are more likely to reference this movie than a whole host of well-meaning documentaries about Greta Thunberg or Al Gore.
Don’t Look Up 2021-U.S. 148 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Adam McKay, Kevin Messick. Written and directed by Adam McKay. Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio (Randall Mindy), Jennifer Lawrence (Kate Dibiasky), Rob Morgan (Teddy Oglethorpe), Cate Blanchett, Meryl Streep, Jonah Hill… Mark Rylance, Tyler Perry, Timothée Chalamet, Ron Perlman, Ariana Grande, Michael Chiklis. Voice of Liev Schreiber. Cameos: Sarah Silverman, Chris Evans.
Quote: “We really did have everything, didn’t we? I mean, when you think about it.” (DiCaprio)
Last word: “It’s just very strange to be living during the active collapse of the livable atmosphere and to turn on the TV and see an ad for Taco Bell’s new burrito full of smaller burritos. And then, by the way, I’m part of this because I – my response is like, oh, I kind of want to try that. So it’s this strange kind of warring consciousness of literally, empirically, without exaggeration, the livable atmosphere is collapsing right now, and I really hope Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez are happy.” (McKay, NPR)